As many wags have quipped in the past few weeks, it really does feel like we’ve been transported back to the 1970s. Sputtering economic growth, hot weather (briefly), a war causing oil prices to spike, a government with no real direction and authority – all of this seems very familiar. Inflation has made a comeback too, hitting levels not seen since the very start of the 1980s. And now we have the prospect of serious industrial unrest, another echo of the strife of that decade.
As this week’s disruption to the railways and the tube loomed Conservative Ministers sounded like they were ready for a fight. The Transport Secretary has been touring the studios proclaiming that the rail strike is an act of “self harm” and trying to tap into public anger at the RMT by pointing out the inconvenience and worse that will be faced by millions of commuters. The sabre rattling has included proposals to use agency workers to break the strike. Although Grant Shapps has said that he is not relishing the prospect of strike action the opposite has often appeared to be true.
Because sitting behind all this it all has been a conviction on the part of the Tories that the strikes are bad for Labour. And Keir Starmer and co do seem to have been paralysed for weeks, caught between backing ‘the workers’ or commuters. This has given space for the Conservative Party website to say that these are ‘Labour’s strikes’. But this is dangerous territory for Ministers.
It is true that the RMT is all too often its own worst enemy, seemingly going out of its way to rile passengers. The narrative that this is the worst possible time to go on strike, with rail travel patterns altered permanently by the pandemic, is a real one. The fact that ‘fat cat’ commuters will mainly be able to ride out this week safely tucked up at home while teachers, nurses and others who depend on public transport will be hugely inconvenienced will not play well. But the main argument of the strikers – that we face very high inflation and a cost of living crisis and they need a pay rise to suit the times – will resonate even with the fat cats. Basically, it doesn’t seem unfair.
That argument will only gain strength as teachers and others start to ask for more money and threaten strikes themselves. When inflation was 2 percent and below most voters could probably justify to themselves that public sector workers were getting tiny or non-existent pay increases. But now the evidence of the pain caused by higher bills is all around. Is it reasonable to ask health and education workers to suffer? Isn’t there now real evidence of shortages of teachers, nurses and other staff, caused in large part by uncompetitive pay rates? Isn’t it fair that they want more?
The Government has done what this Government always does: take a purely tactical view that the strikes are good for them politically. They’ve given no thought to the fact that voters might start to think that higher pay is fair enough, and strikes to secure it not unreasonable. Nor have they pondered whether they will be punished electorally if their approach ends up causing real damage to the economy. The first role of governments is to govern competently. Once again, its focus on short-term politics is going to turn round and bite.