Back to the future?

We know in our guts that the strikes supporting the Lindsey oil refinery dispute make a powerful point. As they reveal deep fears of wider unemployment, they also expose government weakness. The immediate official response does no more than play for time.

Employment Minister Pat McFadden last night said he had asked Acas to examine claims that British workers were being illegally excluded from some major engineering and construction projects.

This is a dangerous moment. The first wave of sympathetic action involving Kilroot workers give an echo however faint, of the UWC strike of 1974 which brought down the first power sharing Executive and tempted the Labour government into seriously considering pulling out of Northern Ireland.. +Mass action like the miners’ strikes of 1973 –4 and 1983 -4 died with the coal industry. Therefore the historic parallels are inexact. These days, strikes can be far more targeted and less wasteful of workers’ wages and yet make an equally powerful impact. The example of the French-style road hauliers’ action of 2000 at oil refineries is the best precedent we have of how the already beleaguered economy could be brought juddering to a halt. It gave the first Blair administration the fright of its life. And that was in the good times.These protests, labelled petit bourgeois in character rumbled on during the decade but without the same impact. Full blown workers’ strikes would be action of a different order.

How much more serious could spiralling action become, based on the potency of the dangerously misleading slogan of “British jobs for British workers?” Volatile prices, just-in-time fuel distribution and inadequate storage render the supply of all types of fuel at least as vulnerable to angry workers’ action today as was the national grid in the days before Thatcher ordered the stock-piling of coal at power stations to guard against another defeat at the hands of the miners.

Up to a few weeks ago, workers’ action had hardly been thought of as a factor any more in running the new service economy. Yet in some ways, government is even more exposed than it was in 1974. At least then, North Sea Oil was coming on stream . Today it’s running out and the UK is Europe’s most vulnerable energy economy. As between disgruntled workers and bosses, whether of industry or government, the power equation is changing back in workers’ favour for the first time in a generation.

The big task now is to ease the situation. The moderate left champion Jon Cruddas is no protectionist, but his call for a social wage on the precedent of the minimum wage may be worth developing, if the UK is to avert serious industrial unrest, as the jobless total climbs.
We need to create new forms of economic citizenship, and bring the economy and work under greater democratic control. That should be the agenda, not “British jobs for British workers”.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London