Now that the RMT have ramped up their strike action, deliberately setting out to disrupt people’s Christmases, the war of words between them and the Government is also heating up.
For thousands to miss out on seeing their families would be bad enough, given all the disruption of the past few years. Yet the economic consequences of a lost season could also be devastating for many businesses – especially retail and entertainment, both still recovering from the pandemic.
Little wonder then that Conservative MPs, with little to smile about of late, have sensed an opportunity to pick a popular battle. Nick Gibb has accused Mike Lynch of “holding the country to ransom”, a line echoed by Brendan Clarke-Smith. Paul Maynard branded the news “a Christmas catastrophe for rail passengers”.
But striking bold poses against seasonal bogeymen is one thing. Actually doing something about them is quite another. And in recent times, Tory policy on many issues has leaned much more on the former approach than the latter.
If the Government is actually planning to square off with the RMT, then it needs a plan. Margaret Thatcher only took on the coal miners once she had carefully prepared the field, stockpiling coal and goading Arthur Scargill to battle in the summer, when demand for energy was lower. She also gave battle with purpose: to drive through a programme of closures which would end the danger of the NUM for good.
There is thus far little evidence that the Government has done anything similar. Admittedly you can’t stockpile empty off-season trains or spare NHS beds in the good times to deploy in the bad. But there does nonetheless need to be a strategy, both to secure victory and then to use that victory to drive forward meaningful change.
Under Liz Truss, the latter was to have taken the form of minimum service levels. But even if this legislation is brought in, it would at best be a palliative. Some trains running is better than none, but voters packed into stations and then squeezed onto a reduced service (if they’re lucky) are unlikely to walk away from the experience thinking their government has a grip on things.
Source: BBC. This is fine.
That’s before you even address the thorny issue of what exactly would constitute a minimum level of service for various essential public services. Would it be set by ministers? By quangos? Would it end up in court?
In theory, there are reforms out there which could have a Thatcherian impact on public sector strikes, namely restructuring the NHS, the railways, and so on so as to simply allow existing legislation to take its course.
If railwaymen and women were employed by a specific line, teachers by a specific school or multi-academy trust, and medical staff by an NHS trust, sector-wide strikes would be prohibited by existing law, which bans sympathy strikes. It is only because whole sectors have a sole employer in the government that general strikes in these services are possible.
But the Conservatives have evinced little appetite for any serious structural reforms since the days of the Coalition, and in any event have not the time left to embark on any such project. So the question remains: what is the end goal? What does a win look like?
Polling suggests that voters oppose this particular strike, understandably enough. But public opinion is fickle, and broader trends suggest it is not where it is in the mid-Eighties. There is plenty of sympathy for public sector workers’ pay demands, in general if not in each specific case. If MPs plan merely to stonewall and shout, they will find the public is with them, until they’re not.
There are good reasons for the Government to try and resist the biggest demands, of course. Higher wage costs corrode budgets and leave less money available for delivery, let alone investment and improvement. There is scant wriggle-room in the public finances.
But having watched ministers fold on even bare-minimum planning reform in the face of a backbench revolt (even when Labour votes seem to have been available to pass it), the unions can be forgiven for thinking they probably have more stomach for the fight. Signalling weakness encourages opposition, which exacerbates weakness.
And if the Government is going to fold, it would probably be better if it didn’t spend too long talking up how devilish its opponents are. It will just look even weaker.