This week, trade union leaders will meet to discuss calls for a date to be fixed for an all-out general strike. Union bosses have been threatening this action since last September, when at the annual Trade Union Congress conference, the largest union, Unite, demanded a “mighty campaign of civil disobedience”. It goes without saying that absolute pandemonium will be wreaked if such a strike does go ahead.
Let us be clear what this means. A general strike is the withdrawal of all government services, including emergency ones – action not seen since 1926 and which would unleash total chaos. The most vulnerable people would undoubtedly be hit hardest, and we only have to look at the last strike involving an emergency service to see how.
It was a walkout by London ambulance staff in November 2011, the events of which were captured in incident reports published last March. They describe widespread disruption to services, but one case involving an 83-year-old man stands out.
The man was found by his family lying on the floor of his home after a fall some hours before. He was conscious, though in obvious need of medical help. The first 999 call could not be attended due to industrial action, but as the man’s condition worsened, the family’s repeated calls became more desperate. They received no ambulance for over three hours, however, while strikers refused to attend. Calls by the NHS to unions to pause the strike were also ignored. Eventually, the man died before he could be taken to hospital.
Just imagine a strike, not only of ambulances on a national scale, but of all other public services too. The levels of risk that families would face are unthinkable.
It’s why I am publishing a report today, with the think tank Policy Exchange, which calls on the Government to take urgent action to remove the power of trade union bosses to withdraw emergency services. People see the right to strike in general as fair, but removing essential services for self-interest is an abuse of power. The public should be given new powers of injunction to call a legal halt to such action.
Make no mistake, I support the union movement. I believe it largely delivered a good service to workers, including workplace representation and counselling, and schemes offering financial advice and pensions to the low-paid. The problem is the retreat into outdated militancy by the big public sector union barons and the elites surrounding them.
Take the mindless opposition of the teaching unions to much-needed free schools. Or the medical unions’ opposition to paying more to nurses who perform brilliantly because it contravenes national pay bargaining. This is exactly why our research today proposes more radical reforms to bring about a wholesale shift of power in public services back to the people who use on them.
As well as protecting emergency services from strikes, we must enable people to become genuine consumers of services like health and schools, with the legal right to be able to compare, choose and switch them from a completely open field of providers. Staff should be paid according to achievement, and we must force back the EU and civil service bureaucracy that puts off charities and small businesses from bidding for public sector contracts.
The effect would be to properly embrace competition in the public sector, driven by the free choices people make – a transformational force for progress. Margaret Thatcher started this revolution back in the 1980s, and Tony Blair extended it, because unlike many politicians today, both understood that radical reform was possible if it was ultimately for a progressive social cause. Indeed, all the opinion research shows people would overwhelmingly support such reform today, especially poorer people who rely on government services most, but are left with the least choice and worst quality.
Popular demand for reform is also matched by an urgent practical need. As we reduce spending on services to balance the nation’s budget, demand for them only increases due to our growing and ageing population. Without reform to open services to innovation and the best possible providers, they will simply get worse.
In opposing any and all such change, however, the trade union movement is simply eating itself. The more oppositionist it becomes, the more its membership recedes to a public sector rump, when it once flourished throughout the private sector too. And as its membership concentrates, it also hardens, becoming evermore ideological and dogmatic – a vicious circle of decline and failed leadership, as calls for the insanity of a general strike now show.
The result of a general strike would, of course, only be to show that even emergency services, which should not normally be put out to competitive tender, would be safer and more dependable if provided by independent operators – perversely producing the exact opposite of what the unions want.
The Government cannot sit back while the militants make all the running in this debate, however. Progressive reforms to put services under the control of people’s free choices are urgently needed. But they must go hand in hand with action to protect services from wilful militant withdrawal. For the sake of the most vulnerable in our society, the time has come for tough action to ban emergency service strikes.
This article originally appeared on The Daily Telegraph’s website