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Leader comment: Everyone out? Rail strike may just be the start

24 June 2022

A RAIL STRIKE and rising inflation have led to much reminiscing about the 1970s this week. When Edward Heath asked “Who governs?” in his 1974 General Election campaign, he got his answer: Harold Wilson replaced him in No. 10. Labour’s occupancy was short-lived, however; for Heath’s nemesis-in-chief, powerful trade unions, also helped to end James Callaghan’s premiership with the so-called winter of discontent, when refuse piled up uncollected in the streets.

It is a lesson that the Conservatives have never forgotten: the uncompromising stance that Margaret Thatcher took against the Yorkshire miners still sets the tone of the party’s language about industrial action. Since the law was amended to make strikes harder to call, a result has been the decline of union membership generally, while, to some younger people, it often seems to be unthinkable that anyone has the right to withdraw their labour when it causes inconvenience. This is a shift in the public psyche less often noted than it might be: strikers contend with a more prevalent presumption of guilt than in the 1970s, which lends added credibility to threats of further union legislation by a government that is not strong on civil liberties.

The RMT, which halted the trains, is not, in any case, the union best placed to win the public’s sympathy: its members are generally not society’s lowest paid, although it has done surprisingly well in at least one opinion poll so far. Its strikes appear more harmful to workers who travel to do low-paid jobs than to the more comfortably off whose collars are not white only because they now work from home. Its grievances about “modernisation” may win support only after a friendly face in the booking office is a thing of the past (elderly travellers seem set to bear the brunt).

Apart from the redundancies, however, pay is the main issue. In this respect, the Government stares a much wider challenge in the face, with ominous signs of action by teachers, doctors, nurses, local-government workers, postal workers, and criminal barristers over wages that are still falling in real terms. Like Heath, troubled by Northern Ireland and an oil crisis, Johnson has challenges not of his own making: primarily, Ukraine and the Covid effect, including higher public borrowing. Heath entered the Common Market, which ultimately proved helpful, but this is no option for Brexit Man. Nevertheless, it will be impossible to discredit every one of those groups of workers, and the cost-of-living crisis will require more than anti-striker rhetoric or appeals for restraint. To avoid a new Heath moment, the Conservatives will have to engender, somehow, new levels of trust that things will get better, as well as that their leader’s assurances are to be believed.

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