Don’t call people stupid for voting for Brexit, cried the Daily Mail. The Daily Express came up with the term Project Sneer to condemn anyone who suggested that working-class voters might have been duped when they voted for Brexit. They are “not thick, not racist, just poor,” wailed the Spectator.
This didn’t last long though. The tabloids have decided working-class people are stupid after all. So stupid, it seems, that they can be led passively into taking industrial action by union leaders hell-bent on destroying the country. Yes, folks, the union barons are back again and they are planning to wreck Christmas with a wave of strikes.
Even Number 10 got in on the act, accusing the unions of ‘contempt for ordinary people‘. However they define ordinary people, it clearly doesn’t include railway workers, post office staff, pilots and cabin crew.
The very term ‘union baron’ is an outdated slur. ‘Baron’ implies autocratic and unaccountable power. These days, union leaders are elected by their members and have to stand for re-election every five years. Furthermore, they can’t just call strikes. They have to win a ballot first. Which is where the ‘ordinary people’ come in. Even if a union leader has fantasies about bringing down the government or ruining Christmas, he can’t do it without getting a majority of his members on side.
Let’s look at what happened in the ballots for industrial action in the run up to Christmas.*
|% Turnout||% ‘Yes’ vote||‘Yes’ vote as % of all entitled to vote|
|Southern Rail drivers||77||87||67|
|BA cabin crew||60||79||47|
All were backed by large majorities of those who voted and most by a majority of those eligible to vote. All were above the 40 percent threshold in the yet-to-be-implemented Trade Union Act passed earlier this year. There is no question, then, of the legitimacy of this industrial action. If we can make the most far-reaching change to this country since the Second World War on the say-so of 37.4 percent of those entitled to vote, then surely even 42 percent is enough for a 5 day strike.
None of this is to say that the arguments of those taking action are right or wrong. I don’t know enough of the detail about any of these disputes to make a call and neither do most of the other people commenting on them. What is clear, though, is that these groups of workers know exactly what they are doing and are aggrieved enough to vote for industrial action by significant majorities. They are not being duped into it by evil ‘union barons’.
As for the arguments about it being Christmas and the strikes inconveniencing people, if you feel that you are being taken for granted, the best time to remind people of the value of your work is when they are most dependent on it. Lots of people work extremely hard to make sure we all get our Christmas gifts and get to where we are going on time. Some of them are simply reminding us that, if it’s really so important, we should be prepared to pay them properly for doing it.
For much of this year, pro-Brexit MPs and newspapers urged people to take back control. But when they try to exert a degree of control over something that directly affects them, like their pay and working conditions, they are met with condemnation, vitriol and threats. Being hard up and angry is fine, it seems, provided people don’t actually try to do anything about it.
Simon Jones wonders whether the EU referendum got people back into the habit of voting to change things:
We’re currently seeing a wave of industrial disputes – railways, airline staff, Post Office workers, airport baggage handlers, Weetabix factory workers. While some suggest this is some wave of 1970s style union militancy, the fact is that the majority of these disputes are over ‘old-fashioned’ pay and conditions matters, and they are overwhelming supported by affected staff in secret ballots. Perhaps the Brexit vote has convinced ‘ordinary workers’ that they can change things by voting?
And did it all start with Strictly?
I heard an interesting theory put forward recently (by comedian Frank Skinner) that Strictly Come Dancing led to Brexit. In the 2008 series, journalist John Sergeant was possibly the most hopeless contestant to ever appear on the programme. However despite the frequent condemnation of the dance judges, the public voted week after week to keep him in the show. Skinner suggested that it was perhaps the moment that people realised they could ignore “experts” and get the result they wanted through voting in sufficient numbers.