Strikes now and strikes past. Strike! The strike’s back on! Or at least according to yesterday’s news it is. Talks between the Government and junior doctors have broken down, with the result that one of this Parliament’s most persistent political stories just keeps on keeping on. But what about previous Parliaments? The Office for National Statistics maintains this spreadsheet on disputes going back to the 1930s. One of its columns, showing the cumulative 12-month total of working days lost to industrial action, has been used to create the graph above.
The peaks of the 1970s and 1980s… The first thing that catches the eye is the graph’s inverted V-shape. The time lost to strikes is much higher in its middle years, around the 1970s to the 1980s, than in its early or late years. The overall peak actually comes in April 1980, when about 32 million working days were lost to industrial action in the 12 months up to and including that date. But there are other peaks of 24 million in October 1972 and 30 million in February 1985. The brothers were busy during that period.
…and the declines since then. They’re much less busy now. I’ve pasted a graph for just the last twenty years to the right – click for a larger version – so that you can see the numbers more easily. The peak of 1,477,000 is almost 22 times smaller than that of April 1980. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this came during the Coalition years. Perhaps more surprising, there were similar peaks during the New Labour years. In the year to November 2000, there were 1,415,000 working days lost to industrial action. Tony and Gordon felt the workers’ collective anger as much as David Cameron has.
Industrial action is consistently low, nowadays. In fact, the average 12-month total for the Labour years is about 613,000. For the Cameron years, so far, it is 658,000. This suggests not just that incidences of industrial action are much lower than they were before the 1990s, but also that they have remained consistently low. The unions have been defused by a combination of Margaret Thatcher’s reforms and wider, historical forces. The industrial strikes of the 1980s are unlikely to be repeated in a deindustrialised nation.
Red Scare no more. None of this is to downplay or excuse the industrial action that’s being planned by the British Medical Association and junior doctors. Each strike must be judged according to its own facts. But it does support an argument that I’ve made before and that has lain behind a trio (here, here and here) of previous To The Point posts: Tory ministers should refrain from whipping up a Red Scare. After all, there is little to be scared of. On current trends, unions are a declining force – and, besides, some of their members might even be persuaded to vote Conservative.