In an interview with Sunday Politics yesterday, David Cameron said he would not rule out banning strikes on London Underground. His rationale for this is a report from the GLA Conservatives which claims that strikes on the Tube cost London £1bn over the four years between 2005 and 2009.
Let’s deal with the £1bn first. This figure is taken from a 2007 survey by the London Chamber of Commerce which, based on the estimates of its members, concluded that a one-day strike had cost £48m. The GLA Conservatives simply multiplied that by the 20 days of strikes over the four-year period to give a figure just short of £1bn.
We have no idea how accurate a reflection of the true cost the Chamber of Commerce estimate is but let’s run with the £48m. Multiply that by the number of working days in the year and that means the value of the Tube to London’s economy is over £12bn. (This is a conservative estimate because the original £48m wasn’t based on a total stoppage.) In that context, the Tube’s £6bn running costs and £2bn capital costs sound like quite a good deal for London. I wouldn’t be surprised if the RMT used that in their next pay negotiation.
Leaving aside the spurious cost estimates, though, there is a more important question here. Does David Cameron really want to be the first British Prime Minister in modern times to ban strikes outside peacetime?
No government has outlawed strikes (apart from for those involved in law enforcement) since the nineteenth century. Not in the periods before and after the First World War, when there was fear of revolution and not in the strife-torn 1970s. Even in the troubled inter-war years, the Baldwin government stopped short of an outright ban on strikes. (Pedants may point out that the wartime strike ban lasted until 1951 but no prosecutions were made between 1945 and 1949. When two were attempted in 1950, the resulting outcry led to the order’s repeal.)
So if we can manage though such troubled times without banning strikes, where is the case for banning strikes now? We get the odd few days of Tube strikes each year. So far, there haven’t been any in 2013. Even then, it is not often that the entire network is shut down. Tube strikes are an irritating inconvenience, nothing more. To claim there is some sort of crisis that makes such draconian legislation necessary is simply scaremongering.
Furthermore, it is unfair to blame the strikes entirely on the unions. This study by Salford University’s Ralph Darlington notes that, while the London Underground unions are particularly militant, “managerial intransigence has also been a major contributory factor to encouraging strike activity.”
So what’s going on? Why promise precedent-breaking legislation over something relatively trivial? Chris Dillow thinks the Conservatives may be prisoners of their history:
Why, then, do Tories like the “comforting upholstery” of anti-union rhetoric?
One possibility is the false consensus effect; we tend to exaggerate the extent to which others share our beliefs.
Another (not exclusive) possibility is that beliefs can be path-dependent; we believe things because we used to, and continue to do so even after such beliefs have lost truth-value or utility. What’s more, I suspect this path-dependency can sometimes be transmitted from generation to generation. So, for example ethnic minorities are very unlikely to vote Tory, in part because of memory of the party’s racist past; Greeks dodge taxes because of the legacy of Ottoman rule; and Germans are hostile to inflationary policies because of memories of Weimar hyper-inflation. Perhaps Tory antipathy to unions falls into this class of beliefs – a form of folk memory that is no longer useful. We are all prisoners of history.
There may be something in this. David Cameron, Boris Johnson and some of the other senior Conservatives are of an age with Chris and me. We are the tail end of the generation that can remember the Winter of Discontent in any detail. Perhaps those memories are still strong and the leaders views have influenced the next generation of Tories.
I think Chris is being too charitable though. I prefer my battle re-enactment hypothesis. Long ago, there was this battle which our side won and the public loved us for it. If we fight it again, we’ll get to win and the crowds will cheer once more. In short, the Conservatives think that bashing the unions will be a quick win.
It might not be though. As strike activity has declined, so has public antipathy to unions. A recent Ipsos MORI poll found that union officials are now seen as more trustworthy than politicians or business leaders. This spurious crusade against the unions might not yield as many votes as the Conservatives hope.
As I have said before, there might be a case for a few amendments here and there but, on the whole, the current law on strikes is pretty fair. There is no evidence that further legislation is necessary and certainly no case for enacting the first peacetime strike ban for 140 years.