Adam Boulton on lessons to be learned from strikes past, present and what they mean for the future

The British public is well-used to confrontations between workers in the public sector and the government of the day.

Over the decades there have been strikes and work-to-rules involving miners, teachers, the railways, the civil service and health workers among others.

In the last century, “the Winter of Discontent” in 1978-79 and the miners’ strikes of 1972, 1974 and 1984-85 were polarising events which changed the course of British political history.

Stations deserted and trains idle across UK – rail strikes latest

In spite of the best efforts of some polemicists on the right and left, it would be premature, as yet, to put this summer’s discontents into the same box.

The railways are not the coal mines, and for most people this is not a classic “capital vs organised labour” dispute. The former Labour cabinet minister David Blunkett thinks those who want to see it on those terms are mistakenly “fighting a class war from several decades ago”.

Keir Starmer’s hesitancy about wading in is matched by the public’s confused emotions.

More on Rail Strikes

This week, the pollsters YouGov found that 37% support the strikes and 45% oppose them. But in Savanta’s survey, a majority, 58%, said they felt the strikes were justified.

This is not a strong base for the government to ask the country to dig in for months of confrontation, while refusing to engage in discussions. The public mood seems to be much closer to “why can’t they just sort it out”.

Things have changed since the cost of living crisis began to bite. With inflation soaring towards 10%, demands for 7% pay increases, such as the RMT’s, no longer seem quite so unreasonable.

Read more: What you need to know about the rail strikes

Who gets blamed for failing to stop the strikes?

But in one way, the UK could soon be back to the 1970s.

The miners’ strikes then led to power cuts and a three-day working week. The Conservative prime minister Ted Heath called a general election on the question: “Who Governs Britain?” The mixed hung-parliament result that followed at least said, “Well, not you, mate”. Labour took over under Harold Wilson and then Jim Callaghan.

Large-scale industrial disruption continued, led by union bosses who became national figures, culminating in “the Winter of Discontent”, as The Sun dubbed it, when public sector strikes meant even “the dead lay unburied”, in the words of a famous Conservative election broadcast. Margaret Thatcher enjoyed a landslide victory for the Conservatives in 1979.

Jim Callaghan’s Labour Party suffered in part because of its affiliation to the trade unions, then widely considered to be overmighty.

The Thatcher government set about curbing the power of the unions and making preparations to ensure it won the confrontation with the miners which Heath had lost, and with minimum disturbance to the mass of the population.

But the fate of Heath and Callaghan shows that the impact of strikes is not always politically partisan.

Voters tend to blame the government of the day, whatever its colour, if things get out of control and their lives are significantly disrupted.

Read more from Adam Boulton:
The slow death of PMs and what waits for Boris Johnson
The ties that bond the UK together are under stress

Have the unions lost power?

In most other ways, the 2020s are nothing like the 1970s or 1980s.

Then the economy had enjoyed post-war decades of expansion and growth. Instead, since the banking crisis in 2008, the squeeze has been on for most, with public sector workers and services taking much of the pain.

This decade, there have been only a hundredth the number of days lost through strikes compared to 1979.

At just over six million, membership of a trade union is less than half what it was then, making up less than a quarter of the total workforce. Even if it wanted to, the RMT could not paralyse the nation, not least because the pandemic taught many how to work from home.

Some 76% – three out of four of us – told Savanta they had not had to change their travel plans because of the strike. Roughly 20% of trains ran on strike days any way.

Much of the reduction in union power is down to the reforms of employment and industrial relations law which began in the Thatcher era.

Has privatisation hit the buffers?

But this dispute is putting to the test another of her signature policies – privatisation.

Her aim was to take the burden off government by bringing the discipline and investment muscle of the private sector into moribund publicly owned operations. Relatively few would now argue for the wholesale renationalisation of, say, the telecommunications sector, but in public utilities, such as energy and water, the model faces challenges.

On the railways, the privatisation locomotive has already hit the buffers.

As business presenter Ian King explained, the railways – tracks and train operation – are now largely on the taxpayer once again.

While insisting that resolving the dispute is not for them but “up to the employers”, the government is simultaneously dictating that it must be resolved on their tight terms to avoid inflationary wage or price spirals across the public sector.

Andrew Haines, the head of Network Rail and likely of the new “Great British Rail” relaunch, agrees that “government intervention at this stage would be an invitation to trade unions to politicise work place disputes in a way that would encourage their proliferation”.

But he must also be aware that elsewhere in the transport network where ministers have less leverage, such as in Wales and London, pay claims are being settled at roughly the level proposed by the RMT.

Will more strikes in more sectors follow?

Under questioning from Sophy Ridge, the RMT leader Mick Lynch explained clearly that he does see his union as being the vanguard of a wider struggle.

His union is no longer affiliated to the Labour Party and only gives comparatively modest support to a few MPs’ offices. Keir Starmer does not back the strikes – yet he picked up the same theme as Mr Lynch at PMQs when he contrasted the government’s licence for uncurbed bonuses for bankers while urging public sector pay restraint.

These are difficult and complicated times, when on a daily basis there seems to be less cake to argue over. The public is troubled and uncertain.

The best policy for any politician may well be to keep a cool head, even on an empty platform on a hot, sunny summer day.

Adam Boulton is writing a column every Friday for Sky News

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