One major facet of the 2019 general election was how, after many years of making neoliberal economics its raison d’etre, the Conservative Party finally seemed to embrace a post-Thatcherite vision. It campaigned on increased spending and more government intervention in the economy after a decade of austerity.
Such messaging was no doubt one of the many reasons it was able to break through Labour’s long-held ‘Red Wall’ area, alongside its hardline stance on cultural issues. Such a mindset played a role in the government’s massive coronavirus spending, and such sentiments are still doled out from time to time.
So one would think that the current RMT strikes would be the perfect opportunity for the party to prove their mantel on such an issue. This is especially true given Labour leader Keir Starmer is not offering much in the way of support to the strikers.
Meanwhile, many of his MPs have been threatened by the Labour leadership for joining the various picket lines of the RMT. This is deeply confusing. If Labour isn’t meant to support unions, what is it for exactly? One would therefore calculate that if the Tory establishment walked the walk, they would at least be reasonable with the unions.
But no. They’ve done the exact opposite.
Much of the Conservative Party’s messaging throughout the past few weeks regarding the strikes and the RMT in particular has been depressingly familiar. Calling the likes of Mick Lynch and other RMT leaders ‘barons’, arguing that they’ll take Britain back to the 1970s and that the railway networks need ‘reforms’ are stale and unhelpful talking points which are flatly unserious for the current situation.
This isn’t even mentioning how the government has planned for agency workers to replace those striking instead of negotiating with the RMT, with Transport Secretary Grant Shapps allegedly refusing to talk.
Unfortunately, much of the conservative commentariat (who are rightfully hostile to the current government) have taken the carrot-and-stick prodding hook, line and sinker. Not only have many of them repeated the same talking points as the government, but added a few of their own – complaining about the high pay of the workers, wanting all trains to be automated and stating that it’ll hold Britain ‘hostage’.
Beyond this being misguided – with such attitudes sneering at the few well-paid working class workers in London, proving the strikers right – it is utterly counterproductive. Somehow, all of this is more puerile than MP Tobias Ellwood claiming the RMT aids Russia, or Piers Morgan insisting that there was some Freudian element of Lynch choosing the Thunderbirds villain The Hood as his Facebook image.
But it is also dispiriting. Beyond the fact that the union’s demands seem perfectly reasonable (stopping mass redundancies, a pay increase in line with inflation and stable working conditions), such rhetoric is dangerous. After all, a movement which rightly defended the Canadian trucker protests over vaccine passports earlier this year cannot hypocritically oppose worker strikes on principle – not to mention the harsh government crackdown in Canada should be a caution against dismissing worker protests.
Such rhetoric is heavily outdated, not least when one considers other conservative movements, like the Unites States after Trump. This includes celebrating the first Amazon union, embracing economic populist ideas like protectionism and government intervention and attacking big businesses, both in rhetoric and in policy. No doubt such moves will maintain the movement’s electoral appeal.
Meanwhile, our conservative movement is dated and stale in comparison, both in its union bashing and affection for Thatcherism. Kicking such a can down the road will do the Conservatives no good – especially if the party loses the 2024 general election, leaving such a vital opportunity (alongside an 80-seat majority) wasted as a result. The left will use such rhetoric as a way to claim the Tories don’t care for the workers, but rather fat cats in the City of London – especially when such claims are sadly becoming the norm these days.