Voices: The government is losing the propaganda battle over industrial action

Today sees the most people on strike on a single day since 2011, as teachers in England and Wales walk out for the first time in the current wave of industrial action, along with rail workers, civil servants and university lecturers.

Despite the disruption the strikes cause, the government is losing its propaganda war with the trade unions because of its stubborn refusal to improve its pay offers.

Public support for the strikers has not fallen as ministers had expected. The unions are winning the argument by convincing people they are striking to protect creaking services as well as for more money. People can see with their own eyes the glaring problems with recruitment and retention. So the unions’ message after 12 years of austerity and in the middle of a cost of living crisis trumps ministers’ warnings that the inflation dragon must be slayed – especially when wages are rising by 7.1 per cent in the private sector, as compared to 3.3 per cent in the public sector.

A new generation of union leaders is proving more agile and clever than in previous disputes. For example, firefighters gave employers 10 days to come up with a better offer before their first strike, but will announce one on 9 February if they don’t. The second teachers' strike will be delayed for almost four weeks, putting the ball in the government's court.

Some Tory MPs tell me they think today’s strikes by teachers will prove “a turning point” in the public relations battle, given the obvious problems it will cause for children and parents – particularly as some teachers have departed from past practice by refusing to tell heads whether or not they would be on strike.

Yet the Tories may be disappointed. A majority (51 per cent) of people back the teachers’ strike, according to YouGov, while 40 per cent oppose them.

Recent polls show public backing for the strikers remaining solid, with little change between December and January. Intriguingly, YouGov found public support highest for workers people think contribute to the country – nurses and ambulance workers – and that people are more likely to back workers they believe are underpaid, such as teachers and firefighters.

Unions suspect the Covid factor works in their favour. “The public is supporting the Covid heroes who kept services going in the pandemic,” said one union official. However, there has consistently been less support for rail workers; perhaps a reflection of customer fatigue with unreliable performance on the railways; as well as the repeated strikes.

While ministers point to public support for their legislation to ensure minimum service levels during strikes in key areas, the public would rather see the current disputes sorted. The Public First consultancy found that 51 per cent believe the government should generally respond by meeting the demands of striking workers, while 33 per cent think it should crack down on strike action and make it harder to strike.

Ministers’ other hope – that Labour would be damaged by its union links – has also been dashed. The Tories bang on about Keir Starmer being “in the pocket of his union paymasters” but the Labour leader has distanced himself from the unions, refusing to endorse specific pay demands or let his frontbenchers join picket lines. Voters no longer see Labour’s links as a big deal.

Rishi Sunak insists his ministers’ doors are always open; but when union leaders walk through it, they find a minister refusing to engage in meaningful negotiations on pay. When individual ministers – like Steve Barclay, the health secretary – float the idea of a one-off top-up to recognise the living standards crisis, they are squashed by the Treasury (with Sunak’s backing).

Worryingly, ministers now seem to be playing for time. If the strikes continue into April, we will be in the next financial year. The Treasury has delayed the submissions by government departments to the pay review bodies for 2023-24. Some ministers hope a slightly more generous pay offer for that year than the 3.5 per cent pencilled in by the Treasury might end the current dispute – which are about the 2022-23 year – as unions’ strike funds are depleted, workers tire of taking action, and falling inflation makes double-digit wage rises less justifiable.

But union sources tell me this tactic won't work. As one official put it: “The cost of living crisis is now; we will not settle for jam tomorrow.” Union leaders also say the proposed legislation restricting strikes has made their members even more determined to win their pay disputes.

So ministers should negotiate seriously – and immediately – to prevent the strikes lasting another three months and contributing to a dangerous picture of a “broken Britain” that hinders Sunak’s attempts to fight back against Labour by displaying competent leadership. “There is a growing sense that nothing is working, and people are blaming the government,” one former minister said.

Prolonged strikes will also harm the Tories’ inevitable general election pitch that “things are getting better, don’t let Labour ruin it”. Instead, the strikes throw a searchlight on to the parlous state of public services, underlining Labour’s “time for change” message.