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Analysis | Britain’s Summer of Discontent Is Thrashing Conservatives

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At the nadir of the 1970s, when garbage piled up in streets and striking workers left the dead unburied, the UK was said to be in the grip of a “winter of discontent.” For most of the decade, the country lived with a sense of impending breakdown, brought about by unprecedented levels of inflation, union militancy and feeble government. CBS News told Americans that Britain was becoming as chaotic as Chile before the military coup. 

These memories linger in Britain’s body politic. This week, as the railways ground to a halt in a national strike, the papers warned of “a summer of discontent.” A tsunami of strikes is being threatened by public-sector workers — teachers, doctors and nurses and even criminal law barristers, angry at underfunding of the court system. Private-sector unions in the airline industry and the post office are also weighing their options.

Voters are discontented, too. On Thursday night, the Conservative government suffered two massive by-election defeats, which, if replicated at a general election, would see the opposition Labour party take power. Boris Johnson’s own party chairman, Oliver Dowden, promptly resigned without the traditional tribute to his leader, dismayed at the lack of strategic vision from Downing Street. “We cannot carry on with business as usual,” he said.

The prime minister, however, promises more of the same, doubling down on what he sees as Churchillian grit while others worry it’s a deaf ear to looming national chaos.

British by-elections are shaky bellwethers. The Conservative government was always facing an uphill battle to retain its northern Wakefield seat after the last Tory MP was convicted for a sex assault on a minor. Labour had previously held the seat between 1932 and 2019. And the Conservative candidate Nadeem Ahmed never recovered after issuing an unflattering claim that voters would continue to trust his party despite its faults.  

But the victory of the Liberal Democrats in Honiton and Tiverton clearly rattled Conservatives. In the prosperous southwest constituency, the Lib-Dems won with an enormous 29.9% swing from the Tories on a higher-than-average 52% turnout. Numerically, the Conservative’s 24,000 majority was the largest ever to be overturned in a by-election, the third largest as a proportion of the votes.

The question is why so many loyal Tories effectively voted against their tribe by abstaining. Johnson survived a badly organized leadership challenge only weeks ago. And no democratic incumbent, from Washington to Berlin, is having an easy time as the Russian invasion of Ukraine puts rocket boosters under energy and food prices. 

Perhaps the general unease in the prime minister’s party and the country at large arises from the perception that he is a man without a plan. Bullish union leaders, becalmed for well over a decade, smell weakness — Johnson caved to the transport unions’ demands when he was mayor of London — and they have a political and economic incentive to try their luck again now.

Last month, prices rose at an annual rate of 9.1%, the highest level since 1982. The Bank of England predicts it could rise above 11% in the autumn and by some calculations even soar to 14%. As in the 1970s, rates exceed those of other developed Western economies.

The threat of persistent inflation is real. If the government gives in to public-sector demands for more pay, then private-sector sectors workers may stage demands as well. With a tight labor market, they may not even need to strike: Employees can simply vote with their feet. The specter of a ‘70s-era wage-price spiral looms.

Chancellor Risk Sunak has already announced measures designed to offer the most vulnerable households protection against rising prices. However, the reasonably generous package was crowded out of the news schedules by a series of policy announcements designed to appease Johnson’s restive right-wing. Impact on voters was small.

Can the prime minister hold his nerve as the storms intensify?

In the 1970s, when a Conservative government asked voters “Who rules the country?” people answered, “Not you, chum, it’s the unions.” Times have changed. Nearly 14 million workers were union members at the end of the 1970s, but numbers have been falling ever since. Less than a quarter of all employees now pay union dues, overwhelmingly in the public sector and in some former nationalized industries.

But other changes have also taken the edge off union power. Middle-class professionals can largely circumvent rail strikes by remote working, although the blow to retail and catering is evident in empty city centers, especially London at the beginning of the lucrative tourist season.

Speaking to a number of Cabinet ministers around London last week, I found them uniformly upbeat at the prospect of facing down industrial action. They relish the discomfort of Labour leader Keir Starmer. The unions — although not the striking National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers — help bankroll his party. Starmer ordered his front bench to keep away from the picket lines, but a few defied him in spirit by taking to social media to voice support for the strike.

The government hopes to put its opponents on the spot again by introducing legislation that will allow employers to use agency workers to break strikes. But these are “business as usual” tactics — scare the electorate into sticking with the Tories for fear of something worse. A wiser government would articulate an economic message that the country understands and which resonates with the concerns of workers worried about their purchasing power.

It took a decade of high inflation in the 1970s before Margaret Thatcher slammed on the brakes when she became prime minister in 1979. Boris Johnson has less time to find a way out. The first step is to accept that the new era of discontent is focused on him.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Martin Ivens is the editor of the Times Literary Supplement. Previously, he was editor of the Sunday Times of London and its chief political commentator.

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion

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