Britain's Coming Winter of Discontent
Mark Seddon is the former United Nations Correspondent and New York Bureau Chief for Al-Jazeera English TV. He reported from eighteen countries during that time, including North Korea, China, Haiti, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. He has interviewed, amongst others, Ban Ki-Moon, Lech Walesa, Tony Blair, Hans Blix, Michael Foot, Mia Farrow, and George Clooney. In a journalistic career spanning over twenty years, he has been Editor of Tribune and an elected member of the UK Labour Party's National Executive Committee. He has written for most British newspapers and many magazines, including The Guardian, The Independent, The Daily Mail, The Times, The Spectator, New Statesman, Private Eye, British Journalism Review and Country Life Magazine. For a number of years he was a Diarist at the London Evening Standard, and has also reported for, amongst others, the BBC and Sky TV. He lives in Buckingham, England.
Britain now faces a ‘Winter of Discontent’, which is what many commentators claim will happen each winter, taking their cue from the winter of 1979, when the country ground to a stand-still. Back then, organised labour in the shape of the trade unions was a much more powerful force. Britain was a poorer place as well, still trying to recover from the giant OPEC price hike of the early 70s, whose massive inflationary pressures had never fed through into the wages of the low paid. The then Labour Government tried various compacts with the trade unions, which were described as ‘social contracts’, but to the low paid, the social contract still meant the same – very low wages.
Fast forward to today and entirely different forces are driving a new upsurge in shop floor militancy. Inflation is no longer the enemy, but still the boom years never quite translated into serious pay rises for those at the bottom. Couple that with the gaping deficit caused by the bank bail outs, and suddenly you have the prospect of 25% cuts across whole Government Departments. No wonder workers are getting worried – and angry. Except that this time around, there is at present at least, no sizeable increase in unemployment, as the effects of the bail out and the pump priming of demand has kept that at bay for now. The more astute are already asking whether the deficit is as serious as the Government claims, especially since the banks are now busy paying huge bonuses again, and the presumption must be that they are paying the Government loans off. And yet, despite the fall in value of Sterling, Britain isn’t – as Germany is doing – exporting herself out of crisis, for the simple reason that we no longer have much to export.
Meeting this week in Manchester, the Trades Union Congress voted through plans to organise widespread industrial action to oppose the huge cuts that are promised for the end of October. I don’t doubt the fear and anger of many of those in work, but the unions are a much depleted force these days – victims of the disappearance of the big organised work-places. Their strength lives in the public sector, which is about to bear the brunt of what is to come.
Allied to that a whole panoply of anti union legislation actually makes it difficult for unions to organise strikes. This is something that the British Establishment may yet have cause to regret – not that it likes unions, but that if there is going to be a reaction, better it come from disciplined, democratic and responsible unions.
What may well happen in what is sure to be a very real ‘Winter of Discontent’, is that the unions will be bypassed by those who demand wildcat strike action and still others who have no knowledge of trades union, who may opt to organise viral demonstrations, many which could turn really ugly. No wonder the police are already warning that this could also be the ‘Winter of Civil Disobedience’’
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