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As British workers reach their limits, the government has no choice but to negotiate | John Harris

AAs the huge wave of winter strikes continues, the government appears to be suffering from the political equivalent of snow blindness. The general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing said she would ‘press pause’ on its members’ impending departures if ministers finally talked about pay, but at the time of this writing the response was still a sort of banal stubbornness: To add insult to injury, on Sunday the Health Secretary signaled that although he is still not getting involved in pay talks, he might be able to help with free parking for NHS staff . The great fear that haunts Rishi Sunak and his colleagues is obvious: if they talk about money with the nurses, who will be next? RMT’s Mick Lynch, who recently called for a one-on-one meeting with the Prime Minister, knows the answer to that question. And so the whole awful drama continues, revealing not just the fury and fear at the top, but the government’s collective bewilderment.

A maddening thought clearly shakes the minds of conservatives: This wasn’t supposed to happen, was it? More than four decades have passed since Margaret Thatcher began her war against the unions. Six years ago, the newly elected Conservative government led by David Cameron passed a trade union law whose tough new restrictions on strikes looked like a belated conclusion to what it had started. And yet here we are facing what the Daily Mail calls a “calendar of chaos”, with unions suddenly at the center of the national conversation.

The result is a surreal sense of denial. Ministers refuse to negotiate meaningfully and hide behind official pay review bodies. At the same time, they repeatedly interfere in discussions between unions and management, usually in the worst possible way: last week, for example, reports emerged that an offer by the railways to the RMT of a A 10% pay rise over two years had been blocked by ministers, who were staunchly opposed to such a rise, and insisted that any deal include drastic changes in working conditions. Meanwhile, enormous Conservative energy is being invested in attempts to legislate the government out of this mess, reviving the railway measures first proposed by Boris Johnson, and also proposing new laws that ban or severely restrict strikes elsewhere. .

Obviously, such desperate maneuvers ignore the depth of the crisis to which the strikes are a response, and what a historic moment this winter represents. Both are symbolized by the unprecedented NHS strikes which will begin on Thursday with a strike by around 100,000 nurses, followed by another such stoppage on December 20 and a strike by ambulance staff the following day. With the four-day railway shutdown this week and all the other strikes looming – not to mention the prospect of industrial action next year by midwives, teachers, firefighters and more – they mark the end of the political era that began with the crash of 2008, and the uneasy dawn of a new reality that our politicians show few signs of understanding.

The strikes are partly a belated response to long years of wage stagnation and successive wage freezes in the public sector. Between 2010 and 2022, wages for experienced nurses have fallen by 20% in real terms, a grim figure linked to the fact that there are now almost 50,000 vacancies for nurses in the English NHS. Starting salaries for paramedics currently average £25,600. A typical Royal Mail delivery person receives £24,600. And yes, train drivers are paid significantly more, but as the RMT has repeatedly reminded, affected railway workers include cleaners, caterers, guards, station staff and maintenance staff. Most railway workers have annual wage rates between £25,000 and £31,000: the national median wage is £31,285.

All of this points to something that most of us surely understand as a matter of day-to-day experience: the fact that our basic needs have been met on the cheap over and over again. What pretty much held it all together was the combination of exceptionally low interest rates and insignificant inflation – which meant relatively cheap goods, easy credit, and a lid on strikes and disputes. Now that that comfort is gone, a disconcerting new reality hits us, made all the more stark by the effects of Brexit.

You can feel it in the weary mood of the audience. When I visited the picket lines this year, one thing struck me time and time again: Contrary to all those headlines about “activism,” most of those involved seemed tired and exasperated. They don’t want revolution. Almost 15 long years after the crash of 2008 and all that it entailed, they would like to stop worrying and feel a little more secure in being able to feed their families, turn on their central heating and take the occasional holiday. time: another side of the story that many conservative politicians and the loud voices of the right-wing press seem to have missed.

However, the current wave of walkouts is ending – and make no mistake, strikes are always likely to provoke backlash from the public, especially when they involve hospitals and disrupt Christmas. — it’s rooted in deep issues that won’t go away, and they demand changes that affect just about every aspect of politics. At the moment, it is the Tories who do not understand this fundamental point, but if Labor wins the next election, the same tensions will run up against Keir Starmer. His apparent insistence that a Labor government stick to current limits on public spending could soon come under strain. So will its equally stubborn approach to Brexit and the European single market, for one compelling reason: if Britain is to properly fund its public services and transport and pay people what they need and what they deserve, she will have to tackle her anemic growth levels. and sluggish productivity – both of which require a much closer economic relationship with Europe than we have found ourselves with.

Other shifts are probably already there. The post-Thatcher illusion that politicians could somehow deviate from the fundamental questions of how much people are paid and the conditions under which they work has been fatally weakened by the furlough scheme, and now seems complete. Meanwhile, another conservative article of faith seems shaky to say the least: the age-old belief that unions are an illegitimate nuisance – run by “barons” and “paymasters”, and still viewed with suspicion by a majority of the public. . It turns out that lines written in the 1970s aren’t very useful in the 21st century.

Strikes and the government’s approach to them contain another big lesson. Good political leadership is not easy posturing and cheap confrontation. It is expensive and tiring; it requires a deep stoicism, a constant openness to compromise, and the underlying acceptance that the job is to solve crises, not make them worse. Do Sunak, Jeremy Hunt and the others have any of these qualities? As our unease worsens, the Prime Minister appears to have backed down, remotely insisting that people must be ‘reasonable’ and promising ‘tough’ new laws that make no difference in the immediate crisis. His colleagues have the iron neck to suggest that people who resist pay cuts help Vladimir Putin. This is not the time for such futile vanities: more than anything, this winter of strikes demands a seriousness that our political class has long since misplaced.


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