Public Affairs

No beer, no sandwiches, just business

Dismissing trade union negotiations as ‘beer and sandwiches’ underpins the lack of challenge to the moral case of inflation-proof pay rises, writes the ICTU’s John O’Farrell.

At around the time that the RMT General Secretary Mick Lynch was becoming a household name, a Daily Telegraph headline trumpeted: “‘Beer and sandwiches’ charm offensive will avert rail strikes, says Transport Secretary.”

Let me share this. If there is one term that does not equate to ‘charm offensive’ for trade unionists, it is dismissing any negotiation or discussion as ‘beer and sandwiches’. The term is ludicrous and patronising, and dates to a sneer from the mid-1970s when Prime Minister Rishi Sunak MP was not yet born, and the Transport Secretary Mark Harper MP was still in short pants. It is one of those terms like ‘union barons’ that reveal more about the speaker than the subject. In other words, that they are not to be taken seriously at all.

It used to be the case that British politics was reflective of the more rigid class structures of that society, whereby Labour was the workers’ party and the Tories’ dutiful servants of those who controlled land and capital. That necessitated an understanding of what trade unions actually did do, and could do, for their members. That understanding seems to have vanished among Tory MPs and their cheerleaders in the Tory press.

That is probably down to a number of developments since the heyday of the Three-Day-Week. Union membership fell dramatically with de-industrialisation as the mines were shut and engineering, shipbuilding, and manufacturing were off-shored. Membership has slightly increased over the past decade, with more members coming from expanding service sectors such as health and social care, education, retail, and call centres, but the majority of those members are women, and do not fit the cliché of the ‘union baron’, and so are largely ignored in favour of the balding bloke in a suit, such as Mick Lynch.

The service Lynch has rendered in recent months has been to trash all of the clichés imposed by tabloid hacks, dark-money think tanks, and MPs with backgrounds in accountancy, media, junior management, or hedge funds (sectors which are very cold houses for unions). His demolition of Piers Morgan is a masterclass in trumping a series of banal questions and smart-arsery by remaining calm and focused on the issues pertinent to the strikes on the railways. Morgan’s tactics of trivial distractions and whataboutery usually work on celebs and politicians whose media-training looks shifty when confronted by his feigned outrage, but Lynch kept his head and refused to play along. The result was that this episode was probably the most replayed of the dismal TalkTV shambles.

And so, given that they have little to challenge the moral case of inflation-proof pay rises, the Tories are reframing this unprecedented wave of strikes with rhetoric from the culture wars. Every poll shows support from the general public for the nurses, rail workers, teachers, civil servants, and fire fighters striking for a living wage, but a core minority back the government all the way, and those people are what the Sunak cabinet are focused upon. That is why they refuse to talk seriously with unions, hiding behind discredited pay review bodies and their pre-inflation pay offers.

Underlying this belligerence is the unavoidable realisation that Brexit is failing (not that English nationalists care one jot about the Northern Ireland Protocol). Brexit was always a culture war issue and was always incapable of resolving what really annoyed Brexiters. It was not one thing for all supporters of Brexit, but a coalition of complaint against changes in the UK (and globally) since the 1970s; ergo culture wars that never end.

The time for a grown-up conversation between Tory ministers and trade unions is overdue. They could even call it ‘negotiation’.

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