Union muscle flexing or Christmas of Discontent?

Nicolas Clark examines the relationship between Corbyn and the unions when strikes ‘threaten’ Christmas

Strikes, like buses it would seem, are arriving in threes at the moment. With Southern Rail, the Post Office and airport staff already engaged in or about to strike, some commentators have responded by labelling this the ‘Christmas of Discontent’ in reminiscence of the 1978-79 strikes that brought the UK to a standstill.

The Winter of Discontent, it should be recalled, led to the defeat of James Callaghan’s Labour Party and the election of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister, who swiftly introduced trade unions laws that notably required unions to hold a ballot of their members before calling strikes. However, it is unlikely that this current malaise heralds such as tectonic shift for the country.

Many have instead seen this episode as evidence of Jeremy Corbyn being beholden to the unions and in particular his ‘puppet master’, as Unite General Secretary contender Gerard Coyne has dubbed Len McCluskey. But what is the purpose of these strikes? Is it really as straightforward as the reported statement made by Sean Hoyle, RMT leader, that the unions are co-ordinating action in an effort to “bring down this bloody working-class-hating Tory government”? Honourably one might say that the respective unions are protecting their members’ rights, the politically-minded cynic would argue that this is solely geared to trying to distract the Government, and thereby trip them up when they would rather be focussing on Brexit plans, whilst the PR pundit would question the logic and reputational impact of risking the animosity of customers by causing disruption around Christmas.

Whatever the speculation, the reality is that in the post-Blair era, which had seen the unions shunned in favour of the middling classes, the unions have been making a comeback. A union-friendly leader is in control of the Labour Party and he is sympathetic to their strike actions. In return, union funding of the Labour Party now sits at 78% having risen from 59% under Gordon Brown with Unite leading the charge. Whether Corbyn wants to control the union situation or not the truth of the matter is that he seems unable or unwilling to do so.

The Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Transport have both been the subjects of pressure from the backbenches to take action of their own. Indeed Winter of Discontent veterans Lords Heseltine and Tebbit have re-entered the fray to push for a tougher stance. Can the Government, however, do anything about the situation, ideally something that will both thwart Labour and endear themselves to the electorate? Under Boris Johnson’s Mayoralty, whenever a strike took place in London, whether on the Tube or by the Met Police, without fail calls would be made for the tightening up and re-classification of ‘critical industries’. Further detail to this proposal has been publicly set out by Chris Philp, the Conservative MP for Croydon South, who argues that legislation should “prevent unreasonable strike action” while preserving the rights of worker to strike when faced with “genuine injustice”. This would see the requirement for 50% of critical infrastructure to continue operating as in Canada, mandatory attendance at Acas mediation and the judgement by a High Court judge that strike action is reasonable and proportionate. Such proposals are likely to resonate with much of the electorate in the South East whose patience with strikes – and therefore sympathy for the unions – has been wearing thin.

The truth is, however, that the Prime Minister is reluctant to table ‘emergency legislation’, particularly as she fears she does not have enough power in the Lords to see it pass through. These strikes are little more than a distraction, not a Winter of Discontent worth expending political capital to tackle. Unions no longer have the financial muscle or the volume of members to bring down the government. With the Supreme Court ruling on Brexit expected in the New Year and the subsequent potential requirement for legislation to trigger Article 50, Theresa May will want to keep her powder in the Lords dry.

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