Striking and protesting are not primary actions. One does not ask to finish half an hour early then strike when told “no” any more than one immediately takes to the streets when bills begin to rocket up in price. These are desperate actions, taken as a last resort to call heed to the wider powers of the country that a problem unsolvable by workers, or the public as a whole, exists.
For too long now, the British public has been misled by the twin arms of an utterly ineffectual government and a media machine desperate to spin a gaudy narrative of lazy workers wanting more for less. Glaring headlines shared by Conservative MPs declare that Britain has become a “something for nothing” state- and yet an anonymous healthcare worker striking outside Leeds General Infirmary recently told me “some days it’s like coming in to a hospital in the trenches- I’m not striking because I enjoy it, I’m striking because- whether we’re there or not- it’s not safe for patients OR for staff”. When I spoke to a striking rail worker outside Leeds train station a few weeks ago I was told “my life is practically over. My mortgage went up, my electric and gas went up, my food bills are up, my wife is sick- Whether I strike or not I cant afford to live”.
Striking has long been a fundamental right of workers, but this right has been restricted and squeezed continuously since the dark days of the winter of discontent. In 1980 Thatcher passed anti “sympathy strikes” legislation, halting any wider spread of striking. Balloting was enforced, and the time between ballot and response was decreased from seven days to five whilst postal balloting was also introduced- not only did this involve increased cost, but it also meant determined organisation was required in order to even question adequately the workforce involved in the ballot and even these subversive moves were only the quieter actions laid by Thatcher to suppress strike action.
Unfortunately, the previous labour administration did little to remove restrictions on protest. Blair was reportedly focused more on drilling down on the economy and bringing in results, believing it was unnecessary to scrap the anti protest legislation in favour of simply working constructively to address issues which would prompt strikes.
Prime Minister Sunak’s desperation to enforce legislation around striking which guarantees a “minimum service level” is wholly ironic: minimum service levels are not being met at present, even on non-strike days. When I was thirteen I broke my wrist, and I thought the four hour wait in A&E before I was given a cast was exorbitant: now, 36 hour waits in A&E are the norm: people die waiting for ambulances to arrive or inside of them as they queue for triage outside departments crowded to bursting and understaffed.
These issues long predate the pandemic- an NHS staffing crisis has been ongoing for so long that I do not believe we’ve seen normal staffing levels since 2010 at best.
Having worked as a recruiter for the NHS directly for two years, I remember being given the amended pay scale one day and being agog: a fully trained, fully qualified consultant earned just over £100,000 at the time. People will, of course, say this is a high salary- and yet I am willing to bet that those complaining do not have to pay hundreds of pounds for indemnity insurance a year, hundreds of pounds for GMC registration, for parking, for a mortgage within an appropriate distance from the hospital in case they are summoned for an emergency. Those who quickly complain that NHS staff salaries are high too often fail to factor in the huge amount of money doctors and nurses must spend in order to simply progress in their careers.
That pay scale has barely changed since 2016 when I left the NHS’ employ and yet, due to governmental mediocrity we have seen an unprecedented rise in everything we are required to spend on: mortgage and rent have spiralled, uncontrolled bill growth continues, in Labour run councils council tax is the only means of funding as it is widely suggested that the conservatives throttle funding, so council tax bills rise and, of course, the very goods we buy- food, clothing, sanitary products- have continued to grow exponentially in prices.
The malfeasance of Truss and Kwarteng led to a fiscal black hole, into which fell the dreams of many- home ownership, reasonable rental prices and more back breaking fiscal requirements fell like lead weights on the shoulders of the British public.
How does the government respond to this shocking burden to taxpayers? By passing legislation preventing us from complaining about it.
But it is not merely workers rights being throttled by the hand of a malfeasant government- the very public’s voice is being smothered under a legislative deluge started by ex Home Secretary, Priti Patel and continued by her contemporary, Suella Braverman.
Patel passed the Police, Crime, Courts and Sentencing Bill, which was given Royal Assent on 28th April 2022. The bill focused on ensuring the police were given further powers through robust expanse of the “unacceptable protests” clause: a deeply problematic clause which was questioned by many a “lefty lawyer”- for what is an “unacceptable” protest?
The act also endowed the Home Secretary with the power to make regulations without having to defer to parliament, essentially widening the scope for prosecution, criminalisation and eschewing responsibility that usually sits in hand with the person in the Home Secretary chair.
Under the PCCSB, you could be charged as a “public nuisance” if your protests were “noisy or disruptive”- unlike those very useful quiet and non disruptive protests we hear of so often in the history books.
As the bill moved through the house of lords, huge sections were excised, deemed too extreme and draconian. Braverman, unable perhaps to create and implement her own legislation, swept the offcuts of this bill up, waited for the PCCSB to pass royal assent, took over from Patel then (ignoring the brief period where she stepped down in disgrace for leaking confidential information), used the new powers included in the primary bill to pass the offcuts unopposed under the Public Order bill.
The Public Order bill essentially criminalises the act of even attending protests- those who have attended protests within five years can be compelled legally to “check in” their nonattendance at subsequent protests and can even be legally barred from referencing or speaking about protests which others may attend on social media, thereby disrupting the possibility of encouraging active participation in protest. Braverman also has the power to give injunctions to those “likely” to protest- and yet the regular crowd of free speech advocates who go to pains to defend peoples’ rights to speak out are suspiciously quiet on this.
Garden Court North chambers had this to say on the Public Order bill:
The right to protest is at the heart of all of the hard-won rights that we enjoy in our democratic society. The Public Order Bill 2022 presents a grave threat to that right and would mark a regressive shift of power away from ordinary people and towards the State.
Not content with stripping protest rights back to the bare sinew, Sunak is now passing legislation so restrictive it even prevents “slow march” protests, where protestors walk slowly in the streets to disrupt traffic.
The overarching question which the wider public should be asking is this: would a government interested in solving problems also actively garrotte the publics’ methods of speaking out about them?
A well run country does not need to pass anti protest and anti strike legislation, because governments which drive results and correct issues are curing the diseases of which strikes and protests are a symptom. One begins to suspect that the disease from which these symptoms emanate is, in fact, a government embroiled in scandal after scandal- from Sunak’s second FPN of his public tenure to Braverman’s lazy dismissal of a holocaust survivor’s warning of her rhetoric, on to Zahawi’s tax affairs which saw him removed in shame- ironic, given Sunak’s taxation snafu over non-do status, or even to the fresh sleaze revelations of Johnson’s securing up to £800,000 loan by a friend he then appointed to a key BBC position and a distant cousin at the bank. We sometimes do not know where to turn in the U.K. because at every juncture lies further injustice, further malfeasance and stricter repercussions for not simply “making the best of a bad situation”.
The normalisation of “suffering for Britishness” is an odd phenomenon, reminiscent of the frog in the slowly heating pan. The citizens of the United Kingdom do not realise that we are, or deserve to, slowly boil in the swamp of corruption pouring steadily from Westminster, subsuming the country and winding us inextricably into the corruption the tories have solidified- and until the British and in particular the English become aware of the steady heat rising around us, we will continue to be scalded by the bad actors who stack the cabinet.
Additionally one must take into account a third arm of state machinery- the police force.
The police are an arm of control the government has been all too willing to use at their discretion, creating the bills mentioned above under Patel and Braverman to restrict our rights. The police force continues to be assailed daily by the excoriating light of truth- police are outed as rapists, racists and bigots, all leading to more state protection through watery statements from Braverman and other officials, or by promises of reform which still does not improve the ramshackle-state of either trust in the police, or the actions of them.
The police are the physical clenched fist of the state, the government it’s rotting brains, the media it’s fork tongued mouth and with these three pillars in place, we fail to be the country we can be, we fail to keep the rights we deserve and we continue to be pinned supine under the conservatives.
A government who takes these radical actions is not a government who will address the root causes- so one must then ask whether a cabinet uninterested in fixing the issues of a divided, exhausted country is a cabinet rotten to the core… and in need of replacement.