Have the 1990s finally ended? It might seem so – more than a million working days are forecast to be lost to strike action in December by rail workers, postal workers, nurses, border staff and more, the highest amount in any month since July 1989.
In retrospect the sharp break in patterns of union organisation and industrial struggle at the turn of that decade is immediately obvious. From the Second World War until 1990 there was not a single year in which fewer than 1.4 million strike days were taken. Since 1990 there has not been a single year in which more than 1.4 million strike days were taken. Striking used to be something people in Britain did quite a lot of; by 1979 more than half of all employees were trade union members. Then 1990 arrived and we collectively gave up.
There are multiple causes for this. The first, and most immediate, is that what had been an effective way to defend pay and conditions – even to win significant improvements – during the long boom of the postwar years turned into its opposite. Instead of regular, small-scale victories from striking, in the 1980s there was a series of long, drawn-out disputes that ended almost universally in defeat: steelworkers in 1980, miners in 1984-5, printworkers in 1986, seafarers in 1988. The ambulance drivers’ 17 per cent pay award, following a long dispute in 1989, was a rare victory at the end of the decade.
Aligned to this was a steady undermining of the hard-won legal status of trade unions and union activity. Thatcher never went as far as the economist Friedrich von Hayek urged – Hayek wanted the 1906 Trade Disputes Act repealed, effectively criminalising all strikes – but her reforms introduced onerous legal hurdles for unions and outright banned solidarity action (“secondary strikes”) and flying pickets. Tony Blair would later boast in 1997 that “the changes we [Labour] do propose would leave British law the most restrictive on trade unions in the Western world”.
As strikes withered Thatcher’s reforms had the consequence of increasing the power of the union bureaucracy, which ran the new legal systems, relative to their members. Grassroots organisation was stifled.
All this was underlaid by a spectacular shift in the balance of economic activity. Deindustrialisation – the steady disappearance of manufacturing jobs and activity – had been underway since at least the 1960s, but accelerated radically throughout the 1980s. Between 1979 and the mid-1990s, over three million manufacturing jobs were lost. The result was not only a shift in the balance of economic activity and employment towards the service sector but a shift in the location of union membership: not only declining, but increasingly concentrated in the public sector.
Today the differences are stark: 50.1 per cent of public sector workers are unionised, official statistics show, compared with just 12.8 per cent in the private sector – and even there, union membership is dominated by the formerly nationalised industries. The pattern of industrial struggle established in the 1990s – that it was infrequent, in the public sector, and often defensive and unsuccessful – has not been broken; nor, despite periodic bouts of press hysteria about union barons’ influence on the Labour Party, have workplace struggles shaped wider politics. Most workplaces today are depoliticised environments without any union representation or collective bargaining agreement, particularly in the private sector.
This sterile industrial environment – the loss of the incredible organisational and political initiative workers in Britain had previously shown – has cast a long shadow over the country. The sociologist Jeremy Gilbert has written of the “long 1990s”: the way in which the politics of that decade seemed to stretch interminably onwards, with social democratic parties such as Labour accepting the basic parameters of neoliberalism (privatisation, deregulation, low top rates of tax, enfeebled unions). He’s right about just how cloying all this was: to claim you were a socialist in the early 2000s was to be seen as an eccentric throwback, a sort of political Amish, sticking to the old ways and watching the world around you rush past. The conversion of Tony Benn, once the “most dangerous man in Britain”, to lovable national treasure was part of a process by which the left itself was squashed into the “sealed tomb” of Peter Mandelson’s description.
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Gilbert argued that Corbynism broke this open. Seen as a long-delayed response to the 2008 financial crisis and the imposition of austerity, Corbynism forced the pace of British politics – hastening the end of public spending cuts under the opportunist Boris Johnson. However, the Corbyn movement always had a fatal weakness. Gilbert thought the 2017 general election, with the extraordinary surge in the Labour vote, represented the final end of the long 1990s. We now know that this was something of a false dawn, the hubris of that moment followed, in fairly short order, by the nemesis of 2019.
That political high point in June 2017 coincided with the lowest number of strike days since modern records began in 1887. In contrast to previous left insurgencies, Corbynism hobbled on a single leg: the industrial struggle was non-existent.
Yet after the spike in inflation and the challenge to the accepted status and role of work posed by the Covid-19 lockdowns and the furlough scheme, a new battlefield has opened up. Formal politics is clearly out of sync again: on one side, inexperienced (since no government has faced strikes like this for decades) Tory ministers and civil servants; on the other, an equally inexperienced Labour Party doggedly sticking to the long 1990s playbook. The result is a government and political system blundering into a series of large, destabilising strikes as inflation surges without any route out of the crisis.
This may yet be corrected. Figures with impeccable establishment credentials, such as Nick Macpherson, the former head of the Treasury, have called for a rapid settlement to the disputes to prevent a prolonged, damaging conflict. The threat of a “wage-price spiral”, once trumpeted by everyone from the prime minister to the governor of the Bank of England, is even being dismissed by monetarist economists such as Charles Goodhart.
A government smarter than this one would learn from what Thatcher actually did, rather than relying on an ideological fairy tale: it would pay off difficult opponents, such as the nurses, and then act to break longer-term troublemakers such as the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union and the Communication Workers Union.
The real danger, however, is that ministers have already misjudged the moment – blundering into a series of winter strikes with few options beyond paying off at least some workers, and so setting a clear example and precedent for the rest. Smaller, private-sector strikes, notably by lorry and bus drivers, have already led to inflation-linked pay rises (11 per cent in the recent case of Metroline).
But if the long 1990s are finally killed, it may be in the moment when a panicked government resorts to a late, grudgingly offered pay award, and the rest of us see a graphic demonstration that striking can, in fact, work.
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