This week, the Royal College of Nursing voted to hold the biggest strike in NHS history over pay and conditions, while activists from Just Stop Oil have blocked part of the M25 for the second day running in ongoing climate protests.
The reason I’m putting these two examples together – striking nurses and climate protesters – is because the reaction to both of these events has a common thread running through it.
How selfish! How utterly, completely, eye-poppingly self-centred of nurses to want to be able to look after you and your sick and dying relatives in safe conditions! And to be remunerated fairly, so they don’t have to leave the NHS for a better paid job in a supermarket or get by using food banks. And to have safe levels of staffing, so that patients don’t suffer, and to be protected from abuse at work. Outrageous!
As for Just Stop Oil, can’t they just nudge powerful decision-makers into tackling the climate crisis that will – if left unchecked – probably wipe out all life on Earth by doing something just a bit... quieter and easier to ignore?
What the cries of “selfishness” directed at both nurses (heroes of the pandemic, clap on your doorstep, remember that?) – and climate activists (deadly floods and heatwaves, the planet on a “highway to hell”, remember that?) – reveal is that this country has lost sight of what direct action is actually for.
Protests and strikes are supposed to be disruptive. They’re meant to inconvenience people. If you want to draw attention to an ongoing existential issue that those in power would rather not deal with, you need to go big – or go home.
There’s far too much debate about “acceptable” protest; about demonstrating in the “right way” – which overshadows the issues at hand (just look at the Van Gogh soup debacle). This plays right into the hands of those who didn’t want to address what activists are protesting about in the first place.
Grant Shapps, once transport secretary, now business secretary (whose career trajectory is, in my opinion, evidence that the Conservative Party’s well of talent has run dry), told LBC on Tuesday that he hoped protesters would spend Christmas in prison.
Rewind to the early 20th century, put Shapps in a Rees-Mogg style top hat and he’d be scribbling pamphlets about how the suffragettes should shush or be force-fed harder in jail. Until the outbreak of the First World War, more than 1,000 women fighting for the right to vote were imprisoned in Britain.
Think of it this way: if industrial action doesn’t put anyone out – if no one is affected, no one notices, everything runs as normal – then what, exactly, is the point of it? Strikes occur when negotiations fail. Making them convenient renders them toothless, and workers completely powerless.
Who benefits from that? And in whose interest is it that working people can no longer effectively withhold their labour in a last ditch bargaining attempt for fair pay and working conditions? I find it truly disturbing that both major parties in Britain are seemingly engaged in a game of one-upmanship over who can betray working people most completely – either by out-and-out smearing tactics (those who strike are “shirkers”) or refusing to stand with them on the picket lines. Sir Keir Starmer should be reminded of the name of his party every now and then.
Grant Shapps has opined that nurses’ strikes “won’t help anyone” – well, what about nurses, their families and everyone who is looked after by them? And Starmer “understands” why strike action is happening, but won’t back nurses. Sorry, what?
The same sort of criticism on social media gets rehashed every time: motorway protests could inconvenience those who don’t “deserve” it. This is how the argument goes: “What about my friend the cancer doctor who needs to get to their patients urgently?” “What about my friend who needs a life-saving operation?”
Yet an accident (or a closure due to adverse weather conditions) would have a similar impact. And that’s exactly what is happening, right now, thanks to the climate crisis. We will continue to see more and more of these adverse weather conditions. And when our planet burns and boils and floods overwhelm us, there will be no Junction 31 for Lakeside in Essex left to drive down. Sorry.
The argument that “nurses striking will endanger patients” doesn’t hold, either. Patient safety is being put at risk in the NHS every single day by understaffing, underfunding and poor pay and working conditions.
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But don’t worry! Both Labour and the Tories are falling over themselves to condemn the people who are striking because they can’t pay their bills despite working full-time. That’s a relief. Not to mention the new Public Order Bill that will see protests increasingly criminalised and those who take part slapped with electronic tags. Phew. We finally have law and order.
Unfortunately, nurses who have voted to strike and climate activists have made one terrible mistake – they’ve forgotten that we, in Britain, are more interested in complaining about the impact of direct action (either on ourselves or hypothetically) than considering the issues at stake.
Agreeing that nurses should be paid fairly and the climate crisis addressed – but not liking the way those people are going about it, and so showering them with scorn instead of support – doesn’t wash.
If you think citizens shouldn’t have the right to protest and workers shouldn’t strike, you might just as well come out and say you don’t believe NHS staff deserve to live with dignity; and you don’t care about the planet. Say it like you mean it.