David Johnston is an MP for Wantage and chairs the APPG for Social Mobility.
If I told you that at a conference this week, attendees will discuss withdrawing the withheld EU bill, changing child benefit eligibility, and standing in solidarity with all workers who have been on strike, what organization would think you are holding your annual meeting? together? The group of deputies of the socialist campaign of the Labor Party? Impulse?
You probably wouldn’t expect to find your local doctor there. But the above are motions on the agenda of the Annual Conference of Representatives of the British Medical Association (BMA), the doctors’ union that has just called more strikes.
And this is important, both because it underscores why the government is right to resist the demands of militant unions, which go far beyond wages, and because it raises even more questions about what Sir Keir Starmer really believes.
The BMA is currently demanding an astronomical 35 per cent pay increase for junior doctors. I have yet to meet a member of the public who thinks it’s reasonable. The union has rejected a five per cent wage increase, which the Government has offered in good faith as affordable and possible without worsening inflation for all of us, including doctors. The union insists that it wants 35 percent.
We don’t know what Starmer thinks the pay increase should be; he simply says that the government should “go to the table”, something they have been doing for months.
Your average union member just wants better terms and conditions and legal protection if they ever need it. They generally do not join a union to fight the government over its internal or external policies.
But at the conferences and in the statements of the leaders of the most militant unions, we see the kind of far-left politics that we saw during the 1980s and that has to do with much more than improving wages or the workload.
Take the National Education Union (NEU) as an example, which has also just called another series of strikes. At their annual conference this year they had events to show solidarity with Cuba, Nicaragua and Colombia, which I doubt is high on the agenda of many teachers in our classrooms. You will often find events and motions from the Stop the War Coalition that attempt to suggest that Vladimir Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine is somehow NATO’s fault.
The Rail and Shipping Workers’ union (RMT) took a break from calling rail strikes at its AGM last year to pass a resolution condemning NATO expansion, while the University and Colleges Union (UCU), not content with having caused university students an experience with teachers’ strikes: he criticized Volodmyr Zelensky for allegedly wanting to turn Ukraine into an “illiberal and armed outpost of US imperialism.”
Unrealistic payment demands must be seen in this context. The leaders of the most militant unions are often not people with moderate views focused on the best interests of their members. They want to see the government fall and put a leftist in its place. Daniel Kebede, the incoming NEU leader, reportedly said his union’s strikes were partly about “taking back control of a brutally racist state”.
You won’t hear Starmer or the Labor front talking about any of this. They are content to sit back and hope that the strikes will help hand them the keys to Downing Street. But if that ever happens, what would your approach to unions be? Would it be beer and snacks at number 10?
As in almost all areas of politics, we don’t know what Labor would do. But the unions clearly expect Labor to give them a better deal.
Here is Mick Lynch, leader of the RMT: “I think we have to do everything in our power to make sure that the Tories are not in government at the next general election.” UCU Secretary General Jo Grady tweeted: “Retweet if you’re sick of Tories ruining every day of the year.” The incoming leader of the NEU, which runs paid ads on social media against Conservative MPs on Red Wall seats, said: “I’m going to vote Labor when the time comes.”
What will these union leaders expect if the Labor Party returns to power, apart from presumably wage increases to stamp out inflation and the removal of the government’s new minimum security laws for when strikes take place, as it has already promised to do? do the Labor Party?
The waves of strikes we are seeing punish patients, children and travelers. Giving in to the unions’ inflated wage demands would punish us all by making our inflation problem worse.
Given the problems that would cause the economy, we need the Government to continue to resist demands for excessive wages, and those who would use their union leadership to seek changes in domestic and foreign policy and/or the complete fall of an elected government.
And if he’s serious about being prime minister, we need Starmer to make it very clear: is he siding with the public? Or on the side of the union leaders with extreme left agendas that are causing so much misery?