There are two ways to interpret Vince Cable's ultimatum to trade unionists yesterday. You might take the Business Secretary's warning he could be forced to introduce tougher trade union laws, as demanded by lobbyists including the CBI, if there is an escalation in strike action as a straightforward threat. Or you might see this as a plea to the unions from a Liberal Democrat minister who is desperate not to give Conservative colleagues any ammunition in their battle for new legislation, particularly with Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, pushing for exactly that.
Either way, Mr Cable is taking a risk. The antagonism towards him from members of the GMB was palpable during his speech yesterday. The danger is that the Business Secretary hardens attitudes against the Coalition to such an extent that more, rather than less, strike action is the result. That might play into the hands of right- wingers just waiting for an opportunity to emulate the anti-union policies of Margaret Thatcher, but it would be to no one else's benefit.
Did Mr Cable have no choice but to confront this issue? Well, here's the thing about strikes: there aren't so many of them these days. The official government statistics show that in the private sector, the number of days lost to strike action has, over the past five years, been running at roughly half the levels of the previous five-year period - and again fell sharply last year. In the public sector, the story is in some ways even better, with the number of days lost to strikes having fallen in each of the past three years. Nor is there any sign of any marked increase in industrial action during 2011.
The statistics may surprise people, given some of the high- profile disputes of the past year or so - at British Airways, for example, or London Underground. But one reason why these disputes have been so eye-catching is that full-scale strikes have become relatively rare events.
It is true that the figures are significantly higher in the public than the private sector, chiefly because workers in the former are nowadays much more likely to be members of a trade union. But all the more reason not to have an unnecessary confrontation at this time - it is the public sector where potentially confrontational wage restraint and job cuts will be most keenly felt over the next few years.
As for the private sector, the fact that Britain is getting through a recession and its painful aftermath without a flare-up in industrial disputes is a tribute to employers and employees alike. Both sides have been remarkably open to flexible working practices and lower pay settlements (though there are growing concerns among unions about the way executive remuneration now seems to be racing ahead so much more quickly than workers' pay). Mr Cable must take great care not to jeopardise those better relations.
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