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The Guardian’s take on Sunak’s strikes: Being more inflexible than Thatcher is a flaw | Editorial


Rishi Sunak sees himself as Margaret Thatcher’s heir – but in the face of December strikes, what version of the former prime minister does he want to be? Mrs Thatcher was an ideologue who argued that the backlash against the ‘Winter of Discontent’ in 1978-79 represented a ‘radical shift’ in public opinion and a mandate to ‘clip the wings’ of trade unions. But it was also a pragmatics that in 1979 gave public sector workers a 25% pay rise – about double the rate of inflation and more than the 19% received by private sector workers – for avoid a second successive “winter of discontent”. Mr Sunak’s act of tribute favors ideological posturing over practical solutions: proposing new anti-strike laws which the Lords will not pass because he has no electoral mandate to enact them; and doubling wage restrictions for key workers.

This strategy is disastrous for the public sector – resulting in lower recruitment, deteriorating services and escalating social conflict. The Prime Minister is out of touch with a nation that is increasingly restive in the face of unreliability and the growing abandonment of publicly funded services. Millions of underpaid Britons struggling with a growing cost-of-living crisis seem, for now, empathetic to the continued strikes by the NHS, postal and railway workers, and the actions planned by the teachers and border force personnel.

When ministers sabotage a rail deal that the unions might agree to, they cannot pretend to be neutral. It is misleading to say, as the government does, that state employee pay is a matter for independent oversight bodies – when their terms of reference are set by ministers who effectively rig the outcome by handing out rewards on their terms . The result is that the biggest drops in real wages are for public sector workers and those in sectors where the government sits behind the employers, such as the railways.

It would be unsustainable in normal times for wages in the private sector to increase by nearly 7% per year while those in the public sector only increase by 2%. It’s indefensible when inflation is in double digits. Allowing public sector wages to catch up is not inflationary, nor will it trigger a wage-price spiral. In Scotland, an offer of a 7.5% increase to nurses, well below that desired by the unions, was enough to avoid the strike. Ministers have settled the criminal lawyers’ strike with a 15% fee increase. Negotiations can end disputes, but ministers don’t sit down with unions to talk money, preferring instead to call in the military – and let strikes go ahead so workers can be blamed by those who are embarrassed.

Public sector workers are demanding pay rises to match inflation, arguing they are seeing pay cuts in real terms after more than a decade of restrictions. Ben Zaranko of the Institute of Tax Studies think it would cost the Treasury around £15 billion. Mr. Sunak will not spend the money. It’s not because of an adverse market reaction or because the country can’t afford it. That’s because the prime minister’s most notable achievement is making austerity respectable in his party again, even if the electorate is unconvinced. His sleight of hand is to defend his policy of balancing the books with voters by claiming that government spending has been kept the same in terms of cash while cutting the state by 10% in real terms to appease the Conservative MPs.

Mr. Sunak’s policies have either been irrelevant to the country’s needs or harmful to its economy. It is dishonest to pretend that public services will not be damaged by using rising prices to squeeze budgets and erode staff salaries. Mr Sunak is expected to emulate Mrs Thatcher’s realism and offer inflation-proof wage bonuses to end industrial action. Otherwise, the country will hold him responsible for what risks being not just a winter but a year of discontent.



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