Boris Johnson understands one thing: keep turning your meaty, inaudible back on your angry critics and… something will happen. Often yes, unfortunately, these are the wrong things. But sometimes they are very useful. Railroad strikes, and then all the other strikes that might follow when public-sector workers see wage increases offered to strikers at a time of rising inflation, are convenient for Johnson. They will subject the Labor Party to their own summer of suffering and political torture.
If Keir Starmer thinks life has been difficult so far, he should take the parenthesis position. I know this because I saw Neil Kinnock, during the 1984-1985 National Union of Mine Workers (NUM) strike, go through the agony as he fought the political attack of Margaret Thatcher. I saw his face turn pale. I heard his excellent command of the language falter and shrink. And, of course, I reported his defeat in the elections that followed in 1987.
Well, our times are shorter. Starmer did not have Kinnock’s immersion in socialist culture. Johnson is certainly not Thatcher. I sincerely hope this summer’s strike is not like what happened to NUM – not violent, split (see new BBC drama Sherwood) or its dramatic effect in changing policy. Now the law is completely different. Mick Lynch, general secretary of the National Union of Railroad, Marine and Transportation Workers, is tough and talks about class struggle, but doesn’t have the revolutionary agenda of Arthur Scargill, the former president of the NUM.
But still, if ever there was a problem that Johnson could use as a weapon to try to win back voters—both middle-class voters commuting from the South and Red Wallers residents—who hate sentimentality, that’s what. I am writing before the results of the by-elections in Wakefield, Tiverton and Honiton on June 23, and the issue of the strike may have caught Johnson there a little late. But the prime minister is a ruthless divider, a wedge exploiter looking for the next issue to cling to after Brexit.
Members of the Shadow Cabinet twisted and twisted in their efforts to avoid being “delivered” by Johnson to Europe, and it was a grim sight. But now it’s “the Labor train on strike”. Then there will be an attempt to convince the electorate that due to the pressure on wages, this is “Labour inflation.” Don’t believe me? Just wait.
These disputes, of course, can be resolved and cannot extend into the summer. But the workers will have a strong instinct to keep up, to catch up with other groups. Private sector employers will try to keep inflation in check plus. But despite the increase in immigration from outside Europe, we have a very tight labor market and a shortage of skilled workers in an economy that has long been drunk on imported labor.
One of the less visible effects of Brexit is the accelerating inflationary pressure on wages in all sectors, from services to agriculture. Try telling a pub owner or a tulip grower to stay below inflation when they desperately need extra hands.
In the public sector, the pressure will be even more public. I recently interviewed Christina McAney, the very impressive new general secretary of Unison, which has 1.3 million members in local government, schools, hospitals and nursing homes. McAni told me that her members would attend to emergency and humanitarian needs, but she believes that strikes in these sectors are indeed likely. Following the recent National Delegate Conference, Unison is running a social media campaign with the #getstrikeready hashtag.
Looks like the strikes are just getting started. Railroad strikes infuriate and inconvenience millions of people. But in overburdened hospitals and nursing homes, things could be much worse. Every single story of suffering and disappointment will be on the front pages. They will be read with pleasure by a resurgent Johnson in the House of Commons. Having just sorted out his positions on immigration and transgender rights after Brexit, poor old Starmer will face the plight of Agnes and her hip replacement or Michael’s exams in interview after interview.
There is no point in wringing your hands. We have high employment but low wages caused by society because New statesman readers have read about the slow growth and low productivity of the economy. In the long run, the only way out of this situation is to work much more effectively as a country. But this is not the answer that will be given to opposition politicians over the next few weeks.
Labor must fight tooth and nail to keep attention on ministerial responsibility; most of the public will agree with this, and over time this number will increase. The necessary railway reform program, for example, requires the goodwill and participation of all parties.
However, the opposition needs to point out the ministers’ jubilant exploitation of the strikes, sparked by years of low wages and (a big difference from the events of 1984) carried out only after a democratic vote. This generation of conservatives is not very fluid or sophisticated, and what is happening is pretty blatant.
But then it will be more difficult. If these strikes spread, Labor should start talking about the Brexit impact on nursing homes, hospitals and other areas that lack skilled European workers. They hate to do this for fear of alienating their former Red Wall constituents, whom they hope to win back. The party is of the opinion that Europe has disappeared and rumors about Brussels are unlikely. Hard. In the real world, this also applies to Brexit. A political discussion too tongue-tied to recognize the truth is a fundamentally useless conversation.
Where workers’ groups have real and substantial grievances, Labor must support them strongly and openly – as did, for example, Andy Burnham as Mayor of Greater Manchester. Don’t let ministers walk away from this story as if they had nothing to do with it.
Last but not least, Labor must articulate an alternative vision for an economy that can pay higher wages and work more efficiently. We as a country need hope. We need industrial upgrading and a proposal for a different way forward. Labor is allegedly working on a new plan, which they will announce at their party conference in September. We need to move on.
The wave of public sector strikes that continues for most of the rest of the year is a problem big enough to turn the political tables and give Johnson a chance to win another general election and become the leader of this country for years to come.
The prime minister thought the war in Ukraine would have that effect, but the conflict is getting too complicated and tiring to help him personally. Worse, Labor agrees with him on Ukraine. The “wedge” is missing. Johnson tried to use Brexit, but the country got fed up with it. Rwanda has been promising, but the complex legal battle and the horror stories of individual migrants may not play out as well as he had hoped.
Johnson’s critics refer to him in one of their lesser insults as “the chancer”. Like this. He is a great catcher of chances, of things that will come next. The prospect of a wave of strikes before the end of the year exists thanks to a long period of underfunding and labor shortages, part of his own legacy. But trust me, he sees a big chance, one last “deal”, and that beefy back is turning. Early elections before Christmas? Don’t bet against it.
This thought takes us even further. Whether or not Johnson used the words “Who rules Britain?” that would have been the message. Things were not going well for Ted Heath in 1974. Heath asked: “Do you want Parliament and the elected government to continue to fight inflation hard? … It’s time for your voice to be heard – the voice of the moderate and reasonable people of Britain.” But reasonable people did not want chaos and could catch the political background. I wonder what they think now.
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