Unite scored an own goal with the tanker strike – but so has Cameron

 
Ryan Bourne
Follow Ryan
LEN McCluskey, general secretary of the Unite trade union, positions himself as an arch-enemy of the government. Of the Bob Crow school of diplomacy, McCluskey remains convinced civil disobedience is necessary to halt the coalition’s deficit reduction programme. And he seems hell-bent on ruining the Olympic Games with mass industrial action.

Now might seem a perfect time for his union to flex its muscles by calling a tanker driver strike. The Conservative half of the coalition is in free-fall in the polls, with Labour having opened up a 10-point lead. An unpopular budget and the Cam Dine With Me scandal have brought into question the government’s competence. With petrol prices having been most voters’ number one concern for some time, and the chancellor deciding not to cancel the 3p fuel rise in last week’s Budget, David Cameron must be worried about the prospect of angry motorists queuing outside petrol forecourts.

But McCluskey is wrong to have grabbed the low-hanging fruit. Bob Crow’s RMT has shown that while action affecting transport is popular with your members, it is reviled by the public. In tough times, motorists are even less likely to be sympathetic about being inconvenienced than the long-suffering London commuter.

Widespread support for action only comes when there’s a clear grievance, and the stated reason for the dispute – health and safety concerns – is unlikely to obtain much sympathy. Many of the biggest employers are naturally dismayed. Hoyer claims its drivers are, on average, remunerated to the tune of £45,000 per year – meaning over half are higher-rate taxpayers. They work 37 hours per week, have premium overtime arrangements and a decent pension. Those employed on the Shell contract have seen a 40.3 per cent increase in earnings since 2003. Unsurprisingly, the company concluded Unite’s decision to leave the negotiating table (around which six large companies were discussing minimum standards) was an attempt to wrest control of the industrial agenda.

There’s a big difference between this strike and the popular protests faced by Blair in 2000. Then the strikers won public support mainly because they were campaigning on what was perceived to be a common cause – against soaring fuel costs. Now, the demands are unlikely to resonate.

This means there is little the government needs to do – except remain competent. It made a decent start, with the inevitable condemnation followed by the predictable “these strikes are wrong in difficult economic times” and “both sides need to get around the negotiating table”-style platitudes. There was the call to discuss contingency plans with delivery companies and supermarkets, and bringing Acas to the party. But since then, Francis Maude and the Prime Minister have decided to risk inducing mayhem by suggesting consumers should panic buy fuel. OK, not panic buy. But “top up if you can,” said the PM. Maude even suggested storing “maybe a little bit in the garage…in a jerrycan”. Given unions have to give seven days’ notice for a strike, during which time it may well be resolved, the timing of these statements is incredible. The consequence has been images and stories that a competent government would seek to avoid. Yesterday afternoon, Simon Lane told the BBC his local garage in Groby, Leicester ran out of diesel and unleaded petrol after “panic buying” involving “huge queues”.

There’s little need for political panic. For the reasons outlined, this seems unlikely to be a popular strike and will probably be quickly forgotten. If the Conservatives are prudent, they will remain calm and allow the public to make the Unite-Labour link itself.

In terms of longer-term strategy, however, this should serve as a warning. Taxes and duties account for 60 per cent of the price of unleaded petrol and 58 per cent for diesel – the highest percentages in the European Union. While changing policy according to protest would weaken any government, the coalition would be vulnerable to a wide coalition if the strike were based on the cost of fuel rather than technical health and safety issues. If the strike brings anything to the attention of the political class, it should be the plight of motorists. Policies for that constituency could be a huge electoral winner in 2015.

Ryan Bourne is head of economic research for the Centre for Policy Studies.