The Trades Union Congress Conference in Brighton in October was my first ever political conference, and not a bad start for a socialist.
The conference was energetic, ironically, fueled by the cost-of-living crisis and a realization that unions were once again relevant.
There were, however, activists talking about an entrenched conservativism from some of the big unions. When it became obvious that there would not be a general strike, but “a coordinated effort” as Mick Lynch put it to me, there were some who were furious.
It is as if they knew the battle with the Conservatives was going to be a long one, and if all the unions are not united then it would be easier to pick them apart one by one. That is happening now.
It was put to me by an activist that the test case for the unions was the Royal Mail strikes (we can now assume the RMT as well). If they lose and are forced to settle for savage cuts, then the whole movement will be deflated.
Wes Streeting said earlier this week that the NHS ‘service is not a shrine’, but it is the closest thing to a religion for the UK. As the psychodrama of the Royal Family continues, the NHS is a uniting bond for the whole country.
Therefore, the Conservative Party will grandstand with NHS strikers to show that they are not weak and are betting on recovering some of their base support: those who froth at the mouth when they hear the word ‘strike’.
But they will cave in. Everyone knows the NHS is in a terrible state from lack of funding. The COVID crisis and the backlog will damage the Government, just as it did when it came to the Criminal Barristers settlement. It was effectively the backlog in the criminal system that has made their incredible deal possible.
The Conservative Party will target every other union that is striking and the proposed legislation to change union laws shows the authoritarian path they are willing to take. I say authoritarian because not having the right to strike is the same as being forced to work.
However, the unions will have no one else to blame but themselves if they do not reorganise and work together much more effectively. (I would not be surprised if union leaders are making plans for early next year.) But they have missed a chance to demonstrate their power or even threaten it. This winter is going to be brutal for the unions.
And when the Conservative Party proposes more anti-union legislation things are going to get more out of control. Will the unions go directly to court? Can the unions bring the Conservative Party down? That all remains to be seen.