You would think so: judging by this morning’s headlines: “Cable: I’ll use law to curb union power“, “Cable warns restive unions of fresh laws against strikes“, “Cable warns of legal clampdown on strikes” and so on.
Paul Kenny, general secretary of the GMB, called Cable’s strike an “insult to working people“: but had he actually read the whole thing?
In fact, today’s speech to the GMB is a masterpiece in political tightrope walking. The business secretary has not changed the official stance from Downing Street, which is that there are no plans to tighten up laws governing industrial relations – but that could change if the unions become more radical and start mass strikes.
David Cameron is still resistant to the idea – from Boris Johnson – of introducing a minimum turnout level of 50 per cent for strikes; unless relations worsen sharply. (We revealed last month that ministers are looking at other ways to prevent strikes such as a ‘minimum service agreement‘ of the sort used in Spain).
I’m told that Vince is ambivalent, and less emollient towards the unions than other (Tory) ministers such as Oliver Letwin and Francis Maude.
The only issue which could prompt strikes across all industries and regions is public sector pensions, where talks are not going brilliantly – as Polly Curtis at the Guardian points out today.
Cable’s language was framed to please both sides. On the one hand he says that next month’s “day of industrial action” will prompt calls from the “usual suspects” in the union movement for general strike. That in turn will prompt media comments about an “autumn of discontent”, he continues. “And another group of the usual suspects will exploit the situation to call for the tightening of strike law.”
He then goes on to make a wholly moderate comment:
We are undoubtedly entering a difficult period. Cool heads will be required all round. Despite occasional blips, I know that strike levels remain historically low, especially in the private sector. On that basis, and assuming this pattern continues, the case for changing strike law is not compelling.
Only then does he issue his warning, which is not that the government will crack down on the unions if they get out of hand – but that they will be under pressure to do so. Not quite the same thing.
However, should the position change, and should strikes impose serious damage to our economic and social fabric, the pressure on us to act would ratchet up. That is something which both you, and certainly I, would wish to avoid.
It implies, as Paul Waugh puts it, an attempt to be “more like a candid friend rather than a Hammer of the Unions“.
Cable’s spin doctor was careful to point journalists towards the former comments yesterday, emphasising that unions had so far been responsible. “Headline writers got predictably carried away,” was the comment from one aide this morning.