Last week, The Financial Times finally caught up to my warbling over the last few months and asked whether the UK is heading for another ‘winter of discontent’. This, of course, was the industrial unrest in 1978-1979 that saw two million working days lost, the dead going unburied, and saw Jim Callaghan’s government fatally wounded. It also gave The Sun the opportunity to claim the credit for the title of a great Supertramp album released four years earlier.
Obviously, the neoliberal stooge’s paper of record are asking the question now since the Royal College of Nursing has just staged its first nationwide ballot, and opted to strike over pay and patient safety at more than half of NHS employers. This is just one of the many strikes threatened across the NHS, the civil service, the railways, schools, the Royal Mail, universities, and anywhere else where earnest mousey women in big spectacles can encourage their co-workers to take a sticker and a day off.
The trigger for these strikes is obvious. Inflation was 10.1 per cent in September – a forty year high – whilst in the past year average wages in Britain have risen by 5.4 per cent. This means a real-term cut in pay for those on fixed salaries. Hence why the nurses want a rise of 17.6 per cent, and why their union colleagues are eagerly looking on to see if the Government will give it to them. So far, it has been suggested that Sunak and Hunt want to stick to pay rises of 2 per cent.
As in the seventies, the consequences of giving ground are clear. The Callaghan government had set a target of pay rises in the public sector of 5 per cent (at a time, of course, when what the Government owned and operated was rather more eclectic) to set an example for the private sector and keep inflation down. But Ford settled a strike in late 1978 at 17 per cent. Open season was declared. The coldest winter in 16 years helped the unions inflict maximum pressure. Sunny Jim was eclipsed.
The Rest is History. Not only a handy expression, but a reference to the excellent podcast. I had the chance to briefly hear this weekend from Dominic Sandbrook, the author and co-host, whose excellent books on Britain in the seventies so helped me get through my university course on the subject. That our own time resembles that dire decade has become a cliché, so I won’t go into detail. But: energy crisis, inflation, strikes, political chaos, Kate Bush in the charts, etc etc.
Nonetheless, there are some crucial differences between the decade that taste forgot and today. Only 24 per cent of workers are now unionised, compared to over half in 1979, and are concentrated in the public sector. Mrs Thatcher’s reforms of the 1980s permanently restricted the unions’ leadership and legal position (largely by giving more power to their own members) and ended the escalating cycle of strikes, culture of industrial action, and the wage-price spirals that culminated in 1979 and the Miners’ Strike five years later.
Now that there are many more hurdles and higher thresholds that unions must vault for a ballot to be valid, industrial action takes longer to organise, and is more likely to be patchy. It is also a much more explicit conflict between the Government and the unions. Even though ministers may not want to admit they have effectively re-nationalised the railways, and have attempted to hide behind the railway companies, they will find themselves inexorably pulled into that dispute, as they will with the nurses, civil servants, and others.
So they should be. Public money is being debated, after all. It would be politically suicidal for the Government to ape the SNP and cut funding on the NHS to ply the mouths of trade unions with gold. Not only would in depart with existing policy, but it would make Sunak and Hunt look like soft touches. That the nursing strikes – for example – cover almost the whole of the Scottish and Welsh health services but only half the English ones might suggest they perceive the SNP and Labour as weaker than the Tories.
As James Frayne has pointed out for us, public sympathy is currently with the strikers, and against the Government. We are all feeling the squeeze, and after Covid and twelve years of Tory rule, nice over-worked nurses are easier to warm to than whichever well-off Tory boy is Prime Minister or Chancellor this week. The ‘winter of discontent’ saw the unions overplay their hands and lose public support. But that came after a decade of escalating militancy.
By contrast, we are not used to strikes. That makes them more painful in the short-term, but provides cause for hope. Why do we have fewer strikes today than in the 1970s? Not only because of Mrs Thatcher’s union reforms, but because of her greatest legacy: getting inflation under control. Lower inflation relieves the pressure to up wages. The wage-price spiral is swerved; prematurely aged men with flat caps and regional accents do not need to huddle around braziers.
Inflation is key: get it down, and the storm can be weathered. The signs are promising for the Prime Minister and Chancellor. US inflation is down to its lowest level since January. We are now (finally) following in the footsteps of the Federal Reserve and tightening monetary policy in this country. Wholesale gas prices are under 50 per cent of what they were in April, so the energy shock may fade as an issue as we enter next Spring.
So whilst Downing Street may face a few painful weeks this winter as nurses leave wards, teachers shutter classrooms, and trains fail to chug, they can be optimistic that they find themselves doing a Sam Tyler this Christmas and into next year. Of course, if they wanted to alleviate the pressure, they could also speed the delivery of that minimum service level legislation that Transport Secretaries have been promising since I was teenager reading this site in 2015. And some wonder why someone so young can be so cynical about politics.