After he wisely cautioned the government against further trade union legislation a few years ago, Norman Tebbit changed his tune in the Telegraph earlier this week. In a piece which summoned up the ghost of militancy past, he backed proposed new laws on strike ballots and warned of “irresponsible minorities of trades unionists in the public services engaged in blackmailing their employers into pay rises or other concessions”.
I’ve discussed the legal aspects of strike ballots at length on here. Whether or not they are irresponsible, a minority of union militants can’t force a majority to take industrial action. Lord Tebbit knows this because he was a member of the governments that put a stop to the closed shop, mass picketing and the disciplining of union members for refusing to strike.
A lot has changed since the 1980s. As luck would have it, the ONS released the latest data on labour disputes yesterday. Its records go back to 1931. (See Table LABD01 here.)
To say that the number of days lost to industrial disputes is at an all time low is something of an understatement. Compared to most of the last century, strikes have almost become extinct. They are no longer a feature of our industrial relations landscape.
The decline in industrial militancy is not recent. Strikes have been historically low for the past 25 years. There were fewer days lost to strikes last year than there were during the backs-to-the-wall days of 1940. Whatever else is going on in the UK economy, there is no labour disputes crisis. To suggest that urgent action needs to be taken against trade unions is either delusional or mischievous.
Perhaps the clue is in this sentence:
If my friends really want to win the election in May they need to move the debate back onto Conservative strong ground.
It’s a battle the Conservatives won once before so they are hoping they can stage a re-enactment. I’m not convinced this is strong ground any more though. While we still hear about industrial disputes, few of us are directly affected by them and even fewer participate. If you’d asked a random sample of people in 1980 if they knew anyone who’d been on strike, you’d have found plenty who did. Ask the same now and you might struggle to find anyone at all. Strikes just aren’t part of our world any more.
There is no practical reason to change the law on strike ballots. You only have to look at the figures to see how much has changed. This is solution without a problem. The Conservatives are picking a fight with an extinct monster.