Boris Johnson and some Conservative backbenchers called for ‘Thatcherite zeal’ against the trade unions, as they renewed demands for tougher strike laws.
I’ve already had a go at Boris about this in a previous post but let’s just recap on what the current law on industrial disputes says:
- No-one can be forced to go on strike;
- No-one can be forced to be a member of a trade union;
- Unions can’t discipline people for refusing to go on strike;
- Pickets are restricted to six people so it is impossible to physically prevent people from going to work and there are criminal sanctions against threatening or intimidating behaviour;
- Those wanting to strike can’t do so without a ballot and they need to get a majority of those voting to agree with them; but
- (And this last one is really important) An apathetic majority can’t stop a committed minority from going on strike.
Now that, to me, all sounds very reasonable. If you want to go on strike, you can, if you can make a case to enough of those who give enough of a damn to vote. If you don’t want to strike, you don’t have to and no-one can force you to do so or discipline you afterwards. The old excesses of trade unionism – the closed shop, the mass pickets, the show-of-hands in the car park – have all gone.
What Boris and the self-styled new right seem to have missed (perhaps deliberately) is that this is a battle that was won by their predecessors. Industrial disputes are a minor problem now and strikes with poor support will have little impact anyway.
Chart via FullFact using ONS data.
I wonder, though, if this is another symptom of the half-remembered Thatcher mythology that led to the ridiculous shares for rights legislation. Those of us that were at university during the Thatcher years, a cohort which includes many in the government, tend to have a stylised view about Margaret Thatcher. Whatever our views, we remember her government as being more ideologically driven than it actually was. It is only with the benefit of hindsight and the insights of older and wiser heads, that we realise the 1980s Tories were, in may ways, old-fashioned pragmatists.
As the Spectator’s Isabel Hardman says, the Conservatives have been gripped by
‘What Would Thatcher Do?‘ fever without really understanding the subtleties of the Thatcher years. She quotes the venerable T. E. Utley:
When talking to her friends or addressing a party conference, she is the philosopher queen, although the impression, as far as her public oratory goes, springs rather from the manner of its delivery than from its actual content; listen hard enough and you will always hear the qualifying clauses, often uttered rapidly and with an almost palpable physical revulsion. Then something happens in the real world — the need to bring the Rhodesian crisis to an end, the need to avoid a miners’ strike before the government is ready to cope with it, the need to placate a divided Cabinet over trade union reform — and Mrs Thatcher yields to necessity, often swiftly.
Much of the ‘Thatcherite zeal’ was in the rhetoric. What her governments did was usually more pragmatic.
Worse still, though, in their attempt to recapture this mythical Thatcherite zeal, today’s Conservatives haven’t even found anything new to which they can apply it. They seem to want to fight the same old battles on the labour market and trade union reform, even though trade union laws work and our employment regulation is among the lightest in the developed world.
This is rather like re-enacting a battle or watching a football match from the days when your team were good. It’s great; you can enjoy a good fight and you know that you get to win at the end of it. But, fun though it may be, it wins no prizes. For that, you have to fight real battles and play real matches in today’s world.
That so many in our governing party want to go over old ground and re-fight old battles makes them look pretty desperate. Are they really so short of ideas that they have to summon up the ghosts of their enemies from the past? Is the ‘What Would Thatcher Do’ malaise just the sign of a party that really has no idea what to do next?