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Is the UK heading for a 1970s-style Winter of Discontent?

Geoff Riley

14th December 2022

Strike action is on the rise but how close are we to the industrial strife commonplace during the 1970s?

Is the UK heading for a 1970s-style Winter of Discontent?

Is the UK returning to a strike-ridden economy associated with the 1970s?

The 1970s were famous for many things including flared trousers – I had plenty of those!

Also, for a period of severe industrial unrest culminating in the Winter of Discontent in 1978-79.

Yes - the number of strikes and working days lost from industrial action is now at the highest level for some years. But to claim that this is a return to the industrial strife of the 1970s is stretching it!

Only around one quarter of people in work are members of a trade union. By contrast, in 1979 when Margaret Thatcher was elected as Prime Minister, over half of people in work were union members.

Perhaps public opinion is beginning to tilt towards making it harder for unions to call a legal strike?

We must wait to see if a new winter of discontent is on the way.

As a counterpoint to lots of coverage of the current wave of strikes, it's worth reading the following analysis from yesterday's Guardian. Did you know for example that real private sector pay is 4.3% higher than it was in 2010, whereas real public sector pay has fallen by the same amount.

Factor in the overblown claims about how increasing public sector pay would be inflationary, which it isn't relative to the current effect of energy prices and you might have a different view of industrial action.

Geoff Riley

Geoff Riley FRSA has been teaching Economics for over thirty years. He has over twenty years experience as Head of Economics at leading schools. He writes extensively and is a contributor and presenter on CPD conferences in the UK and overseas.

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