The polls are deceptively clear on the strikes. The massive differences between Conservative and Labour voters suggest both parties should take a tough line on either side of the debate.
However, the backdrop of a deteriorating economy makes the reality more complex. At a time when everyone is struggling, apparently “rich politicians” have to tread very carefully in turning down pay rises and in condemning strike action.
So while there’s a way for the Conservatives to maintain public support on this, it’s not as easy as it looks.
Let’s start by looking at where the polls are – and, specifically, at the major differences between different parties’ voters.
In early June, YouGov asked whether people supported or opposed rail unions striking over pay and conditions. Conservative voters opposed the strikes by 74 per cent to 14 per cent, while Labour voters supported the strikes by 59 per cent to 27 per cent.
I doubt this has changed much in the last couple of weeks; certainly, it’s hard to imagine Conservative voters becoming more sympathetic to strikers’ demands.
Looking at the polls on strikes more generally, it seems public opinion is set hard by political fundamentals. Conservative and Labour voters disagree wildly on attitudes to strikes.
Asked whether rail unions should ever be allowed to strike, YouGov’s June tracker showed Labour voters supported the right to strike by 74 per cent to 17 per cent, but Conservative voters opposed the same right by 53 per cent to 37 per cent.
And, even more broadly, asked whether it’s too easy for unions to be able to strike, 44 per cdent of Conservatives said it’s too easy, with 31 per cent saying the balance is about right; and 37 per cent of Labour voters said it was too hard to strike, with 33 per cent saying the balance was about right.
The same political gaps emerge on other questions regarding strikes. Conservative and Labour voters disagree about whether teachers should be allowed to strike, as well as about whether firefighters, doctors, civil servants, nurses, air traffic controllers, and police officers should be able to strike.
So it would be easy to think that the Conservatives should stay implacably hostile to strikes and strikers and use the strikes as a dividing line with Labour. Certainly, that’s a possibility if the RMT and other unions continue to take a belligerent approach.
But there are undoubtedly risks for the Conservatives in all this. Two stand out above all.
First, and most importantly, the deteriorating economy means people everywhere are getting poorer. In the past, it was relatively easy to dismiss some workers’ claims for higher wages; now, with food and fuel prices rising and energy bills set to soar again, the reality is life is genuinely becoming harder.
This is obvious at one level, but it can get lost in the aggressive rhetoric of some union leaders. This time, strikers have a point: the Conservatives need to keep this reality in mind.
To be clear, this doesn’t mean that the wider public will support strikers’ demands; they will recognise the dangers of an inflationary spiral; they will also dismiss the idea that public sector workers are owed special treatment post-Covid. However, they won’t condemn people at least for asking, and will tolerate some industrial action (although there are, of course, limits).
Second, if more strikes break out, it’s possible the political chaos that appears to have gripped this Government will makes it look as though they’ve lost control of the country. It seems likely that this is what some union leaders are planning on.
It is a high-risk game for all; the public will react very badly if it looks like strikes are essentially political, but the Conservatives won’t want to appear unable to govern.
What does all this mean for the them? Above all, they need to make it clear they understand everyone is suffering financially and that times are tough – but that economic policy will be applied universally, consistently and fairly. They should certainly argue that strikes are wrong, but, unless and until many more strikes break out, their tone should be reasonable and non-condemnatory.
The chances are that some union leaders will over-reach, and stray from a reasonable financial case to a broader political case. It’s almost certain that some striking activists will take such an approach
At that point, the Conservatives would be justified in taking a more hostile tone, but they absolutely will not get to it soon. The public is almost always entirely reasonable: most will oppose the strikes but sympathise with the strikers; they will be angry if it looks like the strikes are essentially about getting Boris Johnson out (even if that sympathise with that outcome too).