As the huge wave of winter strikes grinds on, the government seems to be suffering from the political equivalent of snow blindness. The general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing says she’ll “press pause” on her members’ imminent walk-outs if ministers will finally talk about pay, but at the time of writing, the response was still a kind of trite obstinacy: by way of adding insult to injury, Sunday saw the health secretary signalling that although that he still won’t get involved in salary negotiations, he may be able to help with free parking for NHS staff. The big fear haunting Rishi Sunak and his colleagues is obvious – if they talk money with the nurses, who will be next? The RMT’s Mick Lynch, who recently called for a one-to-one meeting with the prime minister, knows the answer to that. And so the whole awful drama continues, revealing not just fury and fear at the top, but the government’s collective bafflement.
A maddening thought is clearly rattling around Tory minds: this wasn’t supposed to happen, was it? Over four decades have passed since Margaret Thatcher began her war on organised labour. Six years ago, the newly elected Tory government led by David Cameron passed a Trade Union Act whose stringent new restrictions on strike action looked like the belated conclusion to what she had started. And yet here we are, faced with what the Daily Mail calls a “calendar of chaos”, with the unions suddenly at the centre of the national conversation.
The result is a surreal sense of denial. Ministers refuse to meaningfully negotiate, and hide behind official pay review bodies. At the same time, they repeatedly interfere in discussions between unions and employers, usually in the worst possible way: last week, for example, saw reports that an offer from rail companies to the RMT of a 10% pay rise over two years had been blocked by ministers, who were dead against any such increase, and insistent that any deal should include drastic changes to working conditions. Meanwhile, huge Tory energy is being poured into attempts to somehow legislate the government’s way out of the whole mess, by reviving measures for the railways first proposed by Boris Johnson, and also coming up with new laws that would either outlaw or drastically restrict strikes elsewhere.
Self-evidently, such desperate manoeuvring ignores the depth of the crisis that the strikes are a response to, and what a historic moment this winter represents. Both are symbolised by the unprecedented strikes in the NHS that will begin on Thursday with a walkout by around 100,000 nurses, to be followed by another such stoppage on 20 December, and a strike by ambulance staff the following day. Along with this week’s four-day halting of the railways and all the other imminent strikes – not to mention the prospect of industrial action next year by midwives, teachers, firefighters and more – they mark the end of the political era that began with the crash of 2008, and the uneasy dawn of a new reality that our politicians show few signs of understanding.
In part, the strikes are a belated answer to long years of stagnating wages and serial public-sector pay freezes. Between 2010 and 2022, salaries for experienced nurses fell by 20% in real terms, a grim figure linked to the fact that there are now nearly 50,000 nursing vacancies in the English NHS. Paramedics’ starting salaries currently average £25,600. A typical Royal Mail delivery worker gets £24,600. And yes, train drivers are paid quite a lot more, but as the RMT repeatedly points out, the rail employees involved include cleaners, caterers, guards, station staff and maintenance staff. Most rail workers have annual wage rates between £25,000 and £31,000: the national median salary is £31,285.
All this points to something that most of us surely understand as a matter of everyday experience: the fact that our basic needs have endlessly been met on the cheap. What just about held everything together was the combination of unprecedentedly low interest rates and trifling inflation – which meant comparatively cheap goods, easy credit and a lid being kept on strikes and disputes. With those comforts now gone, a confounding new reality has hit us, made even more glaring by the effects of Brexit.
You can feel this in the weary public mood. When I have visited picket lines this year, one thing has hit me time and again: that contrary to all those headlines about “militancy”, most of the people involved have seemed tired and exasperated. They do not want the revolution. Nearly 15 long years after the crash of 2008 and everything it led to, they would like to stop worrying, and feel that bit more confident that they can feed their families, put on their central heating and take an occasional holiday: another aspect of the story that many Tory politicians and the braying voices of the rightwing press seem not to have clocked.
However the current wave of walkouts ends – and make no mistake, strikes will always risk public backlashes, not least when they involve hospitals and disrupt Christmas – it is rooted in deep issues that are not going to go away, and they demand changes that touch just about every aspect of politics. At the moment, it is the Tories who are failing to understand that basic point, but if Labour wins the next election, the same tensions will collide with Keir Starmer. His apparent insistence that a Labour government will stick to current public spending limits may soon be sorely tested. So will his equally stubborn approach to Brexit and the European single market, for one inescapable reason: that if Britain is to properly fund its public services and transport and pay people what they need and deserve, it will have to tackle its anaemic levels of growth and sluggish productivity – both of which demand a much closer economic relationship with Europe than the one we have ended up with.
Other shifts are probably already here. The post-Thatcher illusion that politicians could somehow stand aside from basic questions of how much people get paid and the conditions in which they work was fatally weakened by the furlough scheme, and now looks finished. Meanwhile, one other Tory article of faith seems shaky, to say the least: the age-old belief that trade unions are an illegitimate nuisance – led by “barons” and “paymasters”, and always viewed suspiciously by a majority of the public. Lines written in the 1970s, it turns out, are not much use in the 21st century.
The strikes and the government’s approach to them contain one other big lesson. Good political leadership is not about easy posturing and cheap confrontation. It is onerous and tiring; it requires deep stoicism, a constant openness to compromise and the underlying acceptance that the job is to solve crises, not make them worse. Do Sunak, Jeremy Hunt and the rest have any of those qualities?As our malaise deepens, the prime minister seems to have retreated from view, insisting from a distance that people should be “reasonable”, and promising “tough” new laws that will make no difference to the immediate crisis. His colleagues have the brass neck to suggest that people resisting pay cuts are helping Vladimir Putin. This is no time for such flimsy vanities: more than anything, this winter of strikes demands a seriousness that our political establishment has long since mislaid.