Voices: Rail strikers might despise Starmer – but they need him like never before

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40,000 rail workers are on strike at the moment, causing inconvenience for a day or two (Ben Birchall/PA)
40,000 rail workers are on strike at the moment, causing inconvenience for a day or two (Ben Birchall/PA)

For reasons all too obvious, I’ve been giving a bit of thought to what life might be like under Liz Truss, and concluded that, among other disturbing plans, her actual intention is to abolish the right to strike for all practical purposes.

Of course she would never admit that, because that’s not the Tory way, but the intention is perfectly apparent. It’s like the way Conservatives pretend they aren’t breaking international law with the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which is about unilaterally reneging on a treaty protocol; or that Britain can simultaneously ignore the European Convention on Human Rights while remaining a member of the Convention, because withdrawal would be too embarrassing. It’s cakeist, though that’s too tame a word for such a dangerous drift towards authoritarianism.

So it will be with industrial action. The only strikes that will be permitted under the Truss regime are those that no-one notices. It’s like their new law against “noisy” protest, which means criminalising Hare Krishna devotees as well as the cult of Steve Bray – the bloke who shouts a lot in parliament square and is now a symbol of freedom of (loud) speech – and witty cover versions of the works of the Bay City Rollers.

There is something quite demented about the Tories’ constant attempts to push the approval threshold for strike action ever higher, indeed far beyond what was required, for example, to pull the UK out of the EU, or to plonk Truss and Rishi Sunak into the final round of the leadership contest.

40,000 rail workers are on strike at the moment, causing inconvenience for a day or two, whereas not many more Tory members will be inflicting a Thatcher cosplay fan on the nation for the two years it will take for her to crash the economy and her party at the next election.

Democracy can play some funny tricks. By the way, there is no minimum voting threshold for the Tory party to be able to put an idiot into Number 10 – theoretically, a majority of one on a turnout of two members would be sufficient to put Nadine Dorries in possession of the nuclear codes.

A Truss-approved rail strike, for example, would be one where the trains basically ran more or less as normal, i.e. quite a few late, cancelled and badly overcrowded with standing room – and thus virtually indistinguishable to a normal day on Britain’s knackered rail network. People in the future might see Mick Lynch on the telly and think they’d accidentally tuned into an old episode of the children’s television favourite Thunderbirds. They’d have quite forgotten that he used to be, supposedly, the most dangerous man in Britain, threatening to grind the nation to a halt.

Indeed, Truss’ close friend and colleague, Kwasi Kwateng, a cert for next chancellor of the exchequer, is already making arrangements for agency workers to come in and cover for railway safety staff and drivers, which is just as reassuring as it sounds. It’d be like the General Strike of 1926, when toffs and PH Wodehouse-types were permitted to drive buses into telegraph posts, or dig coal, though curiously few volunteered for service down the pit. Trade unions would become quaint leftovers from a forgotten past, like friendly societies or UKIP.

But we would not be living in a free society. A free society is where trade unions have sufficient power to withdraw their members’ labour and for it to make a difference. Quiet, invisible strikes are not the same thing at all.

Ideally, the Labour Party, the political arm of the trades union movement, would be throwing its modest worth behind the RMT strikers: MPs on the (rather lackadaisical) picket lines and pummelling the bosses on social media and in the telly studios. But I agree with Keir Starmer’s approach, which is not to take sides, and take on the role of honest broker. He’s trying, correctly, to help people envisage what a Labour government would be like, and people probably don’t want a railway that is run purely in the interests of its staff, admirable as they are.

The Labour Party functions best as the “political wing of the British people”, as Tony Blair used to say, making sure the voters know that the party is on their side. Having shadow ministers such as Sam Tarry turning up on RMT picket lines is all very well, and all very performative, but doesn’t suggest the party is equally concerned about the interests of travellers and taxpayers.

At the moment the public is comparatively well-disposed to the railway workers, nurses and teachers likely to be on strike soon, and they still feel a debt for working during the pandemic to keep things running. Yet the goodwill isn’t unlimited or unconditional, and the unions and Labour shouldn’t abuse it. Nothing should be done that would prevent the Tories being chucked out next time round, their most vicious anti-union laws repealed, and the right to withdraw one’s labour enshrined in law.

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There is a parallel with history. Pre-Blair, the Labour Party pledged to repeal all trade legislation passed by the Tories since 1979, and at every general election the notion was rejected by the voters. When Blair instead promised to leave those laws broadly in place, but guaranteed a right to trade union recognition in the workplace, after a democratic secret ballot, the approach was in harmony with the fair-minded instincts of the British people.

The danger now is that the Tories, probably after an election, move to reverse the modest gains made by the Blair government, and abolish the right to recognition altogether. That would permit employers in every sector to simply notify the union that they are no longer recognised for the purposes of negotiation on pay, holidays and hours of work. It would be an even more grievous assault on workers than what is currently planned. It would be a disaster for the unions. Who would bother to join a union that the bosses don’t even have to talk to? Even if they despise Starmer, he is the only thing standing between the unions and virtual oblivion.

There is a balance to be had in industrial relations, and at the moment the stubborn, vindictive Trussites are behaving like extremists. This is not the time for Labour to ape them.

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