Try as they might Conservative propagandists and their press supporters are likely to face an uphill task in the run up to the next general election if they try to take political advantage from this winter’s industrial turmoil.

Images of striking nurses waving placards outside hospitals or train crews peacefully picketing railway stations will scarcely have the same damaging impact as the anti-union campaigns of previous decades.

Any attempt to recycle yet again press photographs of rubbish piled up in Leicester Square or coffins waiting to be buried on Merseyside from the 78-79 Winter of Discontent is hardly likely to resonate with the public’s recollection of the determined yet dignified defiance on display during the winter of 22-23.

Week after week countless thousands of nurses, ambulance crews, paramedics and teachers have staged peaceful protests on strike days in their dogged campaign to secure pay increases to compensate for inflation.

Even their sternest tabloid critics have been forced in their coverage to reflect the reality of their readers’ experience.

Opinion surveys suggest two thirds of adults have continued to back the walkouts despite the disruption to health care and schools. Only a third of the public think the unions have too much power.

Finally, the sustained efforts of nurses, paramedics, ambulance staff and a vast array of health workers paid off.

Further strike action was suspended by most of the unions following an invitation to talks over a higher pay offer for both the current year and the year ahead.  

In a lifetime reporting industrial unrest I cannot recall an era when the unions have managed to deliver with such spectacular success such a sustained run of photo-opportunities that have captured the mood of the moment.

When asked who is responsible for the impasse, the public appear to blame the government; back the trade unions; and express support for teachers, nurses, and other public sector workers.

Hostile columnists and headline writers will face a stern test of their credibility if they attempt to demonise those at the forefront of what has been a remarkable eruption of rank-and-file anger after years of wage restraint.

However hard they might turn to the past in harking back to the days of mass meetings in car parks to authorise strikes or to violence on picket lines, the Conservatives’ cheerleaders will be up against far more appealing visual reminders of collective action.

They will be unable to ignore the cumulative impact of what has been a dramatic change in the public face of the labour movement.

United and co-ordinated campaigning by a new generation of union general secretaries is rewriting some of the basic tenets of industrial reporting.

Women now lead many of the country’s highest profile trade unions. They have been out there on the doorsteps with their striking members appealing in vain for the Prime Minister and his cabinet colleagues to sit down and negotiate.  

Pat Cullen, leader of the Royal College of Nursing for the last year and a half, has been an almost constant presence on marches and protests up and down the country in support of what for the RCN has been unprecedented nationwide strike action.

What has also been so striking is the age of the strikers, as well as the size of the demonstrations.

Young women have vastly outnumbered the men: nurses, paramedics, medical staff, and teachers holding up placards warning of an exodus from their professions unless wages are increased.

Christina McAnea, now in her third year leading the largest health union Unison, has joined nurses and ambulance crews outside hospitals and health centres supporting their stand against the government’s refusal to negotiate.

Sharon Graham, leader of the country’s largest union Unite since August 2021, who has already clocked up an impressive list of strike victories among private sector employers, has done her stint too on the doorsteps supporting strike action by Unite’s members in the ambulance service.

Mary Bousted, long-serving joint general secretary of the National Education Union – who is no stranger to press vilification – has appeared extensively on radio and television defending the 200,000 teachers who walked out for the day in England.

Their combined fury at the continued refusal of Rishi Sunak and his ministers to sit down with the unions and at least discuss the government’s pay offers rammed home the intransigence they faced.

Ministerial bluster and obfuscation were plain for all to see. However, awkward it might be for their traditional tormenters, the tabloids are being forced to acknowledge the justice of the unions’ case.

In the build-up to what became the biggest single walkout in the history of the NHS, the Daily Express broke ranks with front-page support for Pat Cullen’s assurance that the RCN was prepared to negotiate.

‘Nurses will do deal to end strikes’ (19.12.2022) and followed it a month later with a direct appeal to the Prime Minister, ‘Nurses: clock is ticking Rishi…do a deal for Britain’ (11.1.2023). Express columnist Stephen Pollard threw his weight behind the strike: ‘The nurses’ case is overwhelming. Do the right thing Rishi.’ (7.2.2023).

Unusually for the Sun, its headline writers and columnists have lacked consistency in their assault on the unions.

‘Sunak must do a Maggie and take on militant unions’ was the advice of Sun on Sunday columnist Nile Gardiner. (8.1.2023) A picture montage contrasted a 1984 photograph of Arthur Scargill with Mick Lynch on an RMT picket line.

Nile concluded that once again it was the unions versus the people with leaders such as Lynch the modern heir to Scargill: ‘Callous, uncaring and with an extreme socialist agenda.”

In a further attempt to find a relevant comparison, the Sun’s headline the following month harked back to the shutdown for the covid pandemic and claimed it was ‘Lockdown 2023’ (1.2.2023) with 500,000 workers out on strike.

Perhaps the clearest illustration of the disarray among in the anti-union commentariat was Andrew Neil’s column in the Daily Mail (4.2.2023) which predicted the strikes would soon start to dissipate.

‘These strikes are proving the unions no longer have the power to paralyse the nation – just as I warned Mick Lynch in the summer’.

Many would argue with Neil’s verdict on the strength of the unions.

The objective of today’s selective and co-ordinated industrial action is to stage public demonstrations of the depth of anger among the rank and file and warn the government and employers that their employees believe they are being treated unfairly.

In previous years, however just their cause, the unions have often failed to win public backing.

If the opinion polls continue to suggest that two thirds of Britons support the striking nurses, a weak Conservative government, with a general election in the offing, should perhaps take heed.

Judging by the inconsistencies in the direction of the tabloids’ response, reflecting no doubt their inability to ignore the scale of picket line demonstrations – and the resolve of the strikers – the Conservatives cannot be sure that their cheerleaders in the Tory press will be able to deliver a sustained and effective pre-election campaign that demands another crackdown on the unions.

Illustrations Daily Mirror, 22.2.2023; Daily Mirror, 20.1.2022; Sun, 11.12.2022; Sun, 19.1.2023; Daily Express, 19.12.2023; Daily Express, 11.1.2023.