As a cold snap sets in, the heat has been cranked up on Britain’s escalating industrial relations crisis, its worst since the infamous Winter of Discontent 44 years ago. Teachers across England and Wales have voted for strike action, raising the spectre of picket lines next month at school playgrounds. Yet this is not a game.
Teachers join a cavalcade of public service workers striking for better pay in the midst of the nation’s worst cost-of-living crisis in four decades. Many want pay rises above inflation, which stood at 11 per cent before Christmas.
Scottish teachers are already on strike. Rail workers across Britain have been striking intermittently since last summer, although they are edging closer to a deal with rail operators, which have the government’s imprimatur for a revised offer. Nurses will walk out on Wednesday and Thursday and warn they will escalate action next month. Many ambulance drivers went on strike last week and go out again later this month. Border force staff, postal workers and driving test examiners are among those with multiple strike days planned.
So far, the public has shown remarkable tolerance for the disruption creeping into their everyday lives. Polls show that public support for striking health workers has increased despite the walkouts, although there is less backing for rail workers.
But the prospect of school closures from seven days of action in February and March by 300,000 National Education Union (NEU) teachers will test the famed British propensity for keeping calm and carrying on. Bringing children into an industrial dispute adds a new, more emotive, dimension. It could engulf prime minister Rishi Sunak’s government if it cannot do a deal to turn down the heat.
British children endured some of the longest school closures in Europe in the pandemic, missing 44 per cent of school days until the end of the 2021 school year. England’s children’s commissioner, Rachel de Souza, warned in last week’s Sunday Telegraph that strikes put vulnerable children “at risk . . . It will disrupt their learning just as they are getting back on track”.
The irony of the teachers’ dispute is that the ballot of NEU members was almost derailed by postal strikes. More than 40,000 ballots had to be re-sent, and the union barely scraped over the 50 per cent turnout legal threshold.
In most disputes, the government has obdurately hidden behind independent pay review bodies whose various recommendations for pay raises of up to 5 per cent were calculated before the cost of living crisis took off over winter. Sunak and his chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, know they must dig deeper.
Yet even as teachers plan a noisy rally in Westminster on budget day in March, another lesson will be ringing in Sunak’s and Hunt’s ears. The debacle of last September’s mini-budget, when Hunt’s predecessor Kwasi Kwarteng rattled the financial markets with £45 billion of unfunded tax cuts, showed the government does not have a blank cheque to fix its problems.
Sunak and Hunt must get their sums right to reach a deal with striking teachers and other workers, while also maintaining their government’s shaky financial credibility.