A LONG, long time ago, Mick Jagger, lead singer of the Rolling Stones, sang: “You can’t always get what you want/But if you try sometimes, well, you just might find/You get what you need”.

Fast forward 55 years and consider the increasingly hapless Tories.

On the occasion of today being International Workers’ Day or May Day, I’m reminded of these lyrics through the Tories’ attempts to undermine the right to take effective strike action through their Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act 2023.

The Tories have neither got what they wanted nor what they need as a result of the introduction of the Act.

The National: Prime Minister Rishi Sunak during a press conference at Western Jet Foil in Dover, as he gives an update on the progress made in the six months since he introduced the Illegal Migration Bill under his plans to "stop the boats". Picture date:

Along with “stop the boats”, deportations to Rwanda, the “war on wokery”, and now attacks on those suffering from mental health illnesses, in order to try to shore up their declining electoral base, the Conservatives have sought to create a “trade union bogeyman”.

The idea was that the Tories would manufacture and then slay the “union bogeyman” with the Strikes Act. They would then show the public that they were tough, strong, decisive and assertive.


Since late 2021, Labour have overtaken the Tories in the polls. And since late 2022, Labour have been at least double digits ahead. Sometimes it’s been as high as 20 or 30 percentage points. By-elections have confirmed this trajectory. And bashing the unions as a way to do down Labour has not worked.

The Westminster state is the “operator of last resort” in four of the 14 rail franchises in England – LNER, Northern, Southeastern, and Transpennine. You’d think that with this, the Westminster Tories would easily, and directly, have been able to get these employers to issue the “work notices” in order to maintain a minimum level of service when the Aslef train drivers’ union took multiple strike actions in January, March and April this year,. The same goes and for the planned Aslef strikes next week.

The National: LNER services from London will be affected (PA)

But that did not happen. Only LNER went so far as to say in January that it would use the work notices. Aslef then hit LNER with the announcement of an extra five days of strike action for doing that. In response, LNER backed down completely.

Neither LNER nor the other three state-owned companies have mentioned work notices since.

HR trade organisation Personnel Today in January predicted the Strikes Act could become a “paper tiger”. And it was right, because none of the other train operating companies in England decided to issue “work notices” either.

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Though they are not state-owned, they are under “management fee” contracts whereby they are paid a set sum to run their franchises. These contracts indemnify them against financial losses on strike days. In return, they are ultimately obligated to must pass control of their industrial relations on to the Transport Minister, Huw Merriman.

So the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act 2023 has not been the Tories’ expected silver bullet to shoot the unions down with – at least not on the railways. What’s the situation outside the railways?

The evidence so far is that many other employers are looking the other way to avoid further aggravating their industrial relations. This means there’s no headlong rush to issue work notices in the other five sectors which are covered by the Strikes Act: the ambulance service, border security, fire and rescue, hospitals, and schools and colleges.

The Department for Energy Security and Net Zero has no current plans for minimum service levels regulations in the nuclear sector because, it says, “voluntary agreements have worked well so far”.

Similarly, the Department of Health and Social Care says it recognises that employers may be able to secure the same level of coverage through voluntary derogations and can continue to agree and rely on these instead, as long as they are confident minimum service levels will be met.

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In schools, England’s largest academy trust, United Learning, has vowed not to issue work orders to striking staff, damning the legislation as “damaging”, “inflammatory” and “self-defeating”. United Learning runs 89 schools and employs more than 7000 staff.

In Scotland, the Scottish Government has repeatedly stated it will not issue work notices to its own employees should they take strike action, and it will not seek to compel other public-sector employers in Scotland to issue the notices either.

The Welsh Government has made similar – but not quite so firm – statements.

The National: Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer (Danny Lawson/PA)

The Strikes Act is turning out to be a dead duck, dead letter or Pyrrhic victory – take your pick. The Tories are on the way out. But Keir Starmer (above) and Labour will need to do a lot more than quickly repealing the legislation. They need to institute a positive and comprehensive right to strike in law.

Professor Gregor Gall is a research associate at the University of Glasgow and author of Mick Lynch: The Making Of A Working-Class Hero (Manchester University Press, 2024)