December 16, 2022 - 1:00pm

Limited as it is in both historic and sectoral terms, the new wave of industrial militancy is nonetheless good news for Britain. Whether it will be good news for Britain’s workers remains to be seen, depending not only on how far the strikes succeed in boosting wages but also in how they might impact working conditions this century. 

After many years of austerity and neglect, and with the remaining Covid-19 restrictions only formally ending in March 2022, the quilted pattern of strikes across the legal, transport, health, education, civil service and postal sectors show a civil society stirring back into life. More than this, it is asserting its varied corporate interests against both a decaying, over-stretched state and a political elite whose record of corruption and mismanagement appears ever more brazen. 

After two years in which so many of us were confined to our homes and reduced to working solely in the ether of cyberspace, the strikes are a salutary reminder that goods, services and people cannot simply be downloaded from the Internet — they need to be produced, maintained and transported, and it requires collective work to do so. As the nurses have pointedly told us, it takes more than clapping to maintain a public health service, or indeed any service. The strikes will benefit us all if they leave us with a more vibrant, contentious and vigorous civil society, as well as a more solidaristic and representative set of industrial relations in place of the atomised workplaces that underpin the stifling rule of Human Resources bureaucrats.   

There is also the question of how these new strikes might impact political life. Two points can be noted. First, by virtue of being large representative organisations that crystallise collective interests, unions tend to cut against populism, which is frequently hostile to institutionalised forms of representation, and which usually thrives in more fragmented societies. 

The second question is how a new wave of industrial militancy interacts with an era of party dealignment, in which the major parties no longer have stable voting blocs. One of the great gains of the Brexit era has been working-class independence of the Labour Party, as symbolised by the Tories’ capture of the so-called ‘Red Wall’ constituencies in the general election of 2019. Given that the strikes will help propel the Labour Party’s glide to power in the next election, it is all the more important that unions and strikers do not let themselves be folded back into the shadow of the Labour Party — not least given the party’s stated commitment to wage war on NHS unions, a witless, blow-hard substitute for a policy of actually reforming the health service. 

After decades in which protest politics has been dominated by carnivalesque middle-class demonstrations and public life by demands for collective self-sacrifice — whether the slogan of ‘we’re all in it together’ under George Osborne or the demand to ‘save the NHS’ under Chris Whitty — it is invigorating to see ordinary people publicly asserting their own self-interest instead of retreating before some putative greater good decided from above. 

Certainly, the Tory press and tabloids are doing Starmer’s work for him by striving to drive the strikers into Labour’s arms. In an era of party dealignment, Britain’s workers remain biddable. So the question remains open: who will speak for Britain’s working class?

Philip Cunliffe is Associate Professor of International Relations at the Institute of Risk and Disaster Reduction, University College London. He is author or editor of eight books, as well as a co-author of Taking Control: Sovereignty and Democracy After Brexit (2023). He is one of the hosts of the Bungacast podcast.