Nursing a sore spot for Government

By Liam Baker

A pay rise called “a pathetic and bitter blow” to Britain’s health workers, rising discontentment among the nursing profession, a Tory government unwavering in its course of action, and a Labour leader unwilling to back the strike action of the nurses. All of this may feel very familiar, but this isn’t the Britain of 2021. Instead, it is 1988 and the pay rise is 3%, the Tory government is headed by Margaret Thatcher, and the Labour leader is Neil Kinnock.

The story of the 1988 nurses’ strike is an oft-overlooked chapter in the history of Britain in the Eighties, not least because it was industrial action taken predominantly by women, but it was far more consequential than its historical obscurity suggests. While the industrial action was inconsistent and scattered, that only around 2500 nurses officially went on strike (with 6000 others supporting the strike unofficially) made little difference to the success of the nurses in that fight. Their disagreement with the government was over a 3% pay rise and the implementation of regionally variated wage increases, alongside general protests over the perceived underfunding of the NHS under the Conservative government. The government refused to veer from its position, with health minister Tony Newton stating: “Wage rises of just under 3% would compensate the average earner for price rises over the last 12 months”. The government believed it was being as fair as it could be, while the nurses continued their fight against what they saw as an insulting wage increase. It was practically unprecedented for the nursing profession to take such action and even led to the Confederation of Health Service Employees holding a ‘day of action’ on the eve of the 1988 spring budget.

With the current government set on a collision course with the nursing profession over a widely condemned pay rise, the parallels are hard to ignore and the hard lessons of that industrial action may well be learned once again. Boris Johnson is offering an even lower rise compared to Thatcher in 1988, with wider pay freezes across the public sector and the added pressure of Britain’s COVID-19 experience helping the nurses’ case among the public. He and his government are picking a fight with a profession that has a huge appeal among the public and has done for many years. The Royal College of Nursing is prepared, with a strike fund worth £35 million, to take whatever action it sees fit in the interests of its members. The odds, it would appear, are stacked against the government. When nurses tell of their need for greater compensation for their difficult jobs and when the head of NHS England says that the government was planning a wage increase of 2.1% before the pandemic, it doesn’t make sense for the government to really believe the public will side against their carers and health workers.

We live in a society where 93% of people trust nurses to tell the truth. The figure for government ministers? 16%.

Many controversies and difficulties have come and gone in the past two years of Boris Johnson’s government. Nothing has quite managed to weigh him down and the Prime Minister has emerged unscathed from many a challenge. But, as we move out of what many hope will be the final lockdown and into a definitively post-COVID Britain, the government looks as if it might well blunder and bluster its way into a battle with stark historical parallels and no guarantee of success.

In April 1988, the pay review body recommended a new clinical grading structure with pay increases averaging 15% for nurses (and even more for specialists). It might not have brought down the Thatcher government, but it gave a bloody nose to the Iron Lady and proved that industrial action wasn’t always a losing bet when it came to fighting the Conservative government of the 1980s. Might history repeat itself once more? Only time will tell.