For years the right-wing press has cried “Winter of Discontent!” whenever industrial relations have followed temperatures south. Now those words are back on the front pages like a sort of pre-loved headline found on Ebay.
I think they’ve become more than a little threadbare. Taken from one of Shakespeare’s best-known quotations (spoken by the title character in the play Richard III), the words first appeared on the front page of Rupert Murdoch’s Sun newspaper during the series of disputes from November 1978 to February 1979 that are said to have propelled Margaret Thatcher into Downing Street.
They are currently being deployed not just by the Sun but also the Mail, Express and Telegraph as a kind of bogeyman, the subtext being that it’s mud that will stick to Labour. But I see a couple of flaws in this tactic. The obvious one is that millions of today’s voters weren’t born in 1979 and have no memories of that time. The other is that 40-odd years ago the electorate didn’t turn round and blame the unions for any inconvenience caused by the strikes. Instead, the government of the day was held to account. At that time it was the Labour Party led by James Callaghan but the Tories would have suffered the same fate, as they did in February 1974 amidst a miners’ strike and three-day week. Note to Tories: voters blame governments not strikers.
I have clear memories of that 78-79 winter because I was one of those on strike. It coincided with the longest spell of cold weather since the legendary 1962-63 freeze-up, and I remember shivering on a picket line outside the Yorkshire Post offices in Leeds, where I was a young journalist.
A national strike by provincial journalists didn’t cause much hardship, of course, except perhaps for those addicted to spot the ball competitions, but strikes by railway workers, haulage drivers, ambulance drivers, ancillary hospital staff, refuse collectors and grave diggers had visible consequences. Or so it seemed.
Looking back, horror stories associated with the Winter of Discontent have been exaggerated by Conservative-leaning newspapers. The Economist magazine found that the widespread food shortages said to result from the lorry drivers’ strike didn’t materialise. It is also a myth that coffins piled up around the country because of action by “callous” grave diggers. Unofficial action took place in just two places, Liverpool and Tameside, and lasted two weeks. Yet it has managed to become the most enduring folk tale of that winter.
But there is one important similarity with events in 1978-79 and those current disputes involving the transport network, NHS, Royal Mail, schools, colleges, civil service and even the Environment Agency’s flood prevention officers. All of them were not – as the Sun et al would have readers believe – caused by mindless far-left union barons using members as puppets to further their ideological crusades. In 1978-79, as now, the industrial action was a direct response to rampant inflation and plummeting standards of living.
And the outcome will be the same. The government of the day will get it in the neck. Trying to paint public sector workers and Labour as villains by enacting so-called “minimum safety levels” to prevent strikes will backfire spectacularly. To use another quotation from the time of Shakespeare, the Conservatives will “get their just deserts”.