No plan, no exit strategy: the UK government is losing face on strikes – and millions of votes | Polly Toynbee

While local pay bodies are settling with striking workers, Tory ministers are foolishly refusing to back down, and will pay the price

This is deeply embarrassing. Today the Fire Brigades Union called off its planned strikes after being offered 7% for this year backdated, plus 5% next year, by the National Joint Council that negotiates for local authorities. Its members have yet to agree, but council workers settled for a similar deal because local authorities jointly are free to make their own sensible settlements. Wales and Scotland are also in the process of settling with their health workers. That leaves those in charge of services in England left looking even more obstinate, unreasonable and ideologically fixated.

The GMB’s public services national secretary, Rachel Harrison, yesterday morning told me that the offer to the fire brigades was “massive” and said that if her ambulance workers and other strikers were offered that, “we’d definitely suspend action and call it off immediately”. Members would have to decide, but the view around the unions yesterday was that a similar deal would settle these strikes.

The government hoped strikers would be weakening by now. Ministers assumed that low-paid public workers, some already using food banks, would surely be hurting from the many days’ pay struck off their payslips by now. A new payslip system in the NHS deliberately highlights their strike day deductions.

They also hoped that by now the public would have turned against strikers. Surely the resolute prime minister and chancellor would bask in a little 1980s Thatcher glory for their firm stance against “militants”? But that’s not how things are working out, not at all. That leaves the government with no plan and no ladder to climb down from their adamant stand.

NHS employers have made their views known, say the unions: the confrontational strikes (minimum service levels) bill is an affront to local managers, who have worked well with their staff to ensure emergency cover during strikes. Ambulance delays have been fewer on strike days, as all the shifts are there on the picket line, and if a category 1 or 2 call comes in, more staff than usual are available to answer it. “Responders got there quicker, discharged patients into A&E quicker and there were fewer ambulance queues outside hospitals,” Harrison says. The bill allows politicians in the Department of Health to specify, by name and job, all those they can ban from striking, instead of leaving it for local managers to arrange with unions, a fundamental breach of the right to strike.

The outrage caused by Grant Shapps’ claim last Sunday that ambulance staff were putting lives at risk by “refusing” to provide information on where they were striking, creating a “postcode lottery” for people having heart attacks, hardened the determination of strikers. “A blatant lie,” says Harrison.

What Shapps and the government prefer not to draw attention to is the average 1,000 extra (non-Covid) deaths a week, for fear of exposing the effect of the underfunding of the NHS and social and community care for more than a decade.

Instead of fading away, more are joining the strikes: on Wednesday, the East of England ambulance service trust was the last to vote to join. On budget day, 15 March, another 100,000 civil servants are coming out, along with 30,000 from HMRC – presumably losing the state sizeable sums for every day they are not collecting taxes. Unions are balloting and renewing their ballot mandates, with soaring inquiries by the public to the TUC about joining.

Unions are infuriated by ministers, including the prime minister, who are claiming their “doors are open” when absolutely no negotiations are happening. Paul Nowak, the TUC general secretary, says this cabinet doesn’t understand negotiation: in public, ministers say they will talk to him – but no talks happen. “It will end, as all disputes do, around the table with an agreement.”

“They misjudged the public mood,” Nowak says. Repeating the mantra that it would be inflationary to give an inch to public workers only influences a third of voters, according to TUC focus groups. That’s because it’s not true, says Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies: “A public sector pay rise is not in itself inflationary” as, unlike in the private sector, there are no prices to rise. And the private sector has seen wages rise far faster than for public servants. He regards the sums required to settle as relatively modest: “Each 1% on the public pay bill costs £2.5bn.” Meanwhile, the union leaders I spoke to said the spectacle of Shell and BP’s grotesque profits had also strengthened strikers’ resolve.

The longer the government delays an inevitable settlement, the longer NHS waiting lists will grow, and Rishi Sunak will struggle to meet his pledge to cut them by the next election. The plan may be to wait until April and try to hide a climbdown in a fudged deal for next year that will in fact include pay, backdated for this year. But this climbdown will be more embarrassing the longer they delay.

Meanwhile the Telegraph has published a large poll of 28,000 voters, presumably designed to terrify the living daylights out of the Tories. It finds Labour would win an unthinkable 509 seats, the SNP would be the official opposition with 50, Tories would be third with just 45, and almost every Tory you’ve heard of would be swept away. The Electoral Calculus poll of polls has Labour on 47.5% and the Tories on 26.3%. There’s a way to go yet to an election, but this does suggest that provoking strikes and revoking the right to strike has been a gamechanger with voters.

  • Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist


Polly Toynbee

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