Both Labour and Conservative governments whose terms were completely in the 1970s were brought down by the same thing: strikes by militant trades unions. It was the failure of the governments to prevent strikes in essential services that saw them kicked out by an exasperated public. In the case of the Heath government, the public wanted an alternative ministry that could deal with the unions to keep the lights burning. In the case of the Wilson/Callaghan government, the public were disgusted at Labour’s failure to manage runaway union power and turned to an alternative ministry that promised to dominate and destroy it.
The unions have, by and large, retreated to the state sector after they were faced down by Margaret Thatcher during her government’s second term. In the absence of no-strike agreements outside of the police, the unions could regroup inside quasi-monopoly state services. They have now done so. There has been a wave of state-sector strikes threatened on the British public for over half a decade. The unions have been deterred by the knock-on effects on the Labour Party. However, since Jeremy Corbyn has now raised the party from the depths of Ed Miliband debacle to the comparative shallows of Gordon Brown defeat, Labour has lost its fear of supporting damaging strikes.
The boot is on the other foot. In 1979, a wave of state-sector strikes led to the defeat of the incumbent Labour government. Labour’s association with the unions helped keep it out of office for 18 years. The bet being made now by Labour is that this effect will work on any government. Government only by consent of the unions seems to be returning after an absence of roughly the duration of the UK’s membership of the EEC/EC/EU. It is almost as if the unions wish to fill an approaching power vacuum.
The challenge is how the government curbs the state-sector unions. The reason why unions have retreated to the non-productive part of the economy is because the private sector could use the civil courts to enforce legislation, or withdraw and redeploy their capital and make union members unemployed. Since unions can thrive only when they have members, and the taboo of unemployment was broken by the Thatcher government, the unions were obliged to surrender, lest they lose their members to the dole and thus the reason for their existence. The unions that failed to comply in the print and mining sectors learnt the lesson the hard way. The NUM is little more than a social club subsidising the lifestyles of its remaining leaders. Print unions no longer shut down newspaper production.
The lesson of the Industrial Relations Act of 1972 has to be that the state cannot directly take on the unions by criminalising their activities or using contempt of court actions to send people to jail. Instead unions have to be bypassed or fined using civil law until they cannot function. This is complicated by the fact that the unions actually run their own bank, the Unity Trust Bank, which had some relationship with the Co-op Bank before its near-collapse.
In 1974, Nicholas Ridley authored a plan to defeat the unions which was put into practice in the 1980s to destroy the NUM. However this was in the context of aforementioned widespread public disgust at trades unionism after the strikes of the 1970s, especially the Winter of Discontent. Labour were also seen as not fit for government, having experienced their worst postwar result in 1983.
The Government will always get the blame for major strikes in the state sector, as this public disgust at the unions resides only in the older generations.
The Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) suggests a series of measures to address rising union aggression, some of which are good, but include ‘starting discussions’ with the TUC to defuse tension as well as greater government consultation of trades unions. This is wrong-headed and is a recipe for surrender to mob rule. The solution is not ‘beer and sandwiches’ at No. 10 as the unions, given that they are in essence pressure groups for a socialist one-party republic, will never negotiate in good faith.
There does, however, need to be a new ‘Ridley Plan’ to outflank the unions using financial penalties, perhaps closing down their bank, and the use of non-union staff, as well as measures to curb the inevitable violence that the unions have always regarded as part of their ‘legitimate’ actions. Sending trades unionists to jail, even for murder, does not work. Public shaming of union violence, such as when a policeman at Grunwick suffered serious head injuries in front of a baying mob, is better.
As well as this, there could be better exposure of the crimes and incompetence of socialism, as well as its over-intimate relationship with dictators.
Conservatives are losing the media war. Hopefully the Twyford ‘Big Tent’ has generated some new ideas.
Wealthy conservative supporters need to spend more to get the message across that free markets work better than command economies. The unions have millions in their war chests and socialist propaganda is being pumped out and parroted by the broadcast media with few counter-arguments. There is also an element of the mob about them. They are happy to use violence and intimidation and are getting away with it. The BBC is now obliged to have bodyguards accompany its political editor to the Labour Party conference.
These questions should be posed. Is it better to do nothing and simply take one’s wealth abroad in the run-up to a Labour victory, or to prevent such a victory from happening using a hearts-and-minds campaign? Has the argument already been lost? Are the unions actually right? Is it better to wait until a Labour government starts appropriating and redistributing private property under a ‘fair shares’ campaign, or to avoid this by making better arguments? There are already suggestions that Labour supporters want to nationalise private assets and pay back only the original purchase price instead of the current value.
The CPS, Institute of Economic Affairs and Adam Smith Institute are all fine, but, in my opinion, there needs to be some kind of rapid rebuttal and advocacy campaign to defend free markets and private property. Stories posted by The Canary and Skwawkbox need to be challenged. Channel 4 News should be critiqued in real time for its bias. Conservatives need to be less Chamberlain, more Churchill.
The problem seems to be that that those in power are preoccupied by the challenges of governance and, unlike when in opposition, do not seem to have the adversarial mindset needed to deal with the unions. The unions, by contrast, are extremely adversarial, and are making all their arguments unopposed.
Conservatism is on the tracks and can see the lights of the socialist train approaching. It is now time to find out whether to derail it or accept being run over.