A lesson for Sunak: when the Tories take on striking workers, they don’t always win | Andy Beckett

The prime minister is pitting the public against trade unionists — forgetting that, in millions of cases, they are the same people

In Britain, the feelings that strikes arouse in Tory politicians can be more complicated than you might think. At first, there is often outrage that the usual supremacy of bosses over workers has been suspended. Preserving such hierarchies is one of Conservatism’s main aims.

But then there is sometimes a sense of opportunity: a belief that the strikers and their supporters may fall into a familiar trap, set by decades of anti-union legislation and press propaganda. Ever since Margaret Thatcher defeated the miners and other unions in the 1980s, Conservatives have believed that strikes can be used to make Tory governments look tough, and to discredit Labour and the wider left. The succession of aggressive, deliberately provocative anti-strike measures announced over the last six months by the governments of Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and now Rishi Sunak all reflect an assumption that taking on the unions is one of the few remaining strategies that might get the Conservatives re-elected.

Yet there is also a third, almost forgotten Tory approach to strikes. Before the Thatcher government, her predecessor as Conservative premier, Edward Heath, faced with strikes that, like today’s, were highly disruptive and yet had considerable public support, was sometimes forced to negotiate and make concessions. As the leader of an unpopular government presiding over a fragile economy that the strikes were weakening further, Heath reluctantly accepted that the unions could not all be beaten.

The briefly more constructive tone of some of this week’s talks between ministers and union leaders could be a sign that Sunak, too, will ultimately have to concede at least partial victories to some of the strikers. Like Heath, he is not a dominant or charismatic enough prime minister to change the national conversation about strikes and unions, as Thatcher did. His administration could finally mark the beginning of the end for the version of union-bashing Conservatism she invented, which seems increasingly irrelevant to today’s world of poverty wages and modest union memberships.

Alternatively, the industrial relations of Sunak’s premiership could be much messier. Like the party he leads – for now, at least – the prime minister’s political thinking is an unstable, quite possibly unsustainable mix, including a desire to be pragmatic and “reasonable”, a dogmatic belief in markets as the best distributors of economic rewards, and an elite remoteness from ordinary working lives.

His government’s attitude to the strikes is to be more conciliatory and more confrontational at the same time. Some strikers may be offered one-off bonuses and better pay rises; others, if they refuse to provide so-far-undefined “minimum service” in sectors from health to education may in future be sacked – despite being participants in walkouts that were democratically agreed and wholly legal when launched.

For days now, the government has presented this minimum service legislation as an even-handed measure, to “restore the balance between those seeking to strike and protecting the public from disproportionate disruption”. But claiming that a better “balance” between trade unionists and the public is required – rather than acknowledging that in millions of cases trade unionists and the public are the same people – has been a partisan Tory ploy for decades. British life has been tilted against unions since the 80s. And the Tories have never shown any interest in balancing the relationship between the public and other, more powerful and disruptive, but right-leaning, economic protagonists, such as the City of London.

The disingenuous and vaguely worded minimum service bill also echoes recent draconian legislation aimed partly at road-blocking climate activists, “to balance the rights of protesters against the rights of others to go about their daily business”. Sunak may present himself as a centre-right technocrat, but partly out of panic at the mounting opposition to his government and Conservatism in general, he is increasingly ruling as an authoritarian.

The government insists it supports the right to strike. The business secretary, Grant Shapps – often selected to try to make extreme policies sound moderate – said on the BBC’s Today programme earlier this week that the “ideal outcome” of the bill would be for the government “to have the power” to set minimum service levels “and never have to use it”, because unions would voluntarily set their own. But this scenario is less reassuring than it was meant to sound. If strikes in much of the economy are required to come with their own strike-breaking operations, of a size dictated directly or indirectly by the government, something fundamental to workplace politics has been altered.

It’s possible that the bill may never become law, since it seems to contravene protections for unions in the European convention on human rights. And even if the legislation survives challenges in the courts, the Commons and the Lords, and on the streets (the TUC has announced a “national right to strike day” on 1 February) it may be hard to implement. Minimum service levels will have to be defined for a vast range of different workplaces, and then enforced without sacking too many essential staff or creating too many union martyrs.

Yet to focus on such difficulties, enormous though they are, is to miss part of the point of this latest attack on strikers. Like many Tory policies since and including Brexit, the bill is meant to be symbolic and divisive as much as practical, to create bogeymen and energise Tory supporters. If inflation falls as expected between now and the election, and the strikers’ pay claims therefore seem less justified to many voters, then a continuing anti-union culture war might be timely. Without a Thatcher, fresh rightwing ideas or much remaining administrative energy, today’s Tories probably can’t run a reforming government that really hurts the left – but they can pretend.

The problem with this impersonation of radicalism, though, is that it requires enough voters to be taken in. And Johnson’s drifting premiership, Truss’s shambolic tenure and now Sunak’s tone-deaf performance in 10 Downing Street have removed the Conservatives’ credibility as a governing party. Even the union-hating press hasn’t given the minimum service bill as much coverage as you might expect, which suggests uncertainty about its significance.

Half a century ago, as well as negotiating with unions, Heath’s government also tried to weaken them through legislation. The 1970 industrial relations bill eventually became law despite huge protests. But it was widely flouted, and he lost the next election. If you’re a struggling Tory prime minister, victories on paper over the workers probably won’t save you.

  • Andy Beckett is a Guardian columnist


Andy Beckett

The GuardianTramp

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