What a difference a year can make. Southern Rail commuters have endured months of misery due to the prolonged series of strikes called by the RMT. Union members on Eurostar walked out in the past week and have threatened to do so once again over the Bank Holiday weekend. Before it was suspended yesterday, Virgin East Coast staff were planning industrial action.
We are also experiencing the long-running dispute between the government and junior doctors, who in April carried out their first full walkout in the history of the NHS. They are now threatening the “trade union dispute of the century”, with rolling strikes from September onwards.
Traditionally, strike activity rose as the economy picked up. And labour market statistics for 2016 do show that the UK economy is very close to full employment. Pockets of unemployment may be scattered in some of the regions, but the latest economy-wide figures show a rate of just 4.9 per cent, the lowest for 11 years. There are a record 31.7m people in employment, and the proportion of people aged between 16 and 64 who are in work is also at a peace time high of 74.4 per cent.
Despite the buoyancy of the labour market, however, disputes remain very rare in most sectors of the economy. The current spate of strikes is essentially confined to the public sector, broadly defined. Private companies operate the rail franchises, but Network Rail is responsible for the maintenance of the network as a whole.
The connection between the strength of the economy and the number of strikes still holds in transport and health. The innovative polices of the rail operating companies mean that passenger numbers have boomed, doubling over the past decade. And the demand for health services continues to grow rapidly.
The unions shed crocodile tears and claim the disputes arise out of concerns for the safety of the public. In one sense, the strikes are nothing more than good, old fashioned examples of the workers putting their hands in taxpayers’ and consumers’ pockets when the opportunity arises.
But we might reasonably ask why the same things are not happening elsewhere in the economy. There does in fact appear to be a more sinister aspect to these disputes. Many of the strike activists are supporters of Jeremy Corbyn. The Labour leader and his acolytes scorn the possibility of reform through representative parliamentary democracy. Building a so-called social movement is far more important to these true believers than is winning elections.
The Black Lives Matter campaign, another social movement, earlier this month closed access to Heathrow from the M4 and disrupted transport across the UK. Just as with the junior doctors and the rail workers, the same sanctimonious regret was expressed at any inconvenience caused to the public.
Unfortunately, Corbyn’s position as Labour leader and his advocacy of “social movements” gives comfort to the growing number of strikes, sit downs and general disruptions which we are currently witnessing. And if he wins the party’s leadership contest, we can expect them to continue.