15 December 2022
Winter of Discontent
By Robert Kilconner
‘Good will’ be damned; it is the season for striking and one feature of the current disputes which seems to recur is a demand by the unions that they be allowed to speak directly to the politicians. Mike Lynch has asked to speak direct to Rishi Sunak. A similar request has been made in relation to the nurses.
As always happens in these cases the Government stands behind management and to an extent they are right to do so. If they don’t let management manage, then what is it for? One could hardly expect politicians to be effective in a detailed debate about the terms and conditions of public services so they had best leave the real negotiations to the people who know. But it is only “to an extent”. As we currently stand there is a tension between what would need to be paid to workers to preserve their standard of living and the requirements of the Treasury. The broad message “we would like to pay you more but cannot afford to, so you will have to make sacrifices” is a political message from the top, a call for moderation and understanding and shared sacrifice. In the end the workers are being asked to accept a reduction of living standards because to preserve them is impractical, and such messages have to be sold. That can be done though the normal negotiating chain, through the medium of “beer and sandwiches at number 10”, the system that contributed to the demise of the Callaghan government in 1979, or through the pressure of public opinion. Whatever the technique, however, success depends upon an acceptance that the message is fair and sensible, that those pulling the strings are pursuing their parsimonious line because they have to.
It is here that the Government has been badly damaged by its history. It has been inconsistent in its flirtation with austerity. Its successive leadership struggles have shown the Conservative party in the worst possible light with personal ambition running far ahead of the public. That dreadful comment by Liz Truss that at least she had been Prime Minister is etched into the public consciousness. So, however honest Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt may be, and to most of us they seem to be decent men trying to find their way through a political minefield, they carry a baggage of public distrust and it is hard to see how it will be dispelled until there is a general election.
Imagine this as your scenario. Strikes spread and the nation grinds to a halt. Gradually the position becomes more critical and Tory MPs begin to lose their nerve. The press and the public all call for a general election. Is there a point at which enough Tories would throw in the towel to deliver one? Probably there is.
But before the unions start to fit that into their strategy they need to think carefully. Suppose there was an election and that Labour came in at a time when the country was at a standstill. What then? Would they prove to be softer negotiators than the Tories? We have not seen Sir Keir Starmer in government but when dealing with factions in his own party he has demonstrated very considerable toughness. With a wave of public support following a general election victory, he could prove a powerful opponent and he does not strike one as the sort of man who would go soft on his supporters if he felt that their demands clashed with the public interest. Maybe, then, the unions would be better to do a deal with Sunak and Hunt before things get too rough.