Train strikes are only the start of the showdown battering Britain

Waiting times displayed outside a hospital in Blackpool are a symptom of the wider problems blighting the NHS. Getty
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The postman was most apologetic. He’d been told to prioritise tracked letters and packages — the backlog at the sorting office was so enormous.

For weeks now, regular mail, such as magazines, has not been reaching us. We’ve been subjected to postal strikes so the post is coming in dribs and drabs. This, in the run-up to the busiest time of the year for sending and receiving greetings cards and presents.

You are reading: Train strikes are only the start of the showdown battering Britain

It’s the same on the trains. There, the service is, at best, sporadic. On strike days, the railway ceases to function. But even on the days before and after a strike, the network is still struggling as the trains are in the wrong places.

On train and tube strike days in London there is a double whammy. Good luck with getting on a bus or finding a mini cab.

Now, nurses are due to go on strike, with similar consequences for hospital appointments.

Britain is being battered by a flurry of public sector strikes. They come at a point when the country is facing the economic pain of climbing inflation. Energy bills are soaring and we’re not even experiencing the coldest weather.

Public services were creaking well before the unions staged walkouts. The post was fitful, cancelled trains were common, hospitals would call to delay a planned procedure.

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Yet, the strikers enjoy widespread public support. My wife, who would not normally show her approval, said she hooted her car horn as she passed a picket line outside the post office and received a warm acknowledging wave in return.

Mick Lynch, the rail union leader, is a celebrated figure, appearing on the TV panel show Have I Got News For You. In the past, the idea of the likes of the miners’ boss, Arthur Scargill being so feted would be unthinkable. He, like many of his colleagues, was viewed as a treacherous wrecker of the economy, a socialist firebrand who did not care for his country.

Not Lynch and co. He is spoken of as a future Labour leader, such is his calm, reasoned, manner. Lynch is not to blame. That lies with the Tories, with 12 years of Conservative misrule. They were the ones who gave us “austerity” and sent the public services plunging further downwards, with their cost-cutting measures, and that was because of the excesses of their wealthy banker friends.

Any doubt where the cause lay was put to rest by the brief reign of Liz Truss. Those seven weeks of utter chaos showcased the Tories’ incompetence and lack of fitness to govern. The mini-budget of her chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, which was skewed towards benefiting the wealthy, only served to underline where their true instincts belonged.

Britain is steeped in inequality. The strikers are popularly regarded as representing the downtrodden ordinary folk. Incredibly, as we attempt to get about our lives, as mail, transport, health all come to shuddering stops, you will rarely hear any criticism of the unions. There is respect, too, for the sacrifices their members are making, forfeiting their hard-earned pay to go on strike.

Any doubt as to where responsibility lay was highlighted by last week’s Chester by-election result. Labour increased its majority, with a percentage rise which if it was repeated nationwide in a general ballot would see them sweep to power. There was no protest vote against the party’s alignment with the strikes. Arguably, the opposite occurred, with people voting for Labour against the Tories.

Faced with the knowledge that it’s seen as their fault, you might expect the government to leap into action, to actively seek solutions to the various disputes. Rather, however, there is a sense of inaction coupled with briefings suggesting troops are on standby and High Street pharmacies will be prevailed upon to cover some of the duties of striking nurses.

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Partly, Truss’s successor, Rishi Sunak, is anxious to be hailed differently, that he is a sound, competent manager of the national purse. Therefore to be handing out pay rises when he is calling for thrift and care, sends a contradictory signal. He knows, too, that if the public workers achieve their demands, the private sector employees will follow suit. His prime objective is to bring inflation under control, not force it upwards.

Then, too, there is the desire to let this play out, to see what transpires. At the moment it’s all with the likes of Lynch and Labour. But we’re barely into winter, the war in Ukraine shows little sign of ending, the economy may worsen drastically. Why not wait and watch how Lynch and his pals are treated then?

The result is an impasse. The first cracks in the Lynch armoury may be emerging as his union’s decision this week to reject a renewed pay offer and to strike on Christmas Eve is drawing flak.

Lynch may discover how short the distance is from TV favourite to pantomime villain. And Labour leader Keir Starmer, likewise.

Both sides are gambling. The unions, with the support of their members and public — it’s quite possible that the strikers may say “enough”, that they can’t afford the continuous absence of wages. The mail, rail and health managements and ministers, in the knowledge that public opinion is fickle. The Tories hope the mood does indeed switch, that the unions are accused of intransigence and greed and Labour with them.

The tide is with the unions at present but it can easily turn. Perhaps, in Lynch’s case, it is already.

It’s a game of brinkmanship in which there is one guaranteed loser: the general public who must put up with misfiring services. Unfortunately, it still has some distance to run.

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