From the start of the Conservative leadership contest there was a bidding war on new policy initiatives with Liz Truss way out in front in offering what her supporters believed was a true Thatcherite agenda.
She promised the party membership she would implement a raft of punitive restraints on workers’ rights – a shopping list that was so far reaching and malevolent that it would have delighted Norman Tebbit.
Spurred on by her backers in the Tory press she seized on the summer’s rail strikes as final justification for the introduction of the Conservatives’ much-touted new laws to enact a minimum level of service during walkouts in essential services.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps – a leading promoter of rival leadership contender, Rishi Sunak – was equally forthright in pushing his own 16-point crackdown on “Luddite trade unions” who were blocking reform of railway working practices.
There was remarkable similarity in the two programmes on offer, with them both proposing even tighter restrictions on strike action, but Truss gained by far the greatest traction in the news media.
Her agenda for legal restraints on a wide range of trade union activity secured repeated front-page coverage in the Conservative supporting newspapers which had been eager to give her their endorsement.
She promised that within 30 days of becoming Prime Minister, she would “put an end to the mindless misery of rail strikes” – a pledge that was greeted by the Daily Mail with the headline ‘Truss Vow to Curb Militant Unions’ (26.7.2022)
With the disruption continuing through August, each round of strike action provided Truss with a fresh opportunity to repeat her pledges – and her cheerleaders responded: ‘Truss promises new laws to smash strike misery’ was front page splash for the Daily Express (19.8.2022).
Almost a month had elapsed since she first announced that she would “stop militant trade unions trying to paralyse the economy” but her previously announced crackdown was continuing to make headlines.
Reheating the same pledges was an illustration of the propaganda advantage which Truss had secured in the Tory press at the expense of Sunak. Almost from the start of the campaign she had been attracting regular front-page endorsements for her policies.
Newspaper editors are only too well aware of the potency of their front pages. Often, they can be a blatant political statement, a showcase for a favoured politician. Their value cannot be under-estimated during elections and leadership contests.
Print circulations might be falling but the front-pages have immediacy and are reproduced and discussed on late-night television and radio programmes and appear again on breakfast shows next morning.
These same images have a life online gaining further exposure on the websites of BBC, Sky and other news providers and frequently become a talking point on Twitter, Facebook and across social media.
As the Tory press bandwagon accelerated behind Truss, she was warmly applauded for her pledge to stand up to the unions when she appeared at leadership hustings and events.
Repetition in news stories of the details of her proposed crackdown had served her well and not surprisingly it was Truss rather than Sunak who became the target of trade union opposition.
New laws to enact a guaranteed minimum level of operation in essential services during strike action had been promised in the Conservatives’ 2019 manifesto. Truss said that within her “first 30 days as Prime Minister” she would introduce the necessary legislation.
The minimum notice period for strike action would be increased from two weeks to four weeks; there would be a new legally enforced cooling off period; further strike action would not be permitted during the six-month period after the initial ballot; a fresh vote would be required to authorise another round of strikes.
For good measure, and in what seemed like a throwback to the infamous reductions in social security benefits for the families of striking mineworkers in the 1984-5 pit dispute, Truss promised to target strike pay.
She would put an end “to union members receiving tax-free payments on the days they are striking”. It was not right, she declared, that “those striking should get something for nothing.”
In his prospectus, Shapps had followed Truss in seeking to introduce higher thresholds for strike action.
He also proposed restrictions on picketing in the vicinity of critical national infrastructure sites such as mainline stations. (‘We will take on these Luddites…just like Thatcher’ Daily Mail, 18.8.2022)
But so unexpected was the severity of her crackdown that Truss faced a united onslaught from the three rail unions as well as the wider labour movement.
RMT general secretary Mick Lynch warned the unions could respond with synchronised strike action of the kind not seen since the 1978-9 ‘Winter of Discontent’ – a prospect that triggered a fresh round of alarmist headlines. ‘UK general strike threat if Truss takes on unions’ (I, 28.7.2022)
In sharp contrast to the punitive steps Truss had outlined, Rishi Sunak’s pledge to take a tough line on the unions steered clear of detailed sanctions. He limited himself to a promise to deliver the party’s 2019 manifesto commitment to require minimum service levels during transport strikes.
“As Prime Minister, I will stop the unions holding working people to ransom. I will do whatever it takes to make sure that unions cannot dictate how the British people go about their daily life.”
Not surprisingly Sunak secured only the briefest of mentions in news coverage of the rail strikes, and he seemed content for the lead to be taken by Shapps, his former cabinet colleague and leadership supporter.
Shapps’ determination to confront Lynch head on earned him favourable headlines in the Tory press which had no hesitation in urging the Transport Secretary to go all the way with the toughest possible restraints on the rail unions.
In a further escalation of the management’s response both Shapps and Network Rail’s chief executive, Andrew Haines, threatened to go over the heads of union leaders directly to the membership.
Shapps’ had tried in vain with repeated appeals to Lynch to put Network Rail’s two-year 8 per cent pay offer out to a vote among RMT members.
When Lynch responded by accusing Shapps of working behind the scenes to dictate the outcome of the negotiations – and insisting RMT members were prepared to continue the dispute “for as long as it takes” – the provocation proved too much for the Transport Secretary.
‘Shapps: It’s End of the Line, Mick’ was the Sun’s headline (20.8.2022) over a report that Shapps had vowed to use “hardline powers” to impose modernisation by “ordering train companies to fire and re-hire workers” – a reminder of the tactics used in the sacking of 800 seafarers by P&O Ferries.
Shapps’ anger and annoyance bolstered the stand Truss had taken, reinforcing her strident anti-union rhetoric.
Throughout the month-long leadership campaign, the Conservative press had developed and sustained story lines that had worked to her benefit, reinforcing the lead she had established among party members.
On the picket line at Euston Station on the fifth day of RMT strike action, Mick Lynch rounded on Liz Truss and her proposals for tighter employment laws:
“If she rams through any more anti-trade union laws it will be a direct attack on civil liberties…There is a wave of reaction among working people to the way they are being treated…What you are going to get is a wave of solidarity action, synchronised action. And you’ll see it in every section of the economy, in education, in health, in wider parts of the transport system, in all sectors, the private sector as well.”
With strike action at unprecedented levels in recent years, the relentless trashing of trade unions by much of the tabloid press has been pervasive and has degraded the news media’s response.
Illustrations: Daily Mail, 26.7.2022; Daily Mail, 18.8.2022; Daily Express, 19.8.2022; I, 28.7.2022; Daily Mirror, 27.7.2022; The Guardian, 28.7.2022.
Mick Lynch, RMT general secretary, reflected ruefully on the standard of questions he has faced when challenged by reporters and broadcasters, especially when being interviewed on union doorsteps or out on picket lines.
“The state of journalism? The questions they are ask are so…dopey. They obviously don’t know what trade unions are. They think that we are all these cliches they perpetuate. I’m a baron. My members are pawns. I can just move them about according to who I want to annoy that morning. Which is completely the wrong way round: unions are very democratic. It sounds a bit pompous, but the members are sovereign in this union. They tell us what to do.” (Zoe Williams interview, The Guardian, 23.8.2022)