Friday 9 December 2022

Labour declining to use the power it already has?


Leaving aside the not entirely irrelevant fact that Rishi Sunak has trouble with his arithmetic and a tendency to invent whichever numbers suit his argument at the time (he is just following the well-known tradition that 89.6% of all politicians’ statistics are, like this one, entirely made up), his claim that it would cost every household £1000 “to meet the pay demands of the union bosses” repeats the rhetoric which the government uses repeatedly, which seeks to pretend that this is all about ‘union barons’ rather than union members, aka ‘workers’. It’s a deliberate attempt to distance the working people involved from their ‘union bosses’ (who, in reality, are actually the servants of the workers, not their bosses – their actual bosses are the tight-fisted employers), but it’s a trick which works, not least because the BBC and press follow the line of talking about this as a dispute between ‘unions’ and employers rather than between workers and employers. It also, of course, draws a line between those ‘hard-working people’ who are disadvantaged by strikes, and those ‘evil’ trade union barons who seek only to ‘disrupt’. One of the reasons why it’s been so effective for decades is that ‘His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition’ are so pathetically afraid of the media that they are unwilling to call out this trick for the sleight of hand which it is, and unwilling to support working people seeking to maintain and improve their standard of living.

Any industrial dispute is, ultimately, about power, or rather the balance of power enjoyed by employers on the one hand and employees on the other. And successive governments – of both parties – have consistently tried to shift that balance away from workers whilst strengthening the hand of employers. That is what all the anti-trade union and anti-strike legislation has always been about, whether it comes from Thatcher or her predecessors – never forget Barbara Castle and her ‘In Place of Strife’ Bill. The way that UK society has become more unequal, with those at the top hoarding ever greater amounts of wealth, whilst those at the bottom struggle, isn’t an accident, and wasn’t inevitable. It is a direct result of that shift in the balance of power. Austerity for the many and obscene wealth for the few has been inherent in the Labour-Tory philosophy for decades.

There are signs that at least some of the public are beginning to see the light, particularly in relation to workers in the NHS. The hypocrisy of giving them a round of applause once a week during the worst of the pandemic and grinding down their standard of living now is difficult for Sunak to conceal; of all the battles he could have picked, this looks like the most unwise of all, and underlines how far his lifestyle is from that of most of those he seeks to rule. Responding to pay claims by attempting to further restrict the power of working people by banning strikes or trying to impose minimum service levels which must be maintained rather than seeking a negotiated settlement is an attempt to divide and rule which might play well with Telegraph readers, but appears to be having the reverse effect on wider public opinion. And it doesn’t help his case that he showed – as he regularly boasts – during the pandemic (to say nothing of the response to the war in Ukraine) that availability of money isn’t a problem for the government; how money is used is ultimately a political question, not a financial one.

Despite all of that, there is actually a good case to be made for seeking to prevent strikes in certain essential services; but to do so in a fair and just society requires a quid pro quo, and that quid pro quo can only be an absolute cast-iron guarantee to protect the living standards, in absolute as well as relative terms, of those working in those services. Telling those employees that they have no choice; they must accept a decrease in their standard of living and they cannot act collectively in an attempt to maintain that standard is a recipe for social division rather than harmony. It’s also counter-productive in the short to medium term – with the economy close to full employment, lower paid people in the public services can, and some probably will, vote with their feet. Restricting immigration to please the racists and zenophobes amongst their supporters merely compounds the problem. But that must be as obvious to Sunak as it is to others, which leads to the inevitable conclusion that that is the outcome he seeks. If someone wanted to destroy public services, including the NHS, and replace them with services run for profit, what would they do differently to Sunak?

Despite not being in government, the Labour Party is currently in a position of unprecedented power for an opposition party. With the increasing certainty that they will be forming the government in less than two years’ time, setting out clearly that they would reverse some policies would make it much harder for those charged with implementing them to actually do so. Perhaps the most obvious example is the new coal mine in Cumbria. If investors, even those as far away as the Caymans looking to avoid tax on their profits, felt a high degree of certainty that the project was going to be cancelled in two years, would they really still invest? Even in the public sector, why rush to make things happen now when you know that they’ll only be reversed in a matter of months? Labour’s unwillingness to use that power is astounding – and more than a little worrying for those of us who want to see significant change rather then mere tinkering.

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