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Government faces Christmas of chaos as further industrial action is announced

By George Esmond
08 December 2022

By George Esmond

Christmases in the 2020s have been anything but normal. After the last two festive periods saw the nation confined to their homes as a result of the pandemic, the public is faced with the very real prospect of a Christmas wrought with strikes and industrial action as the cost of living continues to soar.

While the RMT and Mick Lynch have continued to be at the forefront of industrial action in recent months, yesterday it was the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) taking centre stage as Border Force staff, passport control staff and other civil servants announced strike action over the coming weeks. The scale of industrial action means that Britain is facing something not far short of a general strike and provides a real test for the government against the backdrop of a bleak economic climate.

The fall of Boris Johnson’s hap-hazard approach to governing and Liz Truss's bazooka-style technique to leadership led to Rishi Sunak heralding the return of a “grown-up”, managerial style of politics to Downing Street. With the markets assured in the short term by Jeremy Hunt’s autumn statement, Sunak’s stability, fiscal orthodoxy, and sensibility looked like a starting place to build a platform over the next 18 months and face Labour at the next election.

However, the Prime Minister risks alienating much of the public sector, key electoral pockets of the UK, and the majority of the public with his one-dimension approach to public sector strikes that becomes an increasingly nuanced and complex issue as each day passes.

The original strategy took a strong negotiating approach to the rail unions, echoing Margaret Thatcher’s triumph in 1979 when the argument that unions were “holding the country to ransom” – a line repeated by ministers this week – helped contribute to a Tory landslide.

Originally, this approach by Sunak was widely supported by the public, with the focus on Christmas plans in ruin by rail unions taking a Luddite approach to any change, flexibility or job losses. Over the summer, the government had been effective in communicating some of the demarcation rules still in practice that has made restrictive practices a hallmark of British industrial inefficiencies: Railmen based at King’s Cross in London cannot be switched, if needed, less than a mile away to Euston; alongside a lack of flexibility over working patterns over the Christmas; and wider concerns around the modernisation of Britain’s rail network. These were coupled with a narrative that the government bailed out the operators during the pandemic to keep trains running and preserve the jobs of rail workers at a cost to the taxpayer of £600 a household.

However, as more strikes were announced, the idea to double down and paint the whole public sector with the same brush seems to have backfired. Plans to extend existing legislation - potentially applying further limits on strikes to areas such as the emergency services – risks alienating those very key workers who were on the frontlines during the pandemic. Latest polling from YouGov shows a steady increase in public support for the rights of nurses to strike, and a fight with the most trusted profession in society is one that the government is unlikely to emerge victorious from.

A frequent tactic used by the government has been one of framing these as ‘Labour’s strike’, or the ‘Labour-backed strikes’, aiming to position Labour against the public and Sir Keir Starmer as scarcely different from his predecessor. Starmer’s insistence that members of the Shadow Cabinet do not attend picket lines earlier in the year came as a frustration for many of the left. However, Starmer will be hoping that the tone adopted in response to the strikes is one much more in tone with the wider public: sympathetic to the wider economic challenges facing working people, while also critical of the government for allowing the situation to get to this point.

What is certain is that as the cost of living continues to soar, industrial action is again a regular part of British life and disruption is the new normal. The public may forgive the government for losing two years of festivities during a once in a generation crisis, but with the whole country set to be ground to a halt over the coming weeks, is it a case of three strikes and out of government?