A cold winter, high inflation, a stagnant economy, unions flexing their muscles and a seemingly defiant Prime Minister taking the fight to the unions. No, it isn’t the 80s, welcome to 2023.
As the country settles back into work after their Christmas break, life is far from back on track. This month alone there are strikes from the railways, buses, highways, driving examiners, ambulances, teachers, and nurses. That’s not to mention Royal Mail workers, border force, and university staff whose concerns remain unresolved. Polls suggest that not all strikes have public support, and some have been going on so long that support is dropping, but the Government is at least equally blamed by most.
The previous approach of the Government was to paint this as an issue that didn’t involve them. On the railways for example, it is a negotiation between RMT and Network Rail, they would say. But the problem is, they do in-fact hold the purse strings. Also, the longer this continues and the longer the country faces disruption it all creates a narrative of the Conservatives ruling over a period of hardship and falling living standards. Voters will start to (if they haven’t already) associate tough times with Rishi Sunak.
The PM has already come out swinging by delivering a keynote speech setting out his five priorities. The aim surely is for the PM to show that he is a competent leader that can solve problems during difficult times. Fixing industrial action – however – was not one of the five priorities.
But he has now stepped into the ring. The kid who always wanted to be a jedi knight, fighting the evils in the galaxy, grew up to become Prime Minister and will hope he can bring a new hope to a downtrodden country. His weapon of choice? Anti-strike legislation. The bill contains proposals for minimum staffing levels during strikes, enforced by the ability of industry bosses to sue unions and sack employees if minimum levels are not met. The PM announced this measure and then doubled down his involvement by inviting all union bosses to a meeting on Monday. He’s shown them the stick inevitably before offering a below-inflation pay rise as the carrot. The problem is, with all unions in the room it is unlikely to be a detailed pay negotiation so Monday will doubtful be the silver bullet.
Sunak will be hoping for a swift victory that re-enforces that he is a problem solver that can fix the economy and fix the country. However, if it backfires then he will have firmly placed himself in the middle of the battle leaving him no room to hide from the fight. Once the unions have met the PM, they won’t accept anything less than talks with No 10. Despite every PM since Thatcher avoiding direct talks with unions, back are the days of beer and sandwiches at No 10.
Crucially, nurses and ambulance workers have significant public support and sympathy, and combining all the unions into one issue could raise the support of the other sectors by proxy. The NHS has always been a vote winner for Labour and a tripwire for the Conservatives – a war between the Government and nurses isn’t going to help Sunak close the polls. He has raised the stakes and it could result in a huge political win that demonstrates a competent Prime Minister working through the issues in the country, or it could result in a PR disaster showing an out of touch Government fighting with the NHS soon after a pandemic.