We shouldn’t be surprised that Britain is facing what amounts to a general strike over the next few weeks. The only surprise is that the walk-out of what may be in total more than a million nurses, paramedics, rail workers, weather forecasters and border staff is not yet being called out for it what it is in all but name – the first general strike since 1926 – either by the government or by the unions behind the industrial action which could cripple an already wobbling country. 

Yet the signs were there for all to see, going back to the TUC’s annual gathering in October. Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union, let the cat out of the bag. He told a meeting headlined “The Cost of Living Crisis – Time to Fight Back”, that he wanted to coordinate national strike action. “What does working together mean? It doesn’t mean any one union telling any other union what to do. We have to respect each union must determine its own tactics but it is the government that needs to be defeated.” 

Serwotka went on to say, according to the PCSU’s own website: “We want to coordinate action. We want to have a joint national day of action with any union that has a live mandate. But a one-day strike isn’t going to cut it. “

“We want a coalition of the willing to offer solidarity to other unions and work imaginatively with them to have win after win after win. We want a surge of momentum to show our strength, to win disputes, to stop anti-union legislation and show our pensioners, our sick and disabled there’s a very different type of country.” That’s pretty straightforward stuff for all to see. 

Also speaking at the meeting was RMT general secretary, Mick Lynch who used similar language, telling members: “We need an uprising. We need a wave of synchronised, co-ordinated strike action. The whole working class moving forward to get together on pay, on services and respect and dignity in workplaces. Let’s do it together and let’s win for the workers.”

Fiery rhetoric aimed at crippling the government? Yes, but without needing to call a general strike – now illegal – it rather looks as though two of the country’s most forceful union leaders have achieved their aim set out nearly two months ago. (Tougher trade union laws were introduced after the 1926 General Strike and tightened up in the 1980s to restrict disputes to successful ballots: industrial action must attract at least a 50% turnout and a majority has to vote yes for it to be legal.)

What’s more, Serwotka, whose PCS union is the biggest in the civil service with more than 100,000 members going on strike across many government departments, warned again only yesterday that the union could escalate industrial action in the new year unless the deadlock is broken while raising the prospect of co-ordinated action with other unions involved in disputes. 

And so has the RMT’s Lynch, claiming that a resolution to the ongoing rail dispute is ‘further away’ following government intervention, and confirmed that the planned strikes by tens of thousands of railway workers next week  and in early January would go ahead.

So where has the government been all this time? And why have ministers been almost invisible on any of the key TV and news outlets over the last few weeks while the unions have been planning their action in full view. As David Young wrote in an interesting piece in the Daily Telegraph, when Margaret Thatcher and her ministers squared up to the unions in the 1980s they kept on and on about the dangers of militancy, boring everyone rigid with talk of the harm they were doing by holding the country to ransom. As he rightly asks, where are those voices today?

While the public may have not been privy to Serwotka and Lynch’s manoeuvrings back in October,  government ministers – and their advisers – should have been on top of these threats weeks, if not months ago. And behind the scenes, they should have been either negotiating seriously with the unions over their pay demands and grievances, or putting the case for why the unions are wrong and at the same time working flat-out on emergency powers to be brought in. 

Which is why it’s also surprising that it is only now that Rishi Sunak is working on introducing tighter legislation making it harder for specific workers to strike, although getting new rules through parliament can’t be achieved for weeks to come. 

So far, the PM has said unions will not be offered more money, and that the government has approached pay rows with ‘the spirit of reasonableness’ and accepted the recommendations of independent public sector pay bodies.

But that’s too little, too late. By then the damage will have been done if these threatened strikes all do go ahead. You can see the images now: passengers stranded on railway stations while being frozen stiff, the elderly falling in their homes and not being rescued by paramedics, vital operations being cancelled in an already overloaded NHS and queues of holiday makers at airports trying to get back to the UK.

It’s no surprise either that recent polls on the strikes show that over half of the public have some sympathy for the industrial action. You can see why: inflation is ripping through people’s pay, there is no let up in sight for energy prices while there is even talk of food rationing because of shortages in even the most basic of food stuffs from eggs to cockerels for Christmas.

It’s also fair to say that Lynch, nicknamed the Christmas Grinch for the timing of his strikes, has justice on his side when it comes to certain arguments the RMT is having with the rail operators as it has been consistently opposed to introducing Driver Only Operation on the railway network. 

 Indeed, the RMT warned the government more than three years ago that it should stop promoting driver only trains on the grounds there would be less assistance for disabled people but also because no one would be available to handle passenger emergencies. 

Even the DfT and the Rail Delivery Group have secretly reported on the dangers involved in having only one driver on board.  Why is this still an issue ? How could ministers – who apparently have insisted that DOO should stay as part of the deal – and the rail companies let negotiations go this far down the road? 

Then there is the thorny issue of what is fair pay for nurses, ambulance drivers and paramedics: some of the most essential workers in the country and core to the well-being of an already straddled NHS. Surely there are several mechanisms within the various pay review boards for a solution to be found?  Why is it that money within the enormous £150 billion plus NHS budget could not be rejigged so that these core workers are given better pay grades: evening out pay levels and stripping out non-core jobs such as the hundreds of diversity/inclusion officers or those writing menus offering patients different foods according to their religions would be one way to go. All the food is pretty bad anyway.

Yet paradoxically, the government doesn’t have much to lose over these strikes: the PM is already firefighting and giving in to his own rebels on housing and wind, MPs are announcing they’ll not stand at the next election and the economy is on a knife-edge. What more could go wrong? Ministers and MPs will be hoping that once the winter is over, the public will blame the hard-core unions for their problems and soon forget the impact of the strikes on their lives. Privately, they also know that – even though Sunak has stabilised the polls – it would take a miracle now for Labour not to win the next election. 

But Labour has to be careful too. These strikes could also prove dangerous to Keir Starmer’s recent resurrection and his plus 20 points lead in the polls. If Starmer is seen to be supporting the militants, the Tories will be able to claim that nothing has changed, that he is still Corbyn’s man in disguise. At the same time, Starmer has to keep the unions sweet to keep their support – and their money – as they are still the biggest donors to the party and he will need every penny to fight the next election. He will need to walk the finest of lines between the devil and the deep blue sea. 

Which is why these strikes are so tough to handle for both Tories and Labour, and why many voters are increasingly turning away from the traditional parties. Where do they go? It’s a stretch of the imagination but who knows, maybe voters will start haemorrhaging away to the growing SDP party and the LibDems – wherever they are hiding – while others move in anger towards Nigel Farage and the Reform Party. 

Serotwka and Lynch have tightened the knot around the Tories and Labour. In doing so, they may have opened up the door for voters to go for the minority parties with competing ideas, if only out of despair.

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