Britain’s new winter of discontent

The winter of 1978-79 broke records in the UK for both the cold temperatures and snowfall. The bitter cold also set the scene for the country’s most debilitating modern period of industrial action, as uncollected rubbish bags piled up on the streets and bodies were left unburied. This period was dubbed the “Winter of Discontent.” The chaos eventually led to a Conservative Party electoral landslide, breaking the trade unions for a generation.

However, since 2010, the unions have again been growing in prominence and this week Britain is facing strikes across several sectors, including its emergency services, public transport, border force and driving instructors, as workers who are struggling with surging inflation demand better pay and conditions. With the government unyielding and households facing the biggest fall in living standards since records began, the current winter of industrial strife is increasingly reminiscent of its 1970s namesake.

There is no doubt that, as nurses and postal workers manned freezing picket lines, the British public and Rishi Sunak’s government last week faced one of the worst weeks of industrial action in its history. Though the 2 million working days lost to strike action in recent months pale into comparison to the 29 million lost in the winter of 1978-79, the government is no doubt concerned that, without a robust response, there will be no end to the growing number of sectors demanding greater pay.

Though strike action has been going on for several months, the coordination of this activity during the Christmas period has made the impact more acute. For workers across the board, current pay levels do not reflect the dramatic rise in inflation and interest rates as the country enters recession. Amid the deepest wage squeeze in 200 years, workers are struggling with 11 percent inflation and price rises following the war in Ukraine. Having already come under strain as a result of wage freezes during the pandemic, the onset of further difficult economic circumstances has severely affected living standards to the point that strike action has become necessary for many.

For the government, the cost-of-living crisis has been an issue for the past year. The Office for Budget Responsibility is concerned that the drop in household spending power will be so acute it will wipe out the past eight years of growth. With such circumstances threatening to take the UK economy back to 2013, the government is in a bind as to how to now also deal with the strikes, which have been deliberately coordinated to bring the country to a halt.

The PM cannot afford to doggedly maintain a hard line on strikes and the disruption they are causing indefinitely

Zaid M. Belbagi

The government says the cost of raising public sector wages in line with the staggering inflation rate would be £28 billion ($34 billion) — an increase that it has said is insupportable and will likely cause inflation to spiral further. Though the government agreed to a 15 percent pay rise for barristers and it is likely to reach an agreement with nurses and other essential key sector workers, it cannot afford to raise wages across the board and its overarching aim is to hold down pay amid already high budget deficits. However, Downing Street is in a bind because, aside from the current challenges, the labor market is suffering from chronic shortages post-Brexit, while more than a decade of cuts and a lack of funding has led to unsustainable workloads across the board, contributing to the disgruntlement that is causing the strikes today.

In a more settled political environment, the government could afford to be robust over the coming months, but Sunak’s “friendless government” is fraught, having been assembled to pick up the pieces after the shambolically short tenure of his predecessor, Liz Truss, whose premiership buckled under the mismanagement of cost-of-living issues. Under such circumstances, the prime minister’s party’s support hangs by a thread.

Sunak’s handling of the industrial disputes to date has led to criticism from Conservatives who are nervous about the disruption caused by the government’s inability to end the strikes. It is not lost on MPs that James Callaghan’s government never recovered from the perception that it had lost control during the winter of 1978-79 and, within months, it was removed. Given that, due to the multitude of strikes, it is expected that the government will eventually be forced to relent on certain issues, the PM cannot afford to doggedly maintain a hard line on strikes and the disruption they are causing indefinitely.

In poll results released this week, only 29 percent of adults said they see the Conservatives as the party of economic growth and only one in five predict that they will be reelected. These concerning results, levelling them with Labour, are a blow to a party that is built on its economic credentials, and the growth of such sentiment will put further pressure on Sunak to reach a settlement with strikers.

There is no doubt that, as Britain is being hit by strikes and a cost-of-living crisis, the government is under great pressure. However, as the country braces itself for further strikes, how they affect public opinion will be critical. Strike action can only continue as long as there is public support, but after weeks of disruption public opinion is bound to sour and support for some industrial action will not be sustainable. The government is therefore counting on the planned action over the Christmas period to sufficiently alienate the public so that further strikes are called off — a gamble that will only be successful if the government does not face a rebellion by its own MPs first.

• Zaid M. Belbagi 

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