Now is the winter of our mild inconvenience. Although not as catchy as Shakespeare’s original, my take more accurately reflects the failure of the current strike action to plum the miserable depths of 1979. Not only is the weather rather milder, but with the unions occupying a far smaller share of the economy, with balloting laws and the ban on flying pickets making prolonged disputes more difficult to sustain, and with the dead remaining resolutely out of Leicester Square, we should not suggest the Government’s current difficulties are on the same scale as Jim Callaghan’s stickiest wicket.
Rishi Sunak has the benefit of time, and some strikers are more popular than others. The failure of the RMT to close down the economy has highlighted their impotence at a time when more voters commute by car than ever before, where many can easily work from home, and where the railways are no longer needed to transport the coal needed to keep the lights on. When many were predicting before Christmas that he would soon fold, he has held firm and is beginning to be vindicated.
Nevertheless, that does not mean summer has come early for our son of Richmond (Yorks). Today’s news that 15 health unions representing over a million NHS staff are boycotting the NHS pay review suggests an end to the impasse remains far off, despite recent positive mood music on future salaries. That Unison and GMB – the unions walking out in today’s ambulance dispute – are affiliated to Labour might help Sunak’s argument that Starmer is beholden to his “union paymasters”. But the Opposition’s argument that the state of the NHS owes more to Tory incompetence than sainted nurses stings.
All this provides the context the Government’s plans for minimum safety level laws, sketched out by Grant Shapps in the Commons yesterday. If Sunak and Steve Barclay can get nowhere by sweet-talking union representatives, it falls to the Business Secretary – when not declaring Boris Johnson an unperson – to threaten them into line.
Shapps confirmed that the legislation would pertain to the ambulance, rail, education, health, fire, and nuclear power sector. In doing so he was going beyond the 2019 manifesto commitment to enshrine a minimum service level in transport strikes only. By going beyond that, the Government is making clear its intention to prevent a repeat of this winter’s disruption. The message to the unions – and Tory MPs – is clear. Sunak is up for the fight.
There are virtues to this. Minimum staffing levels are long overdue, not only because they have been promised in manifestos since 2015, but because they will bring Britain into line with famously authoritarian countries like France and Belgium. That we do not possess such legislation already is a consequence of our historically lax approach to trade union law compared to our continental cousins.
Moreover, at a time when Tory MPs are not short of issues to squabble about, a fight against the ancestral enemy is no bad thing. One or two MPs might quibble about the specifics of the legislation, or run frit at Labour’s insistence that this is a charter for sacking nurses. But most MPs side with Sunak’s tough approach, and it is an easy way to keep grumbling supporters of our last two Prime Ministers relatively quiet.
The fear, however, is that this is all too little, too late. The legislation is right in principle. But it should have been enacted months ago – if not years. Whilst the bill should sail through the Commons, it will certainly be held up in the Lords. It will not become law until (one hopes) these present disputes are long since resolved.
Labour will oppose the legislation all the way since they have pledged to repeal the legislation if they come to power. This raises a problem with the law’s enforceability. As drafted, it would enable employers to sue unions and sack staff if they fail to provide minimum service levels. The employees involved would lose their blanket unfair dismissal protection for refusing to agree, and the unions would be made to pay damages. All sound stuff. But what happens when it is put to the test?
I am reminded of the unhappy fate of Edward Heath’s 1971 Industrial Relations Act. That aimed to use the courts to enforce collective agreements with registered unions. It was faced down first by a concerted cross-union campaign – of the kind currently being talked about in opposition to Shapps’ bill – and was then undermined by the public outcry that forced the release of the Pentonville Five. It was then almost immediately repealed by the next Labour government in 1974.
Is Sunak ready for a similar campaign? One can imagine a nurse, railway worker, or firefighter aiming to test the legislation, after a period of union action designed to keep it off the Statute Book. All that will come within the context of the Tories being 20-points behind in the polls, and Starmer promising a quiet life for voters via the swift and painless route of repeal. Disruption is far from the level of 1979. But voters are hardly likely to forgive the Government if its own legislation prolongs these disputes into the spring and summer.
It hardly helps Sunak move the conversation onto his five Isaac Levido-approved priorities, either. Tory hearts may sing at a battle with the unions, but the voters’ do not. One must also raise the question as to whether this legislation will soon seem unnecessary. With the Bank of England finally raising interest rates, the pound back up, and wholesale gas and crude oil prices below where they were before the invasion of Ukraine, inflation might start to fall – and it was the inflationary squeeze that caused this crop of strike action in the first place.
In a few months’ time, if these disputes are resolved, inflation is down, and a healthy wage settlement looks in the offing, the question will be raised as to whether this legislation is still required. I’d happily argue that it is, on principle. But when the priority should be winning the next election, should principle be put before politics?