It is hard, during these balmy, sun-soaked days, to imagine the chill that forecasters tell us is just around the corner. Despite ample warnings, it is equally challenging today to grasp the scale of the chaos that the unions are promising to unleash across the country’s transport network next week.
Britain has not seen the like for decades. When the RMT union walks out on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, much of our railways will come to a halt. Disruption will echo into the following days, so that the entire week will be blighted. In London, the Tube will also be affected. An essential service ferrying critical staff to their jobs will be wreathed in eerie silence by a union which, with breathtaking gall, claims to be acting on behalf of workers.
Far from it. The RMT and its leader Mick Lynch are acting out of self-interest alone, leveraging their vital position to hold the country to ransom. Some of the lowest-paid workers in Britain will suffer the most. The middle classes may be able and happy to retreat once again to their desks at home, but teachers need to see their pupils in person, doctors and nurses to treat patients face to face. Cooks cannot whip up virtual meals for hungry customers. Binmen cannot collect rubbish while working from home. These are the victims of unionised workers who, with a median wage of £44,000, earn considerably more than them. Indeed, a third of rail staff are higher-rate taxpayers making more than £50,000 a year. Now they want more than 10 per cent extra. Marooned care workers on an average of £17,000 may find it hard to sympathise.
Labour, which likes to pose as the champion of the disadvantaged, should hence find it perfectly straightforward to condemn wholeheartedly the strikers and the devastation they plan to wreak. And yet, as the days tick down, all the party can muster is confusion and evasiveness. Sir Keir Starmer’s view, it seems, is not to have a view, apart from hoping the issue goes away. Activity on the Opposition benches consists primarily of recalling errant shadow ministers who have come out in support of the strikes back to positions of studied blandness.
It is a vacuous malaise which characterises Sir Keir’s leadership more widely. Little surprise, then, that noises of discontent are beginning to emerge from his own ranks. Of course, internal critics want him to veer to the Left. But a more resolute Labour leader would take the opportunity to prise away the fingers that unions like the RMT have long closed around the party’s windpipe. If Labour cares about unions, it should remember that they increasingly do not care about it. The RMT disaffiliated in 2004. Yet somehow Leftist muscle memory refuses to allow Labour to consider industrial action as anything other than a virtuous struggle of the many against the few, the poor against the rich, the exploited against the exploiters. Next week’s strikes are the very reverse of that.
Given such failings, it is no wonder that the Government has been tempted to describe the coming chaos as “Labour’s strikes”. But scoring such political points is also a kind of evasion – cheap and easy distraction when what voters wish to see from an 80-strong majority is bold action.
The reality is that the Tories have failed to deliver on their election promise to institute minimum service requirements. More generally, they too have been cloaked in confusion. Only in February the Prime Minister lambasted Andrew Bailey, the Governor of the Bank of England, when the latter called for wage “restraint” to tame spiralling inflation. A week ago – just four months later – Boris Johnson was himself warning of the very same thing.
The Government must be clearer and it must be bolder, or it could find itself paying a heavy political price for next week’s standstill, and the copycat strikes which may follow throughout the summer. Polls show net public support for unions. Without firm leadership, so famously displayed by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, calls for wage abandon, along with discontent and industrial action, may spread. The Government will certainly be blamed if it does.
The unions are not as influential as they were in the 1970s – when they could demand and secure double-digit pay rises even in periods of single-digit inflation. Homeworking means the havoc inflicted will, for many, be far less painful than it otherwise would have been. Mr Lynch may feel he and the RMT are at the peak of their power, but they should be careful. If the Government is steadfast, all routes from that peak will point down.