The junior doctors’ strikes this week will emphasise just how much has shifted in a year. Until recently bosses, ministers and trade union leaders thought big strikes in July were a real rarity.
Now not only the junior doctors—but the hospital consultants too—are set to be out this month. And there are Tube strikes, a new rash of action on the buses, bin workers’ battles, continuing turmoil in the universities. This week there are two indefinite walkouts at St Mungo’s and Brighton University.
The Tories didn’t think it would be like this. They confidently expected to face down any widespread resistance to real-terms wage cuts even though prices were going through the roof.
The failures of trade union strategy mean there have been very few clear victories, and certainly not in national battles. The strikes have been too limited, with long gaps between them and disconnected from each other. And union leaders have been ready to accept bad or, sometimes, appalling deals—such as in Royal Mail.
But the readiness to fight is largely undimmed. Workers again and again vote to keep striking. The disappointing ballot results among Unison members in local government are an exception.
The Financial Times newspaper commented on Monday, “If anything, workers’ expectations are higher than they were a year ago.”
The potential still exists for a much higher level of resistance, and successes could transform the balance of class forces.
One danger is that union leaders settle for implementing the recommendations of the pay review bodies. These are expected to call for rises higher than the government originally wanted, but lower than inflation. That means pay cuts. Yet NEU leaders were enthusiastic last week about such an offer.
The resilience of workers involved in the strikes comes as Rishi Sunak faces a looming new scale of political crisis. Labour is ahead in the polls for a by-election in Uxbridge and South Ruislip on 20 July. This is the seat previously held by Boris Johnson with a majority of over 7,000.
The Tories could also sensationally lose by-elections on the same day in Somerton and Frome—Tory majority over 19,000—and Selby and Ainsty which the Conservatives won by more than 20,000 in 2019. A fourth by-election is in prospect after a parliamentary watchdog recommended an eight-week suspension for the former government whip Chris Pincher last week.
Its report said, “We have found that Mr Pincher groped two people and that this was unwanted, inappropriate, and upsetting”. There will be a fifth if Nadine Dorries ever implements her threat to leave parliament.
Many Tories are resigned to their fate. Andrew Rawnsley, the Observer newspaper’s chief political commentator, went to the summer party of the right wing Spectator magazine last week. There “one former cabinet minister inhaled a glug of champagne before saying, ‘Obviously, we will be out. The question is whether it will be for five years or ten’.”
It’s time to seize the moment and make this is a very hot summer of strikes for the Tories.
The NEU education union leaders are backtracking on the battle over pay and suggesting a below‑inflation deal could end the fight. As NEU members were taking to the picket lines on Friday of last week, joint general secretary Mary Bousted told BBC Radio 4 that the government must publish the school pay review body’s recommendations. She said, “If it is 6.5 per cent, I believe that this would stop.”
Later in the day, a joint press statement from Bousted and fellow general secretary Kevin Courtney said if the 6.5 percent “were properly funded” it “could bring the dispute to a close”. Debs Gwynn, an NEU national executive member, told Socialist Worker that accepting 6.5 percent “is not something we’ve even discussed.”
“All along we’ve been looking for a fully-funded pay rise in line with inflation,” she said. “It’s not up to the general secretary to go against that to say what members will accept.”
NEU national executive member Chris Denson told Socialist Worker, “Our strike has been about school funding, but also rectifying a decade of pay cuts for teachers. My pay is more than 24 percent lower than 2010 and 6.5 percent is still a way from an inflation‑beating pay resolution. We have to beat the ballot thresholds in the re-vote taking place now, and seriously escalate our action.”
The NEU, alongside three more teachers unions, is balloting members in England over action in the new school year. With action also possible in the universities and further education colleges by UCU members, the whole of education could be out.
Labour is reacting to the Tories’ crises by posing more and more as a reliable alternative for the ruling class. After Starmer’s attendance at Rupert Murdoch’s summer party, shadow cabinet members Wes Streeting and Jonathan Ashworth were at the Spectator one.
The Guardian comments, “Another senior MP who attended noted that nothing better illustrated how far Labour had come since the days of Jeremy Corbyn than his party’s heavy presence on such summer evenings where the champagne flows.”
There is no radicalism from Labour. Shadow ministers are told week after week that there is no money by the shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, Pat McFadden. This week Ashworth was expected to make a speech in which he will unveil plans to use artificial intelligence in the welfare system to increase efficiency and save money.
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