As rail strikes rage, unions want to shake the magic money tree but there's no escaping pain of growing cost-of-living crisis – John McLellan

Solidarity with those on the picket lines, said Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar as he was pictured with striking rail workers outside Buchanan Street subway. Power to the people, comrade.

Thursday, 23rd June 2022, 4:55 am
Railway strikes have seen services cut dramatically across the UK (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Railway strikes have seen services cut dramatically across the UK (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

After the Miliband and Corbyn years, it shouldn’t be newsworthy for the leader of a party in lockstep with the unions to back strikes, but with such senior figures defying UK leader Sir Keir Starmer’s instructions not to join the RMT protest which ground trains to a halt, Labour risks turning this into a crisis of its own.

Maybe Mr Sarwar isn’t gaming the situation and, like 79 per cent of Labour supporters, just thinks rail workers should be given a no-strings seven per cent pay increase, but politicians who snub the leader without thinking through the consequences are in the wrong job.

This week marks a new low for Sir Keir’s authority. With only a modest lead in the polls over a Prime Minister in perpetual bother, even Conservatives recognise he should be landing blows every week, not air-shot haymakers.

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It’s one thing to express sympathy for workers facing the cost-of-living crunch, another to actively support action which will only make matters worse. Whatever Sir Keir’s shortcomings, if Labour is serious about government they would recognise he’s right to take a step back.

Mr Sarwar recognises the need to claw back workers’ votes from the SNP if he’s to rekindle Scottish Labour fortunes from the embers of a disastrous decade, but undermining the UK leader’s authority is a high-risk tactic, when in the south it’s Conservative voters they are wooing.

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Swinging back to populist Corbynism will keep Labour out of Downing Street and Mr Sarwar as far away from Bute House as he is now. And sounding like the SNP by blaming Conservatives for everything is as predictable as it is lazy and won’t persuade any SNP voter to switch.

The primary causes of spiralling inflation ─ post-pandemic supply problems worsened by the double squeeze on food and fuel costs from the Ukraine war ─ are international and pinning staff shortages on Brexit might appeal to the liberal middle classes, but not to Red Wall Conservative converts when UK data shows net migration was around 240,000 in the year to June 2021 and some 350,000 more people are claiming out-of-work benefits than in March 2020.

With teachers, postal workers, binmen and even lawyers all threatening strikes, supporting deals which match inflation will keep costs high, and that will mean job losses as services are cut to make savings, or higher taxes, or both.

Locally, if Edinburgh Council has to fund a seven per cent wage increase, libraries will close while your Council Tax bill wipes out your holiday budget.

And failure to control inflation means higher domestic interest rates, so mortgages and rents will rocket and further erase the effect of big wage deals. As higher housing costs fuel higher inflation, which raise interest rates and trigger higher wage demands, there will be no easy way out.

The unions answer is to visit the magic money tree and borrow more, but with debt interest payments soaring from £30bn to £70bn, it should fund tax cuts for all workers, not big public sector pay rises. All solutions for this deepening crisis bring pain. It’s only a question of degree.