Some 50 years ago when this correspondent was barely a teenager, one of the lingering memories is of rolling power cuts in dark winter days and a seemingly endless litany of strikes that affected everything — buses, trains, coal mines, power stations. Anyone with a job, it seemed, was walking at picket line one time or another. My father, who was a postman, even did his time of being out because of an industrial action.
So it is with some turpitude that now, five decades on, the United Kingdom is once more at a juncture when its labour force seems deeply discontented, there is a chance of rolling power cuts this coming winter.
And back then, when Edward Heath was the Conservative leader and Prime Minister of the UK, there was a sense that British workers were somehow lazy, not as productive as they ought to be, and were swinging the lead when it came to making work fill the hours available.
Trains won’t be running on some days, a stop-start service that makes it difficult for rail companies to plan or for weary passengers to even think about buying a ticket. It’s the largest stoppage of trains in three decades...
Good lord, fast forward to August 2012, and one might be forgiven that the past half-decade has somehow been frozen in a time warp. It’s just been reported that Conservative leadership hopeful Liz Truss — barring something extraordinary, she will be elected by party members to replace Boris Johnson in Downing Street for 5 September — holds similar time-stamped opinions about British workers.
The foreign secretary is now sidestepping questions on whether she thinks Britons don’t work hard enough.
Published reports last week detailed a recording where she said UK workers need “more graft”. When pushed by journalists, instead of clarifying comments she had made a number of years ago, she elected to talk about her plans to create a “high wage” economy if she is handed the keys to Downing Street.
Labour — and just about most workers who are hard-pressed now to make ends meet — have called her remarks “disgusting” and deeply offensive.
The timing of the tempest could hardly be worse when it comes to optics for the government in Whitehall.
Data released earlier this week from the Office for National Statistics says that inflation hit 10.1 per cent over the most recent three-month period — a level not felt by British workers since Edward Heath was in power.
In the words of Yogi Berra, the legendary baseball manager of the New York Yankees, “it’s deja vu all over again.” According to the government’s own estimates, inflation is expected to hit and exceed 13 per cent — driven by a combination of a low pound, Brexit, labour shortages, supply chain issues, rising electricity and gas prices, and diesel and petrol prices through the roof as a result of fallout from the events unfolding in Ukraine for almost the past six months.
The government’s own price cap for electricity and gas to heat and light homes in the UK will hit almost £2,000 in October — and then hit £3,300 in January. Published reports say that 45 million people — or two households out of three — face “fuel poverty”, which is defined as being unable to pay their energy bills.
Against this stark crisis — winter is coming — both Truss and her Conservative rival, Rishi Sunak, seem out of touch and offer little to assuage the fears of Britons who face the choice of heat or eat come October. And for the past six weeks, since current Prime Minister Boris Johnson handed in his notice, there’s a sense that the UK government simply isn’t there to make any decision. It’s not as if it’s ticking over — the engine seems to have simply cut out altogether.
That’s all helping to fuel widespread labour action by employees. Train and track workers, those who deliver the mail, those who unload ships at ports — all are lining up to strike. Workers across multiple sectors are seeking substantial pay raises to offset that soaring inflation and the cost of filling up a fuel tank or a shopping basket.
Licence to pedal
Trains won’t be running on some days, a stop-start service that makes it difficult for rail companies to plan or for weary passengers to even think about buying a ticket. It’s the largest stoppage of trains in three decades, back when Margaret Thatcher was embarking on a post-industrial revolution to remake Britain’s economy. Why? Because productivity was considered to be low then. Yes — she was convinced British workers didn’t graft enough. Sound familiar?
In London, the entire bus and underground system will be stopped. Londoners will have to break out their bicycles. And even then, there’s a suggestion now from Grant Shapps, the UK’s Transport Secretary of State, that pedal bikes will need their own registration plates — just like all other motorised vehicles. That opens the door on mandatory tests to see if cyclists are capable of riding a bike, and also requiring them to be insured. Honestly, when the proposal was floated, I did a double take to see if indeed the calendar had flipped over to April 1. It appears as if only North Korea requires licence plates on bicycles, adding to the sentiment that the government has checked out already, and it makes little difference whether Truss or Sunak wins the race to replace Johnson. For Shapps, with his train service in a mess, it’s clearly a bad effort at deflection.
On Sunday, dockers at the port of Felixstowe in the east of England — the country’s largest freight port — will begin an eight-day strike, threatening to bring much of the country’s freight traffic to a standstill. Whatever goods were getting navigating post-Brexit paperwork, or getting through the sea of supply-chain issues, there will be little if anything moving for the next while.
The Royal Mail is facing a walkout of more than 110,000 postal workers, and another 40,000 workers who are employed by British Telecom, the communications conglomerate, will be off the job for the first time since the Thatcher era.
Even Amazon, the behemoth company that delivers anything anywhere, has seen workers walk out from its warehouses.
And you know things are bad too when criminal lawyers aren’t taking on new cases or making sure justice doesn’t get done in courts in England. Yes, they’re even off the job. And, winter is coming…