COBRA assembles

It has begun. Yesterday, Captain Dowden marched into the COBRA situation room – for there is a situation

As we reported last week the PM has put Oliver Dowden in charge of his Winter of Discontent Task Force. Dowden assembled his first responders in the Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms to begin the fightback against the wretched nurses and posties. The committee will meet once more this week.

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

Sounds like there wasn’t much to discuss. Dowden doesn’t have many options: how to deploy a maximum of 2,000 troops available to him and whether civil servants and agency workers might be persuaded to break strikes. Well over a million workers will strike or are balloting to strike in December and January – rail workers, ambulance drivers, Eurostar crews, bus drivers, highways workers, baggage handlers, postal workers, nurses, driving examiners and civil servants – so the government’s emergency measures will be mainly symbolic.

A photo of the secret UK government Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms beneath Whitehall, showing a large conference table and a wall of monitors. This is the only photo that exists of the facility - released by the government in response to a FOI request in 2010.
The only photo that exists of the secret Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms

We know that 600 military drivers have been asked to “familiarise themselves with vehicles” so they can drive ambulances for the 21 and 28 December strikes. 10,000 drivers will be on strike on those days and they have promised to continue to provide emergency cover so it’s not clear how much the troops will be able to help – probably mostly photo opportunities. Dowden’s press team has been sending out robust quotes, of course. He’s ‘straining every sinew’ apparently (in Scotland there’ll be no strike because nurses have accepted an average 7.5% pay increase).

We’re in the phase of the crisis when Ministers stamp their feet and talk tough. On the BBC’s Today programme this morning, Transport Minister Mark Harper insisted that rail workers must accept what he euphemistically calls ‘reform’ while also insisting that the negotiations are nothing to do with him, guv. Justin Webb tried to get Harper to confirm a Financial Times story that he’s been blocking a deal that was acceptable to the unions. The Minister flannelled manfully but essentially accepted the assertion (and used the word ‘reform’ 15 times as he did so). ‘Reform’ is a persistent theme across all the current disputes, of course – the Uberisation of postal services that Simon Thompson proposes, the privatisation of NHS services that Sunak and other Ministers continue to advocate. Pay and conditions are not the only things on the table this Winter.

Meanwhile, it might – or it might not – reassure you to know that, in his Cabinet Office role, Oliver Dowden is also responsible for the government’s wider resilience planning – you know, plagues, energy crises, Winter weather. He answers questions in Parliament on the subject and says things like: “The national resilience framework will be the first iteration of our new strategic approach. It will strengthen the systems, structures and capabilities that underpin the UK’s resilience to all risks.” The new framework was actually first announced back in August by the previous incumbent Kit Malthouse. It’s difficult to know how much confidence to invest in a new ‘resilience framework’ from the people who brought you over 200,000 Covid deaths, a near-death bond market crisis, Michelle Mone and an epidemic of child poverty. Perhaps we should wait and see.

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’.

Minister for junk mail

Careful, your MP wants your email address


Oliver Dowden, MP for Hertsmere, Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party and unlikely attack dog in the Culture Wars, has a new, slightly demeaning job. He’s been tasked with adding names to the Conservative Party’s email marketing list. He’s doing this by attacking some Labour politicians for supporting the RMT’s strike action. Nothing new about attacking organised labour, of course, but Dowden’s approach is unusual and quite possibly unprecedented – he’s started a petition which will apparently be delivered to the opposition Labour party.

The eccentricity of this approach: a governing party – and one with a 75-seat majority in the House of Commons – petitioning the party that is currently out of power for action in an industrial dispute – will not have escaped you. But the oddball logic will become clear if you actually try to complete the petition. It’s a fake petition. You’ll find that, although you’re offered two options (condemn the strikes, don’t condemn the strikes), whichever way you vote you’ll be required to provide an email address and agree to receive email ‘about the Party’s campaigns and opportunities to get involved’. Boom, you’re on the list.

This kind of data collection mechanic disguised as a campaign has, as you’d expect, been imported from US politics, where Donald Trump and others have been building huge email and telephone databases and surveilling voters via similar devices for years. In this country, political parties are governed by data protection regulations just like other organisations and this petition looks legit but you may want to take your usual precautions against the kind of epic quantities of spam that political parties routinely produce.

Top tip: if you have one, use a special email address when you’re obliged to sign up for junk mail in this way – we have one which deletes all email before we even see it.

And don’t forget that the Conservatives have form when it comes to dodgy online marketing. There was that time they broke Twitter’s rules by pretending to be a ‘fact checking’ organisation and that other time when they were fined £10,000 for breaking data protection law.

Of course, whether it’s a dignified thing for a prominent politician – one who until not long ago was an actual Minister of the Crown (he was replaced by Nadine Dorries) – to be grubbing around for qualified leads for the party’s junk mail department is another matter – one we’ll leave to Mr Dowden’s conscience.

If you’d like to sign it, the ‘Stop the Strikes’ petition is on the Conservative Party web site. The Information Commissioner has detailed guidance for the use of personal data by political parties.