Rishi Sunak prepares for biggest UK strike in 12 years – POLITICO

LONDON – Public sector workers on strike, the rising cost of living and a government on the ropes.

“It’s hard to miss the parallels” between the infamous “Winter of Discontent” of 1978-79 and Britain in 2023, says Robert Saunders, historian of modern Britain at Queen Mary, University of London.

Of course, the comparison does not go any further. In the 1970s, it was a Labor government facing staunchly socialist unions in a wave of strikes affecting everything from food deliveries to grave excavations, while Margaret Thatcher’s Tories sat in opposition and waited their luck.

But a massive walkout set for Wednesday could still mark a stage in the downward trajectory of the Rishi Sunak Tories, just as it did for Callaghan Labour.

Britain braces for a full strike tomorrow as around 100,000 civil servants from government departments, ports, airports and driving test centers march alongside hundreds of thousands of teachers across England and Wales, train drivers from 14 national operators and staff from 150 UK universities.

It follows continued action by railway and postal workers, ambulance workers, paramedics and nurses over the past few months. In another headache for Sunak, firefighters voted Monday night to walk out for the first time in two decades.

While each sector has its own reasons for action, many strikers are united by the common cause of stagnating wages, with inflation still stubbornly high. And that makes it harder for Sunak to pin the blame on the usual suspects within the labor movement.

reasonable sir

Industrial action has in the past been used as a political weapon by the Conservative Party, which could count on a significant number of ordinary voters exasperated by the withdrawal of public services.

The Tories have therefore often used the strikes as a stick to beat their Labor opponents, branding the left-wing party beholden to its union donors.

But public sympathies have changed this time around, and it’s no longer so straightforward to blame the union bogeymen.

Sunak has so far tried to portray himself as Mr Reasonable, stressing that his “door is always open” to workers but warning that the right to strike must be “balanced” with the provision of services. To that end, it is advancing long-promised legislation to enforce minimum service standards in sectors affected by industrial action.

Sunak has made fighting inflation his government’s raison d’être, and his backbenchers are reasonably content to rally behind that banner | POOL photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Unions are infuriated by anti-strike legislation, but Sunak’s sugary rhetoric is still in relief for the famously belligerent Thatcher, who promised during the 1979 strikes that “if anyone is confronted with our basic freedoms… then, by God, I will do it”. to confront them. »

Sunak’s cautious approach is chosen at least in part because the political terrain has shifted beneath him since the coronavirus pandemic hit in 2020.

Public sympathy for frontline medical staff, still high in the UK, has been reinforced by the extreme demands placed on nurses and other hospital staff during the pandemic. And inflation is hitting workers across the economy — not just in the public sector — helping to create a wider reservoir of sympathy for strikers than has often been found in the past.

James Frayne, a former government adviser who co-founded polling consultancy Public First, observes: “Due to the cost of living crisis, what you [as prime minister] cannot do, as you have been able to do in the past, is simply to present this as an ideologically motivated strike.

Starmer’s sleight of hand

At the same time, strikes are no longer the political headache of the opposition Labor Party that they once were.

Thatcher was able to portray Callaghan as weak when he resisted the use of emergency powers against the unions. David Cameron was never happier than when he called on then-Labour leader Ed Miliband to disown his “union paymasters”, especially during the last mass public sector strike in 2011.

Crucially, the votes of the unions had played a key role in electing Miliband as leader of the party – something the conservatives would never let him forget. But when Sunak tries to echo Cameron’s refrain against Miliband, few seem convinced.

QMUL’s Saunders argues the Tories are trying to revive “an 1980s-style campaign” portraying Labor MPs as being in the pockets of the unions. But “I just don’t think it resonates with the public,” he added.

Current Labor leader Keir Starmer has actively sought to weaken the influence of the left in the party, drawing criticism from senior trade unionists. More eye-catching, Starmer sacked one of his own shadow ministers, Sam Tarry, after he defied an order last summer that the Labor front bench should not appear on picket lines.

Starmer was “covered up”, as one shadow minister put it, by Sunak’s decision to advance minimum service legislation. It means Labor MPs can please trade unionists by fighting new restrictions in parliament – without having to stand on the picket line.

So far it seems to work. Paul Nowak, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, an umbrella group representing millions of British trade unionists, told POLITICO: “Frankly, I am less concerned about Labor frontbenchers taking to the picket lines for selfies than I am the stuff that really matters to our union” — namely the government’s intention to “further restrict the right to strike”.

The TUC is planning a day of action against the new legislation on Wednesday, coinciding with the latest wave of strikes.

Stick to their guns

For now, Sunak’s approach appears to be hitting the right notes with his famously restless group of Tory MPs.

Sunak has made the fight against inflation the purpose of his government, and his backbenchers are reasonably content to rally behind that banner.

As one Tory MP from an economically disadvantaged fringe seat put it: “We have to keep our cool. There is a strong feeling that the corner is (almost) tilted towards rising inflation, so we need to be as tough as possible… We cannot now allow wage increases that fuel inflation.

Another agreed: “Rishi should hold on. I guess people will eventually get sick of the strikers, especially the railroad workers.

Moreover, Public First’s Frayne says his poll has detected the first signs of an erosion of support for the strikes since they began last summer, particularly among working-class voters.

“We’re now at the point where people are like ‘well, I didn’t get a raise, and I won’t get a raise, and can we all accept that’s difficult for everyone and we ‘have to move on,’” he said.

More than half (59%) of people support the nurses’ strike, according to a new study by Public First, while for teachers the figure is 43%, postal workers 41% and railway workers 36%.

‘Everything is broken’

But the wider concern of the Sunak Tories is that whatever individual pay deals are eventually reached, the wave of strikes could tap into a deeper sense of unease in the UK.

Inflation remains high and the independent government forecaster predicted in December that the UK would fall into a recession for more than a year.

Rishi Sunak prepares for biggest UK strike in 12 years – POLITICO
More than half (59%) of people support the nurses’ strike, according to a new study by Public First, while for teachers the figure is 43%, postal workers 41% and railway workers 36% | Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images

The ambulance strikes have only drawn more attention to an ongoing crisis within the National Health Service, with heart attack and stroke patients already facing waits of more than 90 minutes at the end of 2022.

Travel across the country has been made difficult not only by strikes, but also by multiple failures of train service providers on key routes.

A long-serving Tory MP said he feared a sense of fatalism was setting in among the public – ‘the idea that everything is broken and there’s no point in asking this government to fix it “.

A former cabinet minister said the most pressing issue in his constituency was the state of public services, and a strike signaled political danger to the government. They warned that the public did not blame the strikers, but the ministers, for the disruptions.

Government leaders are aware of the risk of such a narrative taking hold, with Chancellor Jeremy Hunt taking aim at “declinism over Britain” in a keynote address on Friday.

However, it is less clear that the government can do much to change history.

Saunders returns to the Callaghan example, noting that public sector workers were initially willing to give the Labor government the benefit of the doubt, but by 1979 the mood had fatally hardened.

Indeed, strikes are not just about lowering living standards, he says. “It’s also driven by a loss of trust in government that things will improve.”

With an election looming next year, Rishi Sunak is running out of time to change the public mood.

Annabelle Dickson and Graham Lanktree contributed reporting.


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