David Johnston is the MP for Wantage and chairs the Social Mobility APPG.
If I told you that at a conference this week, attendees will debate withdrawing the Retained EU Law Bill, changing the eligibility for child benefit, and showing solidarity with all workers who have been on strike, which organisation would you guess was holding its annual get together? The Labour Party’s Socialist Campaign Group of MPs? Momentum?
You probably wouldn’t expect to find your local doctor there. But the above are motions on the agenda for the Annual Representative Conference of the British Medical Association (BMA), the doctor’s union that has just called more strikes.
And this matters, both because it underlines why the Government is right to resist the demands of militant trade unions, which are about much more than pay, and because it poses yet more questions about what Sir Keir Starmer really believes.
The BMA is currently demanding an astronomical 35 per cent pay rise for junior doctors. I’ve yet to meet a member of the public who thinks that is reasonable. The union has turned down a five per cent pay rise, which the Government has offered in good faith as affordable and able to be given without making the level of inflation worse for all of us, doctors included. The union insists it wants 35 per cent.
We don’t know what Starmer thinks the pay increase should be; he just says the Government should “get round the table”, something they have been doing for months.
Your average member of a trade union just wants better terms and conditions and legal protection if they are ever in need of it. They don’t typically join a union to fight with the government about its domestic or foreign policies.
But at the conferences and in the statements from leaders of the most militant unions, we see the type of far-left politics we saw during the 1980s and which relates to far more than improving wages or workloads.
Take the National Education Union (NEU), which has also just called another series of strikes. At their annual conference this year they had events to show solidarity with Cuba, Nicaragua, and Colombia, which I doubt is high on the agenda of many teachers in our classrooms. You’ll frequently find Stop the War Coalition events and motions being debated that attempt to suggest Vladimir Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine is somehow NATO’s fault.
The Rail Maritime and Transport workers union (RMT) took a break from calling rail strikes at their AGM last year to pass a resolution condemning NATO’s expansion, while the University and College Union (UCU) – not content with having caused university students a severely disrupted experience with lecturer strikes – slammed Volodmyr Zelensky for allegedly wanting to turn Ukraine into an “armed, illiberal outpost of US imperialism”.
The unrealistic pay demands should be seen in this context. The leaders of the most militant unions are often not people with moderate views focused on the best interests of their members. They want to see the Government fall and a left-wing one put in its place. Daniel Kebede, the incoming leader of the NEU, is reported to have said his union’s strikes were in part about “taking back control from a brutally racist state”.
You won’t hear Starmer or the Labour front bench talk about any of this. They’re content to sit back and hope the strikes help hand them the keys to Downing Street. But if that ever happens, what would his approach to the unions be? Would it be beer and sandwiches at No 10?
As in almost every area of policy, we don’t know what Labour would do. But the unions clearly expect Labour to give them a better deal.
Here’s Mick Lynch, leader of the RMT: “It is my view that we have to do everything within our power to make sure the Tories are not in government at the next general election”. Tweeted Jo Grady, General Secretary of the UCU: “Retweet if you are sick of the Tories ruining every day of the year”. The next leader of the NEU, which runs paid social media ads against Conservative MPs in Red Wall seats, said “I will be voting Labour when the time comes.”
What will these union leaders expect should the Labour Party get back into power, besides presumably inflation-busting pay increases and the scrapping of the Government’s new minimum-safety laws for when strikes take place, as Labour has already committed to do?
The waves of strikes we are seeing punish patients, children, and commuters. Acceding to the inflated pay demands of the unions would punish us all by making our inflation problem worse.
Given the problems they would cause the economy, we need the Government to continue to resist excess pay demands, and those who would use the leadership of their union to seek changes to domestic and foreign policy and/or the outright fall of an elected government.
And if he’s serious about being prime minister, we need Starmer to make very clear: is he on the side of the public? Or on the side of union leaders with far-left agendas which are causing so much misery?