Tuesday 20 December 2022

Sunak's War on Striking Workers

The nurses have spent another day out on strike. On Wednesday it's the turn of ambulance workers. This is against a backdrop of postal workers striking, rail workers striking, civil servants striking, and border staff striking. The New Year can look forward to higher education staff walking out again (hello!), as well as all these workers ramping up their action. By the time Spring comes around, it'll be more a case of which sections of the work force haven't taken action. And Rishi Sunak is loving it. Assailed from all sides, the government are trying to make saying no a virtue.

While polling on other workers walking out is mixed, there is obvious public backing for the nurses' claim. Most people have an awareness of the pressures in the job, regard it as a calling rather than a career, and that they put everything on the line during the acute phases of the pandemic. This is reflected in the coverage of the dispute. Can you remember the last time the BBC gave striking workers sympathetic coverage? Or when the Daily Express backed workers taking action? Two Tory MPs, Jake Berry and Dan Poulter, have called on the government to reach a settlement, and other establishment figures are likewise weighing in with similar sentiments. And this has led to some confusion among politics journalists.

Take, for example, The Graun's Richard Partington. Looking at the small print of the pay recommendation by the NHS Pay Review Body (the "independent" committee which is the government's convenient scapegoat for holding out), he rightly notes that they too acknowledge that raising pay is unlikely to have an effect on inflation as its drivers have nothing to do with wages. But for Richard and not a few others, it makes no sense. There has been a modest recovery in the polls for the Tories, but following rebellions on housing and onshore wind - which Sunak had no issue caving in to - it makes no sense why he'd burn through political capital facing the nurses down. And likewise, seemingly content with cratering the economy (for the second time in a year) with his intransigence over the railways. What's going on?

Sunak appears to be acting against the tenets of capitalist realism. I.e. Keep the economy growing, investments flowing, and markets healthy. But he's not. Always overlooked is the fact capitalism is an extractive, exploitative system. What's missing is an appreciation of bourgeois realism, the maintenance of the class relationships that produce surplus labour and surplus value. For this to run smoothly, the ruling class of this country long ago decided that they should keep trade unions - the collective strength of the workers - shackled, and the demands and politics corresponding to it driven out of popular discourse. No tactic is too low or scurrilous, and no lie is too absurd to achieve this aim. It's no accident that as the strike wave built up during the Autumn and into Winter the Tories and their press helpers launched another campaign against asylum seekers "illegally" coming here. Their very own game of D&D: distraction and demonisation.

Sunak's project, if it can be called that, is concerned with overseeing the depleted and depleting state. His strategy is an attempt at depoliticising politics. I.e. If state institutions break down and don't work, if you can't even get a passport on time, then fewer and fewer will look to government and state action to step in and solve our collective problems. It can't ever be entirely successful, but it doesn't need to be. It's like the Tories have looked at the well-developed and often discussed concerns about hollowed out democracy and are actively set on reproducing these conditions. Cynicism about politics and mass non-participation favours the Tories, as long as the elderly can be relied on to turn out.

Of all the available alternatives on offer this Summer, no Tory leader would have differed from Sunak's approach. Conceding ground to the rail workers, the nurses, and telling Simon Thompson to knock off refounding Deliveroo with Royal Mail branding would be a major reversal of 40 years of industrial policy. It just so happens the Prime Minister is particularly committed to doing nothing. But this inflexibility has invited multiple disputes, that can only get more bitter and bite deeper the longer Sunak holds out. It's a pivotal moment for him, the Tory party, and his class, and any concession extracted from the government from any group of workers will show what the Tory cabinet discovered in July. That collective action works. And we can't well have that.

Image Credit


Shai Masot said...

I agree with all of this but I also think that with Starmer and Streeting it's more about getting the NHS ready for privatisation. Low paid workers mean bigger profits. Crushed workers can't resist. Streeting will present pivate healthcare as a system which offers future stability.

Blissex said...

«Always overlooked is the fact capitalism is an extractive, exploitative system.»

The many millions of lower income people whose real wages are stagnating or falling and whose real housing costs have been rising relentlessly are surely already aware that "the economy" is mostly about screwing them, and the several millions of upper-middle class and upper class people who are enjoying their booming living standards are equally aware that their surging property gains and finance fees etc. are extracted from the workers and renters/buyers/upgraders.

So I wonder who might have been alaways overlooking that, and to whom our blogger is addressing the righteous denunciations of the class interests of the "sponsors", MPs, members, voters of the Conservatives (and LibDems and New Labour) party are addressed to.

Sometimes I am thinking that righteous denunciations are often a characteristic of fabianism/labourism, which might not be the case here as our blogger seems to dislike what he thinks are the fabianism/labourism of Keir Starmer :-).

As to me, what I find usually overlooked is that a large minority, and perhaps even a plurality, several millions, of voters who like that “capitalism is an extractive, exploitative system” as they reckon they are doing the extracting to their own benefit, it is no longer just a small minority of capitalists in top hats and overshoes and smoking cigars, it is also retired carpenters who have joined the rentier classes:

«who bought his council house in Devon in the early 80s for £17,000. When it was valued at £80,000 in 1989, he sold up and used the equity to put towards a £135,000 fisherman’s cottage in St Mawes. Now it’s valued at £1.1m. “I was very grateful to Margaret Thatcher,” he said.»

and many New Labour members of course:

I raised the problematic policy on my CLP Facebook group. I was stunned by the support for the policy from the countless landlords who were Party members! "I can't afford to give my tenants a rent holiday" "This is my pension, I'll go bust" etc etc. Absolutely stunning. I had no idea how many private landlords there were in the Party. Kinda explains a lot...

Blissex said...

«the class interests of the "sponsors", MPs, members, voters of the Conservatives (and LibDems and New Labour) party»

And I just look at "The Guardian" and it reports that New, New Labour is targeting committed rentiers (more "faragist dads" than "centrist dads") as their core constituency:

Party sees identifying 50-year-old male home-owners as key to electoral success
this archetypical voter as male, 50 years old, without a university degree but with a decent job in the private sector and, crucially, a homeowner with a mortgage. This person almost certainly voted leave, Ford added, explaining Labour’s insistence that it will not take the UK back into the single market. [...] By May this year, the Tories were down by 22 points among those voters. But Labour was also down just over a point, with 15% saying they simply do not know how they will vote next time. Appealing to those voters means not showing any sign of wanting to renegotiate the Brexit agreement with the EU, say party insiders – hence Starmer’s unwillingness even to accept that returning to the single market would boost growth. Ian Lavery, the MP for the north-eastern seat of Wansbeck, said: “Lots of Labour-supporting Brexit voters at the last election thought that our position on Europe was basically telling them that we thought they were wrong. We need to win back trust with exactly those people.

I am particularly (not) amused by this:

«winning over middle-aged mortgage man [...] also means tapping into the sense of financial insecurity exacerbated by this year’s mini-Budget and the subsequent spike in interest rates.»

Because the approach chosen seems obviously not the social-democratic one of offering reciprocally advantageous collective security in the form of good wages and decent pensions, but of cheaper mortgages and bigger capital gains, both by extractively exploiting, directly or indirectly, those poorer than them. Not surprising.

Zoltan Jorovic said...

This sort of targeting policies at specific interest groups is where the FPTP dual party system leads. Large elements can be ignored as they are perceived as having nowhere to go. Anyone slightly left of centre , it is believed, will vote Labour regardless, so focus on those groups that can be prised away from the Tories. It makes sense if your view of politics is that its not about ideas, or principles, or about a vision of society, but simply about who wins.

In fact, the system leads to this type of thinking, and against an approach based on what sort of society would be best for the greatest number. Those who succumb to it tell themselves they are realists, and that you have to win to make changes. But they then offer no real changes because to win under this approach requires more of the same. Meanwhile, people want change, but are confused about what sort of change. All the sources of mainstream info tell them that what is needed is a few small tweaks to the existing approach - more of the same, but pushed further, faster, harder.

The underlying message is that Society is made up of winners and losers. Trying to expand the pool of winners is the "progressive" approach, while increasing the size of the win is the "regressive" tack. Anybody who suggests that society should be about ensuring everyone has enough, within the limits of what is sustainable, and that winning and losing are signs of failure because it takes a shared endeavour and makes it a zero sum game, is demonised.

The existing system ensures we oscillate in a narrow band of possibility, never able to escape to real solutions.

Blissex said...

«This sort of targeting policies at specific interest groups is where the FPTP dual party system leads. Large elements can be ignored as they are perceived as having nowhere to go. Anyone slightly left of centre , it is believed, will vote Labour regardless, so focus on those groups that can be prised away from the Tories»

That is the approach well described by Peter Mandelson himself:

“British elections are won in the center ground inhabited by a good 15 percent of the population who do not necessarily lean left or right. Those people want to be convinced of a party’s leadership, economic competence and sense of fair play. If a party aims its policies at only one section of the electorate, this will not be sufficient for victory. You have to be able to draw voters from the center to your side, especially in a campaign’s final days.”

But I personally think he was prevaricating, because I think this is not quite right:

«It makes sense if your view of politics is that its not about ideas, or principles, or about a vision of society, but simply about who wins.»

That may be true of the middling figures, like Umunna or Streeting, who may believe or make themselves believe their arguments.

But for the more insightful people like Mandelson or Blair I think the “15 percent ... from the center” is an excuse, because of the politics, not because of the opportunistic being about “simply about who wins”:

* That “15 percent” like the “50-year-old male home-owners” brexiters is always invariably thatcherite.

* They are always pursued by promises to out-thatcherite the Conservatives (e.g. Starmer's promise that local communities will have absolute veto on new housing).

* Even when the politics of those currently hard-right voters could be changed, because their political demand is not necessarily for booming house prices, cheap mortgages, hard-brexit, and screw-everybody-else, but for a good living with some security, which could be offered to them via better wages and more secure jobs and cheap and secure rented housing.

I reckon that the strategists like Mandelson and Blair (and to some extent Starmer) start with a desire to push thatcherite policies, and then claim that only by pandering to thatcherite voters can elections be won (a strategy of deliberate PASOKification).

The obvious evidence for that was the huge vote collapse for New Labour 2001-2010, losing 5 million votes, to which New Labour responded by shifting policy ever more to the right, even as the Conservative votes collapsed even more as they tried to move even more to the right.