With Halloween approaching, let’s talk about something strange. It’s summed up by the chart above. Even with a Tory Prime Minister doing dastardly Tory things from Number 10, there hasn’t been that much industrial action in this Parliament. The number of working days lost to strikes did leap to 1.4 million in 2011, after the first Spending Review. But that was nothing on the Eighties, when one year saw over 26 million days lost. And it was barely even anything on the New Labour era. Fewer days have been lost to industrial action in the last four years than in the four years before them. Weird, huh?
Not that you’d know any of this from the news. Even just this past week, we’ve heard a number of stories about the trade unions and their tradecraft. There were the strikes conducted by NHS staff and by civil servants. There was the publication of Bruce Carr QC’s report into allegations of union bullying and intimidation during past disputes. And we would have had more, too, if the Tube strikes hadn’t been averted.
Why are the unions more prominent on the airwaves than they have been on the picket lines? The Carr report is instructive in this regard. It is the final document of the review that was established after all that nasty business at Grangemouth in 2013. What it unearths is, in some cases, even nastier. It tells of angry protests outside people’s family homes, and worse online. There are passages about firefighters “blocking forecourts [and] preventing access for stand-in crews”. We read about the oil refinery workers who went about “smearing excrement on the walls”. These unfit practices are fit to print. They ought to be broadcast.
But the really striking thing about Carr’s report is, again, its strangeness. What does the good barrister think should be done about all these misdeeds? He doesn’t say. This is a review without recommendations. Instead, it uses time and ink to explain why no recommendations are forthcoming. The first reason is that the trade unions weren’t keen to cooperate with Carr – so they didn’t. His evidence comes almost totally from employers and other affected parties, making it necessarily “one-sided”. The second reason is his fear that, with 2015 approaching, any recommendations would be weaponised for the long election campaign. Far easier, and less controversial, to just keep schtum.
This is one of the most important lessons in politics: context matters. It’s one thing to talk about the unions in the first year of a Labour government. It’s quite another in the fag-end year of a (mainly) Conservative government that has set about cutting public spending. In that case, the context isn’t made by the numbers contained within charts. It’s made by conflicting interests and ideologies.
The Tories have certainly played their part in upholding this context. They criticised this week’s public sector strikes with quite some vigour. And they responded to Carr’s report with innuendo about “Labour’s biggest donor Unite,” and by calling for “a new legal threshold for strike action by trade unions”. Of course, such thresholds wouldn’t really do anything to prevent excrement from being smeared on refinery walls, but no matter: there’s a persistent sense that Ed Miliband can be embarrassed by his links to the unions, and that everything should be done to expose them. Electoral politics, as Carr feared, hold sway.
But at least the Tory leadership has refined these politics over the past couple of years. One of my first posts for this website was about Sayeeda Warsi’s tendency, as Party Chairman, to whip up a red scare about any and all union activity. Nowadays, people such as Grant Shapps and Francis Maude are much more careful. They make sure to distinguish ordinary union members from the barons at the top. They take time, as Maude did during an interview with the Today Programme on Wednesday, to praise “the strength of the public sector ethos in our public services”. It’s as though they’ve internalised the teachings of Robert Halfon: some union members are actual or potential Conservative voters.
Except we still don’t have full Halfonism, or full Skeltonism for that matter. The Tory pitch to union members is, as the Maude interview also demonstrated, a general one based on policies such as the raising of the personal allowance. There’s nothing on offer that’s specific to their trade unionism. No endorsements for candidates in union elections. No free party membership. No nothing.
Naturally, trade union members define themselves by more than their union cards. As Lord Ashcroft’s polling has shown, they support quite a lot of those general Tory policies. Yet this past week has shown us something else: the necessity for more. There are deep and serious problems within the trade union movement, and not just when it comes to intimidation and bullying. The issues of party funding and strike balloting need looking at too – and fixing. But without a tidal shift in Tory relations with the unions, a Tory government will never be able to encourage that process along. Their actions will always be taken for what they too often are: base electioneering.
And that doesn’t embarrass Miliband or future Labour leaders. It strengthens them. One of the many sad ironies of today’s politics is that, regardless of actual policies or of the number of days lost to industrial action, only a Labour government could really hope to reform the unions. But relying on that is like relying on Liverpool to win the Premier League. It’s unlikely to happen.