One of the problems when extraordinary events repeatedly happen is that you lose a sense of perspective. We got desensitised to the lack of moral authority under Boris Johnson as prime minister. His downfall was just another scandal and the political turmoil that followed, just another episode in the same psychodrama.
John Oliver, the British comedian who hosts Last Week Tonight on HBO used to have a segment with a fanfare, ticker tape and a marching band as he reported the latest scandal around Donald Trump as this latest scandal must surely have led to his resignation. But alas, it didn’t. Each time they’d have to stop the celebration half way through because Trump hadn’t gone. It was just another of the seemingly endless scandals.
Our current version of the Winter of Discontent is in danger of slipping into this territory. The first strike by the Royal College of Nursing in its 106-year history is just a footnote. The first national rail strike in 25 years, the first ambulance workers’ strike since 1989. The list goes on. For all the rhetoric, strikes are relatively rare in the UK. In 2019, the average number of strike days lost per thousand workers per year was just 4.9 in Britain, compared to 22.3 in Europe. In 2017, Britain saw the lowest number of workers involved in strikes in over 120 years.
All of this is against a backdrop of ever more stringent requirements around ballots, particularly in the public sector. Typically a 50% turnout is required and unions have to provide data on who is being balloted by workplace, requiring a huge logistical challenge, especially for a union like the FDA. You can vote online to select the new prime minister for the country with no threshold for the ballot, but if you want to vote to strike or even just elect the president of a union, then it must be by postal ballot.
One of the many mistakes the government is making is trying to relive a Thatcher era-style confrontation with the unions, with rhetoric from the 1980s about “union barons”. The reality is that many unions have had turnouts significantly above 50% and majorities of 80% or 90% in favour of action. These disputes are unions responding to their members, not members responding to calls for strike from union leaders.
So, in another extraordinary turn of events, this week our members in the central Fast Stream have voted for industrial action. A huge majority – 88% – voted for action on a turnout of 60%. Anyone who understands the nature of the Fast Stream will be shocked by that decision. They are the future leaders of the service and some of the most able graduates in the country, yet they have felt they had no choice but to vote for strike action. It is, of course, the first time this has happened in the history of the Fast Stream and ministers should reflect on how badly you really have to mess up to get this group so angry that they’re wanting to strike.
"Half of fast streamers who were offered a better paid job elsewhere told us in our member survey that they wish they’d taken it"
This is not a dispute made by foreign wars or a legacy of the pandemic. This dispute was made in Whitehall. For years we’ve been asking Cabinet Office to address the low pay of the Fast Stream. Instead, they have relied on the fact the Fast Stream is massively oversubscribed. Why address pay if people keep applying? Yes, they do apply, but when they realise that they’re paid less than Cabinet Office HEOs, that the stagnant pay arrangements mean it’s a struggle to live and work; when they’re skipping meals and leaving the Fast Stream early, forgoing the big pay step that comes after three to four years, just to get an immediate pay rise, then they regret that decision. Half of fast streamers who were offered a better paid job elsewhere told us in our member survey that they wish they’d taken it.
This is not a demand for a 19% pay rise; it’s about a modest increase to starting pay and progression points to catch up with the pay of equivalent roles in the Cabinet Office. We’ve been warning the Cabinet Office for years about this and the anger that members have been feeling. Despite promises of reform, we got offers of jam tomorrow. So now this is where we are. Before a single member has taken action, this dispute will already have left a damaging legacy on the Fast Stream and the wider civil service.
By refusing to address the underlying problems that we have been highlighting over the last few years, and making them feel like they have no choice but to take strike action, the Cabinet Office has already damaged the morale and commitment of the next generation of leaders. As with so many of those public servants taking action just now, the message from ministers appears to be: “do your worst”. My fear is that with this Fast Stream cohort, the worst has already been done.
Dave Penman is the general secretary of the FDA union