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If Ministers wish to confront the unions, tanker drivers are not the right way to do it

By Matthew Barrett
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Petrol station panicToday's news is filled with stories about the fuel crisis (or non-crisis). The pattern of stories is as follows: Ministers told the public to stock up on petrol. So they did. But it turns out the strike was never a sure thing, there had simply been ballot action urging a strike. So now we've all got more petrol than we needed, and we needn't have bothered anyway. Or something along those lines.

But Charles Moore's Daily Telegraph column - as is often the case - contains a passage that should make Conservatives question this fuel strike story:

"When I first heard Francis Maude’s suggestion on Sky News that we might all stock up “a bit of extra fuel with a jerry can in the garage”, I did not, I must admit, panic. His remark seemed a little unwise – and you could hear, by the way he immediately began to qualify it, that he thought so too – but I let it pass... But now that I have heard the Conservatives’ private explanation, which is being handed down to constituency associations by MPs, I begin to feel angry. The private message is as follows. “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.”"

As Moore goes on to point out, the difference between the two situations is that Mrs Thatcher's government built up coal reserves. They did not simply urge the public to go out and buy coal in the hope enough would be panic-bought to weather the storm. Moore concludes with this point: "In 2012, the Coalition is trying to press-gang the public, without saying so, into its political battles. All those people queuing on the forecourts were pawns in a Government-organised blame-game."

This "private" version of events may well be a convenient explanation thought up after the fuel strike mess to try and make it look like the Government knows what it is doing, while in reality, the Government has simply mishandled the media messaging of a fuel strike. This would be a happier reality than if the Government is genuinely attempting to pick a fight with unions over fuel.

If it is the case that Number 10 wishes to defeat the petrol tanker-driving unions in a highly public battle to prove that it is strong, it has chosen the wrong opponent upon whom to expend lots of Government energy. In the 1980s (and indeed before), it was perfectly clear certain industries needed modernising, and coal mining in particular was under the control of trade unions who were unwilling to allow the appropriate modernisation of the industry.

However, it is not at all clear that the cost or availability of petrol in Britain is impeded in a significant way by the militant behaviour of tanker drivers, or the unwillingness of tanker drivers to adopt 21st century working practices, unlike the coal miners of the NUM. Why are the tanker drivers threatening to strike? Their strike is not about pay, but about EU health and safety rules. Under European law, drivers are limited to nine hours on the road each day, but petrol companies demand they make a set number of deliveries every day, or face their pay being docked. They can either comply with restrictive health and safety laws, or lose pay. This is clearly not the textbook unreasonable strike, and just because workers are members of a union, their complaints are not wrong.

Thankfully, Unite have said there will not be a strike over the Easter period, and they will focus on talks through ACAS, and hopefully Ministers will now focus all their energies on talks as well. It will probably not come to pass, but if the Government does decide to resume a public fight with tanker drivers, they are not likely to get as much sympathy as some Conservatives clearly hope, and the public will regard it as a petty dispute launched against a small section of the union movement with a case worth listening to.


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