Striking the right balance….
Francis Maude is quite rightly being ridiculed for his Corporal Jones esq response to a possible tanker drivers strike. Indeed, it seems Mr Maude may well end up causing the crisis he was supposedly trying to avoid if the recent rash of panic buying of petrol is anything to go by. Of course, this whole outcry is a carefully orchestrated ruse by an embattled government to deflect attention away from its own considerable problems by trying to shift the opposition onto the backfoot. However, the comments made by Maude, David Cameron and even Ed Miliband are symptomatic of a wider problem in British politics. Much like it is with drugs or similar issues it is actually near-as dammit impossible to have a rational, reasoned debate where industrial action is concerned.
The Conservatives default to an aggressive attack on their favourite ‘enemy within’ while within Labour, at leadership level at least, we default to a sheepish, awkward shuffling of our collective feet. Misinformation quickly becomes common currency – witness David Cameron casually mentioning yesterday that tanker drivers were “well paid”, clearly implying the ‘greedy’ strikers were totally unjustified in their actions – in actual fact, the dispute is nothing to do with pay but is about health and safety concerns and working conditions. I actually think these are issues we should all concerned about since these people are operating on our roads and if, for example, they are exhausted and tragically cause an accident it could be any one of us that is the victim. Cameron doesn’t want to engage in a rational discourse about what the issue actually is because for him any strike is a priori unjustified – a position that is as intellectually untenable as saying every strike ever is always entirely justified.
It can’t be said that Ed Miliband helps much either. Rather than try to at least point out there maybe genuine concerns, if indeed there are, his default position is to say the parties must negotiate. This is true and is indeed already happening in this case. However, strikes come when negotiations have obviously failed to resolve the issue, so calling for negotiations is, to put not too fine a point on it, somewhat futile and stupid. It is an example of that age-old political art of appearing to say something while in actual fact saying practically nothing. If the point has been reached where a strike date has been set and agreed upon then what really needs to be addressed is why negotiations have failed and then you can sensibly call for their resumption.
Neither of the main parties thus fosters a climate which lends itself to the successful aversion of industrial action which most people in the main do not undertake lightly. In their own different ways they fail on two counts, they fail to help solve the dispute so maximise the potential for the disruption caused by the strike to the wider public to go ahead and they effectively de-legitmise what is a normative part of the democratic process and deny a basic human right, which is that to withdraw labour. In doing so they disenfranchise a whole swathe of people, ie, the people going on strike. By every measure then, neither the Conservative nor the Labour Parties currently do any productive good when it comes to industrial relations what so ever. If people want good industrial relations to prevail then they need to take a step back from the politicking and encourage a rational discourse to take place within the industrial framework. As things stand however it is looking unlikely that either of the main parties will be able to actively assist that and that will mean we will all suffer the consequences in the long-run.