On the face of it, the government all but telling everyone to panic-buy fuel looks like a massive blunder. Spokespeople for both the petrol industry and the AA have said as much, and in most circumstances creating a nationwide fuel shortage out of nothing is a pretty stupid thing to do. But I don’t think it’s an accident; I could be wrong, but it looks a lot like this is exactly what the government wants. Not, as one of my fellow writers on this blog suggested earlier, just to give the GDP figures a boost. And not just because, as Paul points out, it’s the only way they can justify the draconian restrictions on how long after a vote industrial action can take place.
The government wants the strike to go ahead because what it’s aiming for is a nice big Thatcher-style fight with the unions. And the reason it wants that is that it thinks it can win. Ministers are gambling that the strike will fail, and that that defeat will help weaken the trade union movement. Think of it this way: if you were the government, and you wanted to damage trade unions, how would you do that? How about turning a narrow industrial dispute involving a couple of thousand people into a national crisis, say by talking up how you’re going to have to bring in the army and calling a meeting of COBRA? Then, perhaps you could manufacture a massive nationwide fuel shortage for no apparent reason? The neat thing about a fuel shortage is that it’s going to seriously inconvenience a huge number of people – most of whom will place the blame for said inconvenience squarely on the striking workers, thanks to an ever-shrinking proportion of the workforce being unionised and a national media which can be relied on to treat practically any industrial action as tantamount to treason. You could help things along by painting any union leaders involved in the dispute as dangerous radicals, hell-bent on causing havoc in the country. Something along these lines would probably work quite well:
“There are people who believe that this is part of Len McCluskey’s grand plan to bring the country to a juddering halt,” Maude said.
“He’s already threatened to bring the country to a halt during the Olympics at a time when the eyes are going to be on us. This is part of his plan.”
A fuel crisis works particularly well here too because – what with police cars, ambulances and fire engines needing petrol too – you get to accuse the tanker drivers and their union of endangering people’s lives, which makes the whole ‘enemy within’ thing that bit easier to sell. You do have to wilfully ignore the fact that Unite are trying to make sure emergency fuel depots are kept supplied during any strike but again, most of the media can be relied on to be quite helpful in this regard.
Of course, that’s not all. You also have to make sure that discussion of the actual reasons for the strike is avoided as much as possible. Note that no matter how many times in this video David Cameron repeats the mantra that strike action would be unjustified, he doesn’t once say anything about tanker drivers’ worsening pensions and working conditions which resulted in the strike ballot being called. The government – and Francis Maude in particular – slipped up during the public sector strikes back in November (and before that in June) by engaging in substantive discussions about the issues. If people actually start to understand why other working people care enough about an issue that they’re prepared to stop working and lose pay over it there’s a real danger they might start empathising with them, and then those striking workers become a lot harder to demonise.
The really nice thing for the government, of course, is that Unite are also involved in the public sector pensions dispute, which is still smouldering and set to flare up again soon. So if as a result of this dispute Len McCluskey gets fixed in the popular consciousness as the heir to Arthur Scargill, and then Unite get involved in further strikes over pensions (as they may well do), it’ll become that bit easier for the government to portray the strikers as evil militants rather than workers standing up for their rights, which will in turn make it that bit easier to push through the tighter labour laws they’ve been dying to pass for years. Oh, and for anyone who thinks this is all far-fetched conspiracy-theorising, you do realise that the Tories have a bit of a history when it comes to this kind of thing, right?
This isn’t necessarily to say that the tanker drivers shouldn’t go on strike – I imagine the government would be quite happy were the strike to be called off as well, and “don’t go on strike or you won’t be able to protect your members’ interests” is a counsel of despair for any trade union. But it’s something worth keeping in mind when the likes of David Cameron start acting like one strike by a couple of thousand people is the Winter of Discontent all over again.
Update: Charles Moore in the Telegraph tells us what he’s hearing from Tory MPs:
“This is our Thatcher moment. In order to defeat the coming miners’ strike, she stockpiled coal. When the strike came, she weathered it, and the Labour Party, tarred by the strike, was humiliated. In order to defeat the coming fuel drivers’ strike, we want supplies of petrol stockpiled. Then, if the strike comes, we will weather it, and Labour, in hock to the Unite union, will be blamed.”
This suggests I was right that the government is looking for a fight with the unions, but the panic-buying of fuel wasn’t part of the plan – an unfortunate combination of both cock-up and conspiracy.