We are, if the portents stack up, heading for a Summer of Discontent. By which is meant (by some) a time of grumpy turbulence in which The Unions mount a coordinated raid on the public coffers in the hope of receiving Inflation-Busting pay-rises in return for Less Work, idle graspers that they are.
Others, however, put it differently. As inflation rises, their thinking goes, so pay must rise, or living standards will fall. And, at the bottom end of the pay scale, where the majority of unionised workers live, “living standards” are mostly made of heating, food, rent, childcare and clothing. Which are almost universally acknowledged as being essentials, so it’s hard to argue that their claims are somehow frivolous or unnecessary, given that, on average, we’ve had a decade of below-inflation pay rises, largely thanks to a productivity curve that’s been flatlining since the financial crash.
At present, the highest-profile dispute is between some of the rail unions and a diffuse mass of employers. For, of course, the railways are part-privatised. So, though the tracks and signals and stations are in public hands, they are maintained and operated by a network of both public and private companies, and the contractors they’ve outsourced their jobs to. The trains themselves are owned by rolling-stock companies, owned by a range of banks and faceless funds, and driven by employees of the train-operating companies, who exist to choose the colour of the paintwork, employ the ticket collectors and (arguably ) train up drivers for their routes.
The government is, as is its habit, is standing back and letting everyone else do the work. Which reminds me of Teresa May’s (wisely) downplayed Florence Speech , in which she went to Italy to tell the EU that (a) they needed more time to make a proper job of Brexit and (b) they needed to come up with some creative solutions to get round the problems the UK was about to inflict on itself. Though, to be fair to May, it reminds me of just about any other government wheeze ever since. To some extent, that’s understandable. The Conservatives believe in government being very, very small, and keeping out of the way. Which, if taken to its logical conclusion, means a government that does nothing; effectively no government at all. Which naturally prompts one to wonder why they ever want to be in government at all, seeing as they don’t believe in it, unless the beliefs they profess aren’t the beliefs they believe. But, for the moment, we’ll just have to hold that thought.
The unions, on the other hand, are getting involved. And Mick Lynch, the blunt leader of the RMT (a rail and maritime union) has, in recent media appearances, been emphasising the need for “constructive dialogue” .
This phrase is common enough, but it’s worth taking a moment to think about what it means. And, to my mind, it means nothing more exciting than negotiating towards a better outcome.
There are two ways to do that. There’s the rational approach (of e.g. the RMT or the EU), which is to take the world as it is, with all its complicated underpinnings, and explore ways of nudging it towards a better state. And there’s the Theresa May approach, which is to imagine an ideal future of glittering promise, and draw a red line through everything that isn’t in it. At the moment, the UK Government is taking neither, preferring to adopt a self-denying stance of pretending it doesn’t exist and has no interest in or responsibility for the outcome, while hollering across the airwaves that it’s everyone else’s fault.
This is supposed to mask, but actually exposes, one peculiar strand of Conservative thinking. And that’s the concept of a ‘flexible, mobile’ workforce in which, like the sprites in a lo-fi simulation game, multi-skilled citizens can be herded from brain-surgery to fruit-picking to lorry-driving, exactly as the need arises, trading up their houses between each and every short-term contract, effortlessly juggling their children between schools around the country, as constantly-shifting demand dictates.
This isn’t actually possible for most workers, for a multitude of reasons. Those reasons include the blunt expense of housing and education, but also the more subtle one of social obligation or, if you prefer, community. Whatever the government might think, a lot of people live where they live because they have connections within that community. This is, arguably, least important a factor in the early stages of a career, when the world is new and needs to be explored, but once you’ve settled down in a place, and made social and commercial connections with it, it becomes both harder and less necessary either to move home or to change career. What you need, if you’re going to function in a short-term, opportunistic and volatile economy, which the British economy is, is a large pool of young workers, with a wide range of talent and few strong ties. Which is exactly what we had access to as a member of a 28-nation union. And what we don’t have as a United Kingdom, where we have an ageing population and relative high costs of living (especially housing) and education.
This puts the government, should it deign to enter the debate, in a bit of a bind. For what it imagines the UK to be isn’t what the UK is. Nor is it what the UK is ever likely to become. Which means it can only ever think of “constructive dialogue” in the red-line sense, the one based on magical, necessarily-simplistic thinking that will never, and can never, work in the real world.
This is why, I’d hazard, the government is much better at announcing bold plans than it is at delivering them. The Human Rights Bill, for example, is a wonderful example. There the government had a neat, simplistic idea – that human rights should be sacrosanct only while they don’t interfere with the government’s narrative. That’s an easy thing to think, but very hard to put into legislation without ending up with the sort of labyrinthine mess they’ve ended up with. Likewise the Northern Ireland Protocol – a complex solution to a simple problem that, though carefully-crafted, the government either never understood or never intended to comply with.
In fact, many of the government’s ‘solutions’ involve some sort of illicit activity. From unlawfully proroguing parliament (a government shutting down a sovereign parliament so it can do what it likes without approval or scrutiny is a rare occurrence, outside actual revolutions, and profoundly anti-democratic), to the Rwanda plan, they’ve preferred to kick against reality than work constructively within the constraints of the world that exists.
This is very bad news. That’s because a government that refuses to understand what constructive dialogue is – negotiating to improve what already exists – is not going to improve anything. And soon it won’t just be rail workers and airline staff and barristers on strike. In a very real sense the government’s baffling “Parliament vs People” narrative  has been rumbled, and not before time.
That said, I don’t imagine, unless the House of Lords kicks off, that it’ll make any difference. What will make a difference is if the “Government vs People” reality gets traction and there are signs, despite a complicit press, that it might do. At the moment, the government and its stooges are blaming food banks on fecklessness , demanding workers show the distaste for pay rises that MPs noticeably haven’t  and punishing trafficked people for the misdeeds of their traffickers . Which is all fair enough, given they’re mostly talking to middle-heeled, undereducated voters of a certain age and exploitative habits . But they’ll need more votes than that in a general election.
Which leaves a tiny glimmer of hope that the government will start inching towards realism. Though, once they do, progress will not be quick. Remember the Industrial Strategy? Or even the Tree Planting Plan ? These things need to happen, and they need to happen fast, but at present they’re buried under the slogan-centric “Levelling Up” which is masking all sorts of government inaction, from building remediation to food production by way of transport and climate change and pollution and housing, all key government priorities that have been booted into the long grass, once the upbeat headlines were banked, as being too much like hard work. At best, the government’s so stuck in simulation mode that it really believes that foresters, or social workers or entrepreneurs will somehow emerge, fully-trained, and houses be built, if the government just ‘gets out of the way’ . In short, the strikes are just the latest example of a problem the government’s too busy grandstanding to bother with.
So I don’t expect “constructive dialogue” to happen any time soon. That’s a real-world solution, and our government, wilfully and performatively, has yet to acknowledge the real world exists.
- FirstGroup, I think it was, showed this trend could be bucked. After an inglorious spell attempting to operate the South Eastern franchise, they decided they wouldn’t bid for the contract again and, having decided that, stopped spending money on training up drivers. Which meant that when the next franchisee took over they found a shortfall which, as it takes 18 months to train a train-driver, they couldn’t easily fix. It’s tempting to blame them for not checking first, but it seems the Department for Transport didn’t check either, and passed on the bland, if mendacious, reassurances of FirstGroup.