Summer of discontent creates headaches for Sturgeon and Johnson 

Various sectors set for industrial action as the cost-of-living crisis intensifies.

Summer of discontent leaves Nicola Sturgeon and Boris Johnson with headaches Getty Images
Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon's leadership skills will be tested.

The cost-of-living crisis is intensifying and with it a whole series of headaches for the governments at Westminster and Holyrood.

Higher energy bills are now a reality and are about to get larger come October. Higher council tax is now being paid. The weekly shop now comes with blinks of disapproval as basics get more expensive. Mortgage payments are getting higher and will get higher still.

And today, we learn that filling up a tank for the average family car will now cost £100. The news is grim and unremitting and, what’s more, it will now be the staple of the agenda for the next year at least.

Faced with this battering from every side, there is now a ferment of discontent on the pay front as trade union members play hardball to prevent further erosion in living standards.

Often the issues involved in industrial disputes are more complex than the reporting suggests, which tend to focus on pay and inconvenience to the public.

Without passing judgement on the merits of particular claims, it is already clear a summer of discontent lies ahead.

A national rail strike looms on June 21, 23 and 25. In Scotland, a reduced service is currently causing havoc with travel plans as Aslef and ScotRail negotiate to get matters back on track.

And local government workers are being balloted just now, looking at targeted strike action to force Cosla to up their pay award of a mere 2%.

Not the 1970s

There is a lot of apocalyptic talk around with comparisons with the general strike of 1926 and commentators talking of a return to the industrial chaos that was the hallmark of 70s Britain.

The comparison with the 1970s doesn’t quite hold in most respects. Strikes back then were frequently political and not just industrial in nature, with large-scale walkouts boosted by sympathy strikes and mass secondary picketing.

The laws that conferred huge immunities on trade unions and which legitimised action were re-written by Margaret Thatcher’s government.

Certain actions were outlawed altogether and ballots before strike action became mandatory. Trade union membership fell in the 1980s, resulting in the big industrial battalions shrinking in size and influence.

There has been a sea change in attitudes, both at the level of trade union leadership and the nature of the demands from the shop floor.

In certain right-wing newspapers, the ghosts of Arthur Scargill, Red Robbo and the like are making a comeback as copy thunders about union militancy.

The simple truth is that whilst certain general secretaries may be bellicose and even militant in their attacks, they do not compare with those who defined the industrial and political struggles of the 70s.

Strike action was a near permanent occurrence in a way that it is not today. Those who make the comparisons could not have been around 50 years ago or they would know that employer-employee relations are now markedly different.

There is one aspect of today that does have an echo with the 1970s, and that is the fact that a cost-of-living crisis is driving a new-found militancy among rank-and-file members.

Inflation is brutal for living standards. It was a permanent problem for the governments of Ted Heath, Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan.

All of these premiers turned to prices and incomes policies as a means of halting runaway wage increases, which in turn turbo-charged inflation.

Heath failed in his ‘wage restraint to curb inflation’ policy. Wilson and Callaghan had better success before it fell apart in 1978, which in turn led to the winter of discontent and the eventual fall of the Labour government in the watershed election of 1979.

The collapse of Labour’s ‘social contract’ occurred as union members concluded they could not make ends meet with their pay. The winter of discontent was fuelled by the anguish of poorly paid workers who were faced with high inflation. And here too, there is an echo in the current cost-of-living crisis.

How does it end?

It is difficult to see how a whole series of pay disputes are adequately resolved. Cosla knows that local authority budgets will be held at the same levels in the coming years, which amounts to a real-terms cut. How do they fund higher pay with less money in relative terms?

If inflation does not fall (and it won’t until the year’s end at the very least), then a high inflation figure becomes the benchmark for submitting pay claims which for some employers are neither affordable nor sustainable.

Stalemate will be the inevitable result, and in all likelihood protracted disputes in a whole number of sectors, which is going to greatly inconvenience the general public.

The mood of union members fuels what their general secretaries say. Gone are the days when, for essentially political reasons, a union leadership would urge militancy on the members in an attempt to bring down the government.

The key question is whether the men and women who are demanding a fair wage are prepared to fight for it, knowing that the fight could be long with absolutely no guarantee of success.

I have no idea how the current situation resolves itself, but I will predict a summer of discontent which will become so acute that it will test the leadership skills of both Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon.