Britain is braced for a winter of strikes – yet a public backlash just hasn’t happened

Winter is suddenly here, and with it a chill descending. This Arctic snap brings with it the season of falls on icy pavements, breathing difficulties aggravated by the cold, cars skidding off frozen roads and drunken Christmas party casualties. The worst time of year, you might think, for the first ambulance strike since the 1980s and the first national nurses’ strike in more than a century, especially as the NHS is grappling with a rush of parents understandably panicking about an outbreak of strep A.

Related: Trade unions vow to oppose anti-strike laws for NHS and ‘critical infrastructure’

The armed forces may be drafted in to cover, somewhat ironically given that they, too, are public sector workers who spent the pandemic building hospitals and shipping PPE in return for a less than bumper payrise. But it’s still no time to be old and frail, worrying about what might happen if you slip on the stairs, or to be a family without a car, wondering how you’d get a child to hospital in the middle of the night.

Then again, a winter of strikes is no time to be a lot of things. It’s no time to be a pub or restaurant owner who barely survived lockdown and is now facing yet another round of cancelled bookings, thanks to train strikes leaving office partygoers fearful of getting stranded. It’s no time to be a child who struggled with home schooling and is now missing lessons once again, thanks to a teachers’ strike in Scotland.

A wave of industrial action affecting everything from the Christmas post to new year getaways, with border officials at some of the country’s busiest airports due to walk out later this month, means everyday life is about to get more difficult for most of us, and actively frightening for some. But, to put it bluntly, that’s the point of strikes. They’re designed to make life miserable; to jolt us into realising how quickly life would fall apart if it wasn’t for whoever is withdrawing their labour, and thinking again about how much that labour is worth to us. Which makes it all the more interesting that half of the respondents to a YouGov poll this week backed paramedics and 999 call-handlers striking, despite the potentially frightening consequences, and 48% opposed government proposals to ban them from doing so.

That groundswell of support could, of course, change if (and God forbid) something tragic happens as a result of strike action. But for now, it seems there is still an awful lot of goodwill in the bank for NHS workers. We know they were there for us when it counted and we know, too, how agonising many will find it to leave patients in the lurch. If even they are at the end of their tether, something has gone very badly wrong.

A rally organised by the Communication Workers Union (CWU), in support of striking Royal Mail postal workers, Parliament Square, London on 9 December 2022.
A rally organised by the Communication Workers Union (CWU) in support of striking Royal Mail postal workers, Parliament Square, London, 9 December 2022. Photograph: Daniel Leal/AFP/Getty Images

It’s not that Britain has suddenly fallen in love with organised labour. (If anything, the reverse is true, with negative views of unions up nine points this month, according to YouGov’s regular tracker poll; there’s still broad opposition to train strikes, too, possibly because of the wearying regularity with which they come round.) But nurses explaining they’re so broke that they have to rely on food banks can’t credibly be portrayed as greedy, and threatening to withdraw emergency workers’ right to strike simply isn’t a serious response. If people at breaking point lose their right to walk out in protest, then the only choice left is to walk away for good, and that’s the last thing an already understaffed NHS needs. This isn’t 1979, when Margaret Thatcher rose to power vowing to crush the unions. As an incumbent now facing his own winter of discontent, Rishi Sunak arguably has more in common with a weakened James Callaghan, struggling to show he can get a grip on a country spiralling out of control.

Strikes have long been seen as most toxic for the Labour party, forcing it into a wretched choice between disowning the unions and enraging a suffering public. But in the current climate, the charge that Keir Starmer is “in hock to his union baron paymasters propping up the Labour party’s coffers” (as the Conservative party chairman, Nadhim Zahawi, put it) may not have the power it once did to wound.

For a start, the public is split on whether closeness to the unions is damaging Labour’s chances of winning the next election, according to research from Deltapoll, commissioned by the public affairs agency Millbank Communications, with a high proportion of “don’t knows” potentially open to changing their mind. (Leave voters were, however, markedly more anti-union, which may explain Starmer’s determination to distance himself from the picket lines).

But more telling, perhaps, is that after Liz Truss’s disastrous mini-budget, only 14% of voters now regard the Conservatives as broadly competent. If a winter of strike-induced chaos merges in the public mind with a broader sense that the government no longer seems to know what it’s doing, then even voters who don’t think a 15% pay rise is affordable right now may be less inclined to blame exhausted nurses for trying – and more inclined to blame ministers for failing – to cut a deal.

After weeks of the government insisting it wasn’t their place to intervene, Sunak seems to have recognised that he can’t afford to sit these strikes out. That, at least, is progress. But for the sake of all those feeling vulnerable this winter, he’ll have to bring more to the table than cliches and empty threats.

  • Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist