THE next major date in the continuing battle against the cost of living crisis is UK Budget day on Wednesday. Hundreds of thousands of workers will take strike action on the day in the biggest show of strength since February 1, which involved some half-a-million workers.

Wednesday’s action will see civil servants, university staff, junior doctors and train drivers among others walk out and mount picket lines.

Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt’s Budget is not expected to result in much in the way of government action that will make a difference to the state of people’s livelihoods.

The National: Jeremy Hunt

Consequently, the strikes are about trying to put pressure on the UK Government to act as well as to gain pay rises that match inflation. In Scotland, the striking of civil servants, university staff and train drivers will have an effect even though the EIS teachers’ union dispute has been settled.

As before, the howls of faux outrage from the Tories and their media allies, principally, the Daily Mail and Daily Express, will be vocal and vociferous. The accusations will again be that the nation and economy are being held to ransom; people cannot get to work; students are deprived of their education, the strikes are political, trying to bring down a democratically elected government; and so on and so on. Predictable but also disingenuous. If – and this is a very big and, of course, naive “if” – the Tories were genuinely concerned about the impact of the disruption of the strikes, they would also be concerned about a number of other issues which lead to disruption and for which they are responsible for while in government.

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Foremost among these are the millions of days are lost at work – umpteen times more than the result of strike action – through work-related illness and workplace injury.

The Office for National Statistics reported recently that 36.8 million working days were lost in this way in 2021/22 and this resulted in an estimated cost of £18.8 billion. From June to December last year, fewer than 2.5m days were not worked as a result of strikes.

Next would be the effect of low wages, leading to tens of thousands of trained staff such as teachers and nurses leaving their professions and working elsewhere where wages are higher but where their skills are often not utilised.

Not only does this create disruption through short staffing but it leads to the waste of money training these staff and the exorbitant cost of using agency staff to cover the resultant staff shortages.  

Another good example, if the Tories were not so disingenuous, would be the lack of investment in the railways.

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This means that train services are cancelled or, if they do run, do not arrive on time, so people are late for work or cannot get there at all when there are no strikes. There are many other examples that could be cited but the point has been made.

So, the Tories are masters of disinformation, misdirection and falsehoods. What lies behind all this is not just the usual union-bashing that comes out of the traditional Thatcherite playbook. It is something much more specific to the contemporary context.

The Tories are in an electoral death spiral as Labour has been well ahead in the polling for the next General Election since late 2021, with the lead stabilising at around 20% since late 2022.

With few other favourable options such as a booming economy, the Tories have settled upon creating a union bogeyman which they intend to slay as the surest way to try to resuscitate their fading electoral fortunes.

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Part and parcel of this strategy has been to refuse to settle industrial disputes, whether on the railways or in the civil service. “Hanging tough” has meant the Tory strategy necessitates prolonging these disputes for political gain even if there are huge costs to the economy and services the public rely upon.

For example, Rail Minister Huw Merriman told the House of Commons Transport Select Committee on January 18 that the rail strikes of 2022 “cost” the rail industry £25m on a weekday and £15m a day at the weekend in “lost” revenue and cited a study saying that the “cost” of strikes in terms of “lost” income and revenue to the wider economy from June to December was £700m.

When one also recalls the level of public subsidy to the rail industry, this was as good an indication as any of the lengths the Tories are prepared to go to in order to seek political advantage.

Gregor Gall is a visiting professor of Industrial Relations at the University of Leeds and author of the forthcoming book Mick Lynch: The Making Of A Working-Class Hero, published by Manchester University Press.