Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Out Brothers Out!


Following this afternoon's post I've taken a look at the long-term history of strikes under various governments.

The chart shows the rolling 12-month total for working days lost through industrial disputes from 1931 right up to 2008 (ONS data here). The annual average over the whole period is 4.2 million, but as we can see, that's heavily influenced by three big peaks:
  • Early 70s - after the gradual increase in strikes during the 50s and 60s, Heath tried to take on the unions. The 1972 and 1974 miners strikes eventually led to the three day week and Heath's ejection.
  • Late 70s - the Winter of Discontent was a reaction to Callaghan's public sector incomes policies, and it produced a sharp upward move in strike losses through 1978 and 1979; but the total spiked even further after Thatcher came to power and the steel unions went on strike.
  • Mid-80s - when Thatcher took on the miners, the dispute lasted for a year, resulting in a third huge spike of losses.

So is it correct that strikes always increase at the end of a Labour government? Not entirely - there was no increase in the final year or so of Attlee's government.

But in the final year of Wilson's 1964-70 government, strikes went through the roof, with days lost more than doubling from 4.2m to 9.2m. Ditto the final year of Callaghan, with annual losses increasing from 9.5m to 14.6m (yes, we're also wondering how that squares with the FT figure of 29.5m for the Winter of Discontent quoted in the last blog, but even 14.6m is still a significant spike up).

Let's see how the fag end of this hopeless shower get on. The rolling 12 month total to April 2008 stands at 1.1m, a near quadrupling from the 0.3m 12 month total just twelve months earlier. And there's nearly two years still to run.

PS There's one other point that jumps from the chart - the low level of strikes over recent years was established well before the 1997 election. Clearly the early 90s recession was important in dissauding strikers, but smashing the unions was key.

PPS Tyler has just recalled a most unfortunate indiscretion from his youth. While at uni he somehow got involved in the Kill the Bill campaign against Heath's anti-union legislation. What was he thinking of?

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