To the extent that Rishi Sunak has a plan for dealing with the biggest wave of industrial action in Britain for a generation, it seems to involve waiting for public opinion to turn against the strikes. To hasten that process, ministers cast trade unions as self-serving militants, causing harm to citizens who rely on the services that are being disrupted. The plan isn’t working.
About 500,000 workers took part in industrial action on Wednesday. That was inconvenient for millions of others, but for the time being it is the government that takes the greater portion of blame. Deservedly so, when ministers have responded to legitimate grievances with high-handed disdain.
The teachers’ strike on Wednesday was especially difficult for parents who had to make childcare arrangements or miss work. For many, it stirred stressful memories of home schooling during the pandemic.
That doesn’t mean teachers were wrong to leave the classroom in protest at inadequate pay, nor that parents all blamed them for a decision that most could see was taken as a last resort. As with striking nurses and ambulance drivers, there is a bedrock of public recognition that people who provide essential services do so from vocation, not to get rich. They expect remuneration and working conditions that are adequate, and that allow them to do the job safely.
The degradation of those services over years of budget cuts is evident to those who rely on them. Parents do not want their children to be taught in underfunded schools or to be treated by demoralised nurses in overcrowded wards.
Everyone is feeling the same long-term squeeze on their incomes. Well, almost everyone. A small minority enjoys sufficient wealth to be insulated from pressures that weigh on ordinary people. That lucky social segment happens to be disproportionately represented in Mr Sunak’s cabinet. This might explain some of the political miscalculation around industrial unrest, although a lack of strategic competence also plays its part.
Mr Sunak has an argument against strikes, which he seems to think is the same as a negotiating position. The government view is that pay rises above inflation are unaffordable and that they would stoke inflation further. That is a highly partisan and tendentious account of the underlying economics. Teachers’ pay has been falling in real terms for years, leading up to the present spike in inflation, so their salaries can hardly be the cause. Nurses are not to blame for Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent pinch on energy supplies, nor did they negotiate the Brexit deal that raised import costs, tightened the labour market and snarled up supply chains – the actual drivers of inflation.
In reality, the government is making a political choice not to pay public sector workers enough money, because the prime minister’s fiscal priority is an election war chest of tax cuts for later in the parliament. As a campaigning tactic, that might work, but it relies on voters putting up with prolonged chaos, and on public sector workers losing the will to fight for decent pay. That is not only a political gamble, but also an abdication of responsible government. Mr Sunak is not popular enough, nor does he have the moral authority to stake so much on a confrontation with people whose public service credentials are much better than his own. He needs a new plan.