As cost of living crisis rages, Tories are discovering that bashing trade union leaders like Mick Lynch no longer works – Joyce McMillan

It's a bleak midwinter across the UK, no question. Yet as the merry banter about who can last longest without switching the heating on tails off in the current cold snap, there is still some seasonal entertainment to be had; not least from the grimly fascinating spectacle of UK public debate trying, and often failing, to make some kind of long overdue left turn, away from the Conservative mantras and orthodoxies that have so obviously landed the UK in its current mess.

This winter’s crisis essentially threatens two key pillars of that familiar Tory orthodoxy; and the first is the idea – sacrosanct in middle Britain since the 1980s – that strikes and strikers are always bad, and need to be defeated.

A recurring theme of recent media debate has therefore been the sight or sound of comfortably middle-class media figures trying to deploy the familiar arguments of the last 40 years in their interviews with trade union leaders, and somehow failing to gain the usual traction. From Richard Madeley’s “rant” at RMT leader Mick Lynch on Good Morning Britain, to Today programme ding-dongs with Lynch and Royal College of Nursing leader Pat Cullen, there’s a sense that the old triggers for anti-trade union sentiment are not quite working any more, in at least three ways.

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First, it is obvious to most ordinary Britons that the economic policies of the last decade have left them in many ways worse off; and that their pay is now completely failing to keep up with soaring inflation. Reality bites; and when union leaders speak up for low-paid railway workers or healthcare staff, tens of millions across Britain now hear not enemies of the people, but voices simply telling it like it is, for hard-pressed ordinary workers.

Secondly, this time around, the Tories have overplayed their hand by trying – even in these amnesiac times – to engineer too swift a transition between the image of NHS staff as angels of the pandemic, applauded weekly by a grateful nation, and the idea that they are now greedy and heartless political troublemakers, damaging patients to benefit themselves. The band, as they say, played believe it if you like; and most people don’t believe it at all.

And finally, there is now a new generation of trade union leaders who, when challenged with these and other lines, simply do not back down. They don’t apologise for their own decent salaries, they don’t apologise for fighting for their members’ interests, and they don’t hesitate to blame government for the parlous and hollowed-out state of the services in which their members work. For the first time in decades, some trade union leaders are becoming household names again, in the UK; and if Conservative politicians and their media friends dislike this development, they have no-one to blame but themselves, and their own misguided policies.

All of which poses considerable challenges to the Labour party, itself now caught in a head-lock of centre-right orthodoxy that was only intensified by the trauma of the Corbyn years. If the public is beginning to warm to trade union action for the first time in decades, Keir Starmer and his colleagues seem determined to remain well behind that curve, staying off picket lines, and refusing to support union demands. And they are equally unwilling to challenge the other key pillar of right-wing orthodoxy that is coming under threat, namely the absurd notion that the national finances are just like a household budget, and that we therefore “can’t afford” to offer public service workers a pay rise that will keep pace with inflation, far less compensate for a decade of real-terms pay cuts.

The UK Government claims that a ten per cent public sector pay rise would cost £28 billion; a figure so questionable, and so determined to treat spending on ordinary British workers as a dead loss, that it does not even take account of the immediate tax take that would return to the public purse, far less the huge positive impact that a large increase in low public sector pay would have on struggling local economies across the UK.

For the first time in decades, union leaders like Mick Lynch, of the RMT, are starting to become household names again (Picture: Dominic Lipinski/PA)For the first time in decades, union leaders like Mick Lynch, of the RMT, are starting to become household names again (Picture: Dominic Lipinski/PA)
For the first time in decades, union leaders like Mick Lynch, of the RMT, are starting to become household names again (Picture: Dominic Lipinski/PA)

Yet Starmer’s team remains so terrified of the false allegation that Labour in government is wasteful of public money, that it simply dare not challenge the framing of this decision, even after a period in which the current government was able to “afford” similar sums for lucrative pandemic-related contracts awarded to wealthy Tory friends, most of whom doubtless off-shored the money, and some of whom proved unable to deliver any usable goods or services at all. That was a “dead loss” in public spending, all right, and lavishly financed by a magic money tree that has suddenly disappeared again, just when Britain’s ordinary workers, and our vital and struggling public services, need it most.

We find ourselves in a moment, in other words, when England’s political pendulum is swinging at last, leaving the Tories marooned, and the middle-ground Labour leadership looking, if anything, over cautious. For those of us in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland who have always rejected the current generation of Tories and their ideological nonsense, it’s a change that seems late in the day, and still subject to frightening levels of resistance.

Some kind of battle for the future of England is now joined, though, between the forces of privilege so long accustomed to controlling the narrative and language of political debate, and those who now openly challenge them. And on the outcome of that struggle, as ever, will depend the future of the Union, as the people of the three other nations look on, and assess whether there is any chance of a shared future founded on the basic principles of justice, equity, accountability, and respect – or whether, in the age of Sunak and Starmer, any coming change is likely to be too little, and very much too late.



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