Dowden’s Fusiliers

Our MP has been in his new job for six weeks. He’s the most senior minister in the Cabinet Office and he has an epic to-do list. His first big battle is with hundreds of thousands of striking workers

Dad's Army
Don’t panic

The government’s website lists the many responsibilities of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster: driving delivery of the Government’s priorities, oversight of all Cabinet Office policy, oversight of civil contingencies and resilience (inc. COBR), national security including cyber security, oversight of Cabinet Office business planning, oversight of major events, propriety and ethics, oversight of cabinet work on science, technology, and innovation, including oversight of the Office of Science and Technology Strategy (OSTS), public appointments, honours and the GREAT campaign.

This long list will suit Oliver Dowden. It’s evident that he likes to be in the thick of it and, during his years in various bagman roles for his party, he’s developed a reputation as a ‘fixer’, an operator. He’s the new Michael Gove.

Now that the balloon’s gone up

An official photograph of Oliver Dowden MP with a British Army captain's hat crudely photoshopped onto his head
Captain Dowden is ready for action

Dowden’s first combat mission sees him taking command of the Prime Minister’s new industrial action taskforce. There’s nothing on the government’s website about the taskforce yet so we can’t be 100% sure what it’s called. The Daily Mail is calling it a Winter of Discontent Unit while trade paper Personnel Today has gone with Strike Response Unit. Either way, it’s obviously a high-risk job – and more evidence that Dowden is ready to get his hands dirty. You really don’t want to carry the ‘Minister for the Winter of Discontent’ label around with you for the rest of your career if it goes badly.

With union membership climbing, public support for strikes at its highest level for decades and the public service workers comfortably on the moral high ground, there’s a chance that Captain Dowden will find himself supervising a chaotic retreat. Remember, only one government in UK history has been brought down by industrial action and it was a Tory government during a cost-of-living crisis. Just saying.

A few ideas for how to deal with runaway strikes have emerged so far and there are some old chestnuts. What are Dowden’s options in his battle with the nurses, border guards, ambulance drivers and fire-fighters?

The military option

At any one time no more than a few thousand soldiers are available to cover for striking workers. Even fewer are qualified to do specialist jobs like driving ambulances or nursing the sick. There’s some hurried training going on but a lot of people are going on strike (at least 100,000 RCN nurses for a start). It’s hard to know what impact the soldiers can have across the whole public sector. History shows that bringing the army in is mostly about the symbolism. Incidentally, according to the Independent, the government’s crash course apparently takes in non-military volunteers, so if you’d like to add ‘strike-breaking’ to your CV, you might want to drop Oliver Dowden a line. Perhaps there’s a VIP lane.

Soldiers fighting a fire in the 1970s

The military option is risky. Nothing says ‘crisis’ better than pictures of soldiers fighting fires and staffing A&E departments on the TV news. And when they’re covering for workers who have high levels of public support there’s a strong chance it’ll make things worse, dialling up the tension and antagonising ordinary people. Captain Dowden might fancy himself at the head of a column of green goddesses, or saluting the troops as he strides purposefully into a hastily erected field hospital, but Britons don’t generally like to see the military on the streets unless it’s a parade.

Making it harder to strike

In this country we routinely talk about the right to strike – and it’s a meaningful phrase but in Britain there’s no such right. No law protects the right to withdraw your labour and, in the absence of a written constitution, there’s no resort to fundamental rights. This is why it’s so easy for governments to withdraw or diminish the ability to strike.

We think of the Thatcher era as the golden age of anti-worker legislation – between 1980 and 1993, Conservative governments passed six acts of Parliament limiting workers’ power to go on strike – but the last 100 years in Britain have seen an almost uninterrupted succession of efforts to contain and frustrate the freedom of workers to take action. From the 1927 Trade Disputes and Trade Union Act, which stopped ‘sympathy strikes’ (and also made it harder for unions to give money to the Labour Party), to Barbara Castle’s 1974 Trade Union and Labour Relations Act, which introduced compulsory strike ballots, to Tony Blair’s Employment Relations Act that was supposed to guarantee union recognition but actually did nothing of the sort.

A composite image of Conservative MP Oliver Dowden, wearing a surgical mask and floating against a virtual reality background
Oliver Dowden floating in some kind of dimensionless alternate reality

More recently, the present government’s 2016 Act introduced new obstacles to calling strikes and was meant to make moments like this impossible. If these rules had existed during the original Winter of Discontent many of the strikes would have been illegal. An awkward fact for the government is that the unions have risen to the challenge – administering hundreds of votes across multiple employers, complying with all of the new rules to the letter and winning big majorities for action. In the most recent RMT vote the turnout was 71% and 89% voted to strike. The Royal College of Nursing had to run separate postal votes for over 200 NHS trusts plus other providers and even where votes did not reach the threshold for action huge numbers of nurses voted to strike. This was not supposed to happen and if decent wage offers are not forthcoming there’s every prospect of future strikes in areas that voted not to on this occasion.

The government’s response, of course, is more legislation. A bill to provide for ‘minimum service levels’ will reach Parliament in the new year and it may be expanded to ban ‘blue light strikes’ all together. The concern for Sunak must be that suppressing the expression of workers’ anger and desperation by banning strikes can do nothing to improve his electoral prospects. Unhappy workers are unhappy voters.

Agencies and strike-breakers

Legislation that allows employers to bring in agency workers to cover for strikers was hastily introduced earlier this year but the government has now said that commercial health companies will be invited to provide cover too. Both tricky, of course, especially in schools and the NHS, where there’s grass-roots support for strikers and where agency staff may find they’re unwelcome. Some agency suppliers have said they don’t want to be involved in strike-breaking and private hospitals may not want to see pickets in their leafy grounds. Strike breaking in Britain is part of the folk memory, of course. A ‘volunteer police force’ was got up to suppress strikes in Liverpool in 1911. During the General Strike The Times rallied volunteers to join an oddball group of toffs and fascists called The Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies, which sounds kind of like Dad’s Army in black shirts.

Anyway, in case the Minister is planning to make his name by recruiting a volunteer force of his own we’d like to put it on record now that it ought to be called ‘Dowden’s Fusiliers’.

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