James Frayne is Director of communications agency Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion. The focus of this column is Theresa May’s conservatism for “ordinary working people”.
Amid all the negative comment about the Government’s supposed inability to deal with striking unions, the reality is they’re quietly but comprehensively outmanoeuvring the union movement.
If this sounds surprising given recent comment, look at things from the Government’s point of view. How are they approaching their interactions with unions, and how do they hope to benefit?
Firstly, Government politicians want to make it practically harder for unions to strike in both the public and private sectors. They want to make sure parents and patients aren’t excessively inconvenienced by schools closing and operations being postponed. And they want to make sure that the economy isn’t damaged – particularly during the delicate period in which we’re leaving the EU – by commuters struggling to get to their desks.
Legislation designed to do just these things will come into force in the spring. New minimum turnout thresholds for union ballots will have to be met and strikes in essential public services will be made more difficult. They are taking the sort of action that many are currently demanding from them – we just have to wait a while for it to take effect.
And this legislation will also meet a second Government aim: minimising the chances strikes will damage their popularity. The Government knows that while public sector strikes can be very unpopular – particularly those that touch the health service – they are often led by people that the public deeply respect.
Teachers, doctors and nurses are all hugely popular in the country and reducing their ability to strike reduces the prospects of public humiliation.
The third Government aim is to ensure the public knows that they are on the side of ordinary people – particularly as people are being inconvenienced over Christmas. While they’ve stopped short of promising additional new legislation, which seems sensible, they have made their views on the strikes well known.
It is also useful for Government politicians to have the public reminded that the sort of people that upset your Christmas are the sort of people that like Jeremy Corbyn.
A fourth Government aim is to go after the votes of union members, particularly in the North of England. As I’ve written before, UKIP have established what is effectively a right-wing foothold in the North, fracturing the historic hold that Labour have had over the electorate there. It is reasonable to assume that, with Labour in total disarray, the Conservatives could wade in behind UKIP and become viable in places where they haven’t been for years.
As they seek to do so, their direct interaction with unions is less important than their wider economic policy. The Government has unveiled the beginning of what looks to be an ambitious regional industrial policy, which is a good start. They have also raised the minimum wage which, again if you’re looking at things through a political and electoral prism, makes complete sense. In short, the Government is taking the sort of action that goes straight to the heart of what many union members want to see from a Government.
While the Government might continue to face criticism in the coming days, you can be sure that they will be looking at things with a great deal more satisfaction than many union leaders.