Picket lines at hospitals of all places. Workers in many critical roles on strike. A contingencies unit scrambled together in Downing Street to respond to the crisis. The army on standby. Ministers secretly debating whether things were getting so dire that they should declare a national state of emergency. The winter of discontent of the late 1970s dealt a death blow to the credibility of James Callaghan’s government. In his memoirs, the Labour prime minister lamented that he was overwhelmed by an uncontrollable “contagion” that doomed him to defeat at the subsequent election.
History does not repeat itself, but it can rhyme. There are some obvious parallels between the tsunami of industrial action that engulfed the Callaghan government and the waves of strikes surging towards Rishi Sunak. Now, as then, public sector employees are in the van of workers trying to maintain the real value of their incomes at a time of galloping inflation. Now, as then, ministers are rejecting claims for better pay on the grounds that the country cannot afford the demands. Now, as then, the result is an escalating conflict between government and unions that paralyses vital services and disrupts day-to-day life.
So there are echoes of the past, but the differences between then and now are just as significant.
The original winter of discontent erupted at the tail end of a decade in which Britain had been constantly racked by unrest under both Labour and Tory governments. Strikes were not a novelty for Britons of the 1970s. Britons of today will have grey hairs if they can remember anything like the magnitude of what will occur this winter. There will be strike action every day of the advent calendar with nurses, 999 call handlers, paramedics and other ambulance staff, teachers, posties, bus drivers, border force officers, passport office staff and employees of national highways among those withdrawing their services. Everything will become more difficult from reuniting with family over Christmas to getting healthcare for loved ones. The absence of any meaningful activity by ministers to resolve these disputes suggests the government is currently minded to try to butch it out. This conflict will not be over by Christmas. The misery will carry on into the new year.
Some of the cabinet reckon that they will ultimately prevail because trade unions wield much less heft than they once did after successive tranches of Conservative legislation have made it much harder for workers’ organisations to mobilise and sustain the withdrawal of labour. Nurses will not be walking out everywhere because in some areas strike ballots did not meet the high thresholds of approval required to take lawful action. Total and indefinite stoppages were commonplace in the 1970s. Contemporary unions prosecute their case by taking targeted and intermittent action, as rail workers have been doing for many months.
This reduces the immediate pressure on ministers, but it also poses a big problem for the Conservatives in winning the battle for public opinion. Tories used to lambast “over-mighty union barons” for “holding the country to ransom” with the confidence that this attack resonated with a lot of voters. Precisely because the Tories have crimped union power and significant strikes have been so rare in recent decades, Conservative anti-union tropes have much less potency. Union leaders sound credible when they say the walkouts this winter are not a macho flexing of their muscle but a last resort and “a cry for help” by their desperate members.
The Conservatives would like to turn these disputes from an example of how they have mismanaged the country into a damaging story about Labour. So Mr Sunak trots out the Tory cliche that Sir Keir Starmer is in hock to “union paymasters”. In fact, neither the Royal College of Nurses nor the RMT, the largest rail union, is affiliated to the Labour party. Labour certainly has its dilemmas, but the party’s frontbench has navigated them quite skilfully so far by defending the right to strike and calling for negotiations while not endorsing specific pay demands or action.
Ministers are clutching to the hope that public sympathy for strikers will drain away. “The moment people start suffering, I think opinion will tip against the unions,” says one senior Tory. That’s a big gamble about who voters will blame for a bitter and attritional struggle. The RCN has never before felt compelled to call out its members in more than a century of existence. The Opinium poll we publish today suggests the nurses enjoy twice as much support from voters as the government. Backing for the rail strikes is more limited.
Some ministers believe it would be smart tactics to attempt to divide the unions by being more generous to those workers held in most affection by the public. Improving the pay offer to nurses would be popular with more than nurses. But making them an exceptional case is resisted by those members of the government who think any concession to one group will embolden others to press harder and longer for their claims.
In what has the hallmarks of a prolonged struggle for hearts and minds, union leaders will need to be canny about ensuring that their side is seen as the reasonable one. The RMT is planning eight days of strikes in the runup to Christmas and after the new year. That will keep their cause in the headlines, but at the peril of giving them a Grinch-like reputation with the public. Ministers have called for a “festive truce” on the railways in the belief that voters desire that too. The unions representing NHS workers are discussing coordinated strikes that they will justify on the grounds that they need to ensure “maximum impact” from action to impel the government to come to the negotiating table. They have to be careful that this cannot be represented by ministers and the rightwing media as their leaders conspiring to accentuate the distress inflicted on the public.
The more intense difficulties with public opinion are faced by the cabinet, not least because this government is heading into a bleak season when it is already deeply unpopular. The Tory vote share at Thursday’s byelection in Chester, a seat the Conservatives held relatively recently, was the lowest since 1832. Some cynics on the Tory side seem to be calculating that the disruption to the health service will be to their political advantage because they can blame strikes for what was anyway going to be a nightmarish winter for the NHS. That rests on the surely false assumption that the public haven’t noticed that the health service was in a critical condition before anyone was talking about walkouts. Ambulance response times are already longer than at any time on record with some victims of heart attacks and strokes not being attended for an hour or more after a 999 call. One of the more depressing observations I have heard is that most people may not notice that much difference between the NHS on a strike day and the NHS on any other day.
Ministers are misreading public opinion when they try to distance themselves from the disputes by refusing to get explicitly engaged in negotiations. In a crisis, voters expect government to get a grip, not wash its hands. Mr Sunak will struggle to sustain the disingenuous pretence that he does not have the power to settle these disputes. Steve Barclay, the health secretary, and Mark Harper, the transport secretary, are two of his closest allies. The prime minister has put another chum, Oliver Dowden, the cabinet office minister, whose own civil servants will be taking strike action, in charge of the Downing Street unit handling the government’s response.
Some ministers privately admit that intransigence will eventually have to turn into compromise because this crisis won’t be resolved without the government making some concessions. The protracted dispute with barristers over legal aid fees was finally concluded only after the government made an improved offer.
The prime minister wants to hang tough in the hope that the resolve of strikers will fray and voter sympathy for them will wane. The risk he runs with this strategy is that a drawn-out conflict will set the concrete around the ankles of this government. There is a prevalent view already that the legacy of a dozen years of Conservative rule is a country in which essential services on which people depend no longer work. These strikes will harden that feeling. The sense that Britain was broken on his watch was fatal for Jim Callaghan. Because that’s a mood no government can expect to survive.