The strike situation is getting worse. Rail strikers have been joined by workers taking industrial action in the postal service and on the airlines, with others reportedly considering wildcat action in their support.
It’s true – as I noted last week – that strikes are still rare in historical terms. Compared to the period between 1941 and 1990, 2016 is a positive golden age of industrial relations.
But we have been spoiled in the last 25 years, which makes the current rise in strike action feel quite shocking to people who have largely forgotten 1979, when one hundred times as many working days were lost to strikes.
Of course, the fact that militant unions were much more disruptive before Thatcher’s victory doesn’t mean that we ought to accept the trouble caused by their modern-day counterparts. It’s no comfort to hundreds of thousands trying to commute on Southern trains, or children waiting for their delayed Christmas presents, to know that 40 years ago such outages were commonplace and electricity was rationed as well.
As the number of strikes grow, and new evidence emerges of the strikers’ political motivations, the chorus demanding action from Downing Street inevitably swells.
We’ve yet to hear very much from the Government on the issue, which has raised some eyebrows on the Tory benches and in the press.
Why might that be?
This appears to be another instance of May’s new approach. Downing Street is deeply suspicious of giving in to pressure to make news, and doubts the value of acting for the sake of being seen to act. The Prime Minister’s team judges that instant but ineffective action does more harm than good when it turns out not to achieve anything.
That isn’t to say May won’t act, but she will only do so if there’s a practical plan that will work.
New rules on strike ballots will come in next year, but wouldn’t affect the current Southern strike.
Further, stricter legislation – forbidding rail strikes outright, for example – also wouldn’t prevent the current strike, but might bring benefits later on.
That would come with a raft of other problems, though: could May rely on her Commons majority for such a radical proposal? And if MPs did vote it through, it would be sure to get bogged down in the Lords – sparking a new clash with the Upper Chamber which could threaten the progress of other legislation such as that required to deliver Brexit.
Looked at through that lens, therefore, it’s easier to understand why the Government is wary of the potential pitfalls of kneejerk action.
Demands for a firmer response – from MPs, voters and the press – won’t go away. An Opposition which was concerned about the impact of strikes on the public might make Ministers squirm on the topic. But Corbyn’s lifelong support for strikes in any and every circumstance makes it easier for Downing Street to wait for the right solution, rather than grasping at any passing straw.