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The “general strike” threat in perspective

By Peter Hoskin
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Another year, another TUC conference, another round of dire speculation about a general strike. You see, the unions are going to debate a motion put forward by the Prison Officers’ Association, calling for “co-ordinated action with far-reaching campaigns, including the consideration and practicalities of a general strike”. If it actually happened, it would be the first strike of that magnitude since 1926.

But let’s not get over-excited: as the Telegraph’s Dan Hodges points out, a general strike is an unlikely prospect. For starters, mulling over the “practicalities” is some distance from heading out on to the streets, placards in hand, to wage industrial action that many union bosses and members are inclined against.* And then there’s the example of last November’s dispute, which was heralded as a general strike but reduced into a one-day affair which saw only a small proportion of union members militating against the government.

But neither should we underestimate the rise of union militancy since the Coalition was born. In fact, last year saw a four-fold increase in the number of working days lost to labour disputes from the year before. The total number of working days lost, 1.4 million, was the highest since 1990 (although that figure is, admittedly, dwarfed by, say, the 4 million reached in 1989):

Working days lost to labour disputes

This year, the number of working days lost to labour disputes stood at 190,000 in the period up until the end of June (the most recent month for which figures are available). This is less than for the corresponding period in 2011, but if there’s just another month like last November — as some of the unions are threatening — then it could be the first time since 1989-90 that two consecutive years have topped the 1 million figure for days lost to strikes.

And all this, of course, at a time of deep economic unease, which was never the case for those strikes struck in the New Labour years. If the PCS union’s pre-Olympics threats made the government more eager to reform strike laws, then the state of the economy should double the effect. I’ll surprised if this isn’t one of the leitmotifs of the forthcoming party conference.

* Conservatives oughtn’t forget the plurality of the union movement.