The political right is ramping up efforts to demonise trade unions, peddling dishonest and hysterical campaigns, propped up by their billionaire-owned media and the out-of-touch Etonian commentators who spout such drivel with supposed integrity.
It’s no secret that political and media circles in Britain reek of elitism. The majority of Sunak’s cabinet is privately educated, with the PM himself having attended the £45,936-a-year Winchester College. Studies show that the most influential people in journalism are more likely to have been to fee-paying schools than the general population.
The Sutton Trust and Social Mobility Commission’s Elitist Britain 2019 report found that powerful figures in politics and the media, among other broad areas, were five times likelier to be privately educated than the general public were.
These are the people that are attempting to create a belligerent public opinion and national debate about the strikes – action that is fundamentally about the struggles of people on low pay, whose less privileged backgrounds have framed their lives as an uphill battle.
A long way from the worker ‘solidarity’ image Boris Johnson was keen to promote during the pandemic, when he pledged there would be no return to the “same old broken model” of low wages, low skills and low productivity, the political right is ramping up efforts to demonise trade unions, peddling dishonest and hysterical campaigns, propped up by their billionaire-owned media and the out-of-touch Etonian commentators who spout such drivel with supposed integrity.
Though with little to smile about of late, it comes as no surprise that Conservative MPs and their lapdog press have sensed an opportunity to pick what they see as a popular battle.
A ‘new low’
Anti-trade union hysteria climaxed when the Tory chairman, Nadhim Zahawi, suggested on national television that the impending nurses’ strike risked playing into the hands of Vladimir Putin. The comments were widely condemned. Pat Cullen, the RCN’s general secretary, said to “use Russia’s war in Ukraine as a justification for a real-terms pay cut for nurses in the UK” was a “new low.”
Barking up the same union-bashing tree as Zahawi was schools minister Nick Gibb, who accused union bosses of “holding the country to ransom.” The sentiment was echoed by Mark Harper, the transport secretary, who said the new strike dates were “incredibly disappointing” and accused the RMT of causing “harmful disruption” to passengers.” While Paul Maynard, MP for Blackpool North and Cleveleys, branded the strikes “a Christmas catastrophe for rail passengers.”
Facing growing pressure to push ahead with anti-strike laws, Sunak has said he is working on “new tough laws” to protect people from strike disruption. A bill has been introduced into Parliament, which would ensure minimum service levels of transport networks during strikes.
The Tories’ plans to push ahead with anti-strike laws come despite Britain already having some of the most restrictive trade union laws in Europe.
It has yet to be debated by MPs and peers, but, if the Tory media had its way, the bill would be swept through Parliament tomorrow. They believe it is Sunak’s ‘duty’ to protect Britain from disruption caused by strikes.
At the TUC conference in 2017, the then Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn had spoken of the tendency for unions to be demonised in the right-wing press.
Today, as union-bashing Tory ministers denounce the strikes and attempt to denigrate unions, the right-wing media’s assault on trade unionists has never been more visible.
‘Communist and Kremlin supporters lead the RMT,’ splashed The Times on November 7. The article claims that the leadership behind the rail union’s strike agenda includes a senior figure in the Communist Party of Britain and others who have ‘aped the Kremlin’s position on Ukraine.’
The Express published the same smear story, writing, a “leading member of the Communist Party sits as the union’s president, and a group called the Broad Left has helped others gain high positions.”
Of course, the hysterical headlines pay little attention to the RMT’s comments that it “does not support either Vladimir Putin or his actions in Ukraine.”
Similar frenzied and misleading headlines have been pushed out by the Telegraph. On December 4, the Conservative newspaper ran a piece titled ‘Rail unions refuse to save Christmas from ‘catastrophe’ after rejecting 8pc pay rise.’
Readers are thrown into the illusion that train workers have been offered – and have refused – an 8 percent pay rise.
It is only when you reach the eighth paragraph that the author vaguely informs readers that the pay rise would be spread over two years. A 4 percent wage increase when inflation is at 11 percent is a 7 percent wage cut, but, naturally, the Telegraph doesn’t dwell on that.
There are similar vitriolic op-eds all over the Tory media and at the helm of the panic and misinformation being spewed into the public domain about ‘militant unions’ are the very people who are the least likely to have a clue about the struggles of workers – privileged Eton-educated elites.
One such figure is Douglas Murray. The prominent neoconservative ideologue has been ranting anti-trade union drivel in the Sun, yelling ‘why should striking rail and postal workers get a big pay rise while our pay packets remain stagnant or worse?’
Who exactly the ‘our’ Murray refers to is, remains to be seen. Surely, he can’t be categorising himself, with his Eton-education and ‘Torygraph’ columnist salary, with the plight of everyday people trying to navigate the worse cost of living crisis in decades?
After claiming Margaret Thatcher would be the terror of these ‘greedy shirkers’ – if she was still around – Murray says he ‘admires’ Rishi Sunak at least trying to pass anti-strike laws. “But he needs to go much further. He needs to show that Britain cannot — and must not — be held to ransom by the unions.”
Then there’s Dominic Lawson, another right-wing political pundit who was educated at Eton. In an op-ed in the Times, the former editor of the Sunday Times, speaks of ‘what the union leaders don’t want to talk about.’
Like with much of the right-wing political commentary about the strike fall-out, the piece attempts to make out that public sector workers have a better deal than private sector employees. The problem is, according to Lawson, that “too many in the public sector genuinely don’t appreciate how much better off they are than the nearest equivalents in the private sector when it comes to their overall package, pensions included.”
True, public-sector workers do tend to benefit from more generous pension arrangements, provided always that they have accumulated many years of reasonably rewarded service, a rather large caveat, but that will feel like little comfort when paying eye-watering bills with pay rises that not only languish miles behind inflation but also behind the pay of private sector workers.
Public sector workers have, in recent years, earned less than their equivalent private sector workers.
The gap between pay growth in the public and private sector is near a record high, according to new official figures. Workers in the private sector saw their average pay rise by 6.9% between August and October, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). That compares to wage growth of 2.7% for public sector employees.
“Outside of the height of the pandemic period, this is the largest growth rate seen for the private sector and is among the largest differences between the private sector and public sector growth rates we have seen,” said the ONS.
A chart produced by BBC Newsnight’s Economics Editor Ben Chu shows the scale of the issues public sector workers are facing in terms of pay.
Chu tweeted: “Using inflation-adjusted average weekly earnings, total pay in public sector today is around 5% lower (£597 vs £626), having been 6% higher 12 years ago. Relative to 2010, private sector pay is *up* 2.6%, but public sector pay is *down* 8.15% (though note that with most of the fall happening since February 2021)…
“And, of course, note that 2.6% growth in private sector pay over 12 years is utterly abysmal too, by any standard!…”
Then there’s the popular argument – or myth – being pushed out by the government that pay increases for public sector workers would lead to further inflation. The ‘wage-price spiral’ argument is nonsensical, namely because that, unlike in the private sector, the public sector cannot increase its costs for consumers to make up for the higher wages. As Ben Zaranko of the Institute for Fiscal Studies told the FT: “It is difficult to see how an increase in public sector wages could directly contribute to a wage-price spiral.”
This year has seen the sharpest fall in living standards on record and those on lower incomes are feeling the impact the most as they spend a greater proportion over their take-home pay on essential living like food and heating.
Sadly, the right-wing contempt for unions spouted by the billionaire-owned Tory media and its Old Etonian columnists, seems to be seeping into supposedly more liberal media outlets.
This week, Mick Lynch accused the BBC of ‘parroting’ right-wing propaganda. Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, the RMT general secretary accused the presenter Mishal Husain of showing bias when he was pressed on the average amount of pay lost by union members through strike action.
Likening the BBC’s coverage to “an editorial line I could read in the Sun or the Daily Mail or any of the right-wing press in this country,” Lynch said: “I find this a shocking stance that the BBC will take – you’re just parroting the most right-wing stuff you can get hold of on behalf of the establishment, and it’s about time you showed some partiality towards your listeners, to working-class people in this country who are being screwed to the floor by the attitudes and policies of this government.”
Fortunately, despite strike fearmongering being pushed onto our laps daily, the anti-union narrative peddled by the right jars with reality.
Not only have the likes of Mick Lynch and Eddie Dempsey been elevated to a heroic status for ‘bossing interviews’ and flooring critics in the corporate media, but public support for strike action continues to hold. The latest polling by Savanta, which was reported by Politico, shows that just under half (47 percent) support strike action versus 34 percent who are opposed, compared with 50 percent in support of, and 29 percent opposed, at the end of October. Meanwhile, forty percent blame the government for the railway strikes, while 37 percent blame the trade unions and only 11 percent blame the workers themselves.Yes, strikes are disrupting and inconvenient but they are not half as inconvenient as nurses not eating at work in order to feed their children, or cleaners on the railways being forced to use foodbanks to survive.
With real wages forecast to be lower in 2026 than they were in 2008, the efforts of trade unions are more crucial than ever. Though try telling that to our Old Etonian political and media figures, who are well-known for being grossly out-of-touch with ordinary people and their struggles – they’re last people on the planet who should be moralising about the working-class.
Right-wing media watch – Rent-a-mouth Lord Frost conflates Harry and Meghan docuseries and opposition to Brexit in the Mail
The shriek of exasperation from the right-wing media over the Harry and Meghan documentary series was, sadly, inevitable. The young woman of colour and her Royal husband’s account of the controversies and challenges they have faced, was always going to be leapt on and pontificated by the pugnacious right-wing press.
And so it was.
‘Harry and Meghan’s UK popularity plummets following Netflix series’ screamed the Telegraph, while Mail commentators were almost lining up to share their rage over the Sussexes’ revelations.
Much of the panic was over the documentary’s alleged portrayal of Brexit. While neither Harry nor Meghan mentioned the word ‘Brexit’, much of the beef was centred on connotations, including footage showing a Brexit protest, followed by Boris Johnson vowing to “take back control of this country.”
Amid the panic, employment minister Guy Opperman urged people to boycott Netflix, while Tory MP Peter Bone said it was ‘ridiculous’ to suggest the Brexit debate was racist.
Outspoken Brexiteers seized the opportunity to share their objection, with Nigel Farage branding the couple ‘despicable.’
Fellow big mouth Brexit heavyweight Lord Frost barked similar reprimand, and the Mail didn’t hold back in shouting about it.
‘Ex-minister Lord Frost accuses Harry and Meghan of ‘smearing’ millions of Brexit voters after controversial new Netflix series suggested leaving UK triggered racist backlash that helped forced them out of the palace,’ splashed the tabloid.
In what the Mail describes as a ‘powerful intervention’ – ‘paranoid outburst’ might be more fitting – the former Brexit minister said the Sussexes’ alleged claim about Brexit triggering a racist backlash suggested they ‘are either ignorant of the real facts,’ or ‘making deliberately incorrect claims for political reasons.’
Referring to the documentary as ‘self-indulgent,’ Frost said it ‘resurrects the tired old criticism that our decision to leave the EU was driven by racism – and even asserts that such attitudes worsened pressures on their marriage.’
In a bid to give his point more credence, the Tory peer cited surveys showing Britain’s low levels of racism and that the decision to leave the EU was driven by a wish to restore self-government and sovereignty.
The mentioned polls contrast starkly to those that show racism in the UK has risen since the Brexit vote, and studies that find anti-immigration prejudice was a major factor in deciding the referendum result.
On his resignation as Brexit minister in December 2021, neither Frost nor Johnson, for obvious reasons, highlighted or addressed the fact that the radical renegotiation of the withdrawal agreement had failed to be the success they had hoped for. Frost’s Brexit minister failings have seen the Tory peer been described as a flop. In March this year, Frost came under fire for saying Tories should pledge to rip up with Brexit withdrawal agreement with Northern Ireland, unless the EU gave in to British demands.
By exposing some uncomfortable truths, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s Netflix series strikes a raw nerve among Brexiteers like Frost, not only about immigration and racism, but about the failure of Brexit and the government’s role in that failure. No wonder they’re keen to holler hatred and scorn towards the documentary to all who might be listening.
Ironically, the hostile reaction from right-wing politicians and their media against the docuseries, only proves Meghan and Harry’s point.
Then there’s the possibility that the recent Lord Frost coverage in the right-wing press is because the outspoken former Brexit minister is planning on standing as a Conservative MP at the next election, ahead of a possible leadership bid if the Tories lose to Starmer.
Now there’s a frightening prospect.
Woke-bashing of the week – Johnny Depp thrown into the woke weaponising lion’s den
The Hollywood actor has been dragged into the right-wingers’ ‘war on woke.’
Depp is, according to the Mail, ‘set to ruffle feathers at the ‘woke’ BRIT Awards after making the long list for three gongs – amid fears ‘female artists will refuse to share the stage’ after Amber Heard legal battle.’
Taking aim at the annual music awards ceremony, the newspaper speculates that Depp’s appearance there could ‘set the cat among the pigeon at the increasingly ‘woke’ Brit Awards.’ Why? Because the actor is the ‘scourge of feminists since his sordid court case with ex-wife Amber Heard featured claims of domestic abuse’, the Mail claims.
“Depp would liven up an increasingly dull event, but the Amber Heard case means female artists would probably refuse to share the stage,” an ‘insider’ told the newspaper.
The article proceeds to dig up the most controversial aspects of the court case. Failing to source and cite any opinions of the so-called feminists who would apparently oppose Depp’s appearance at the ceremony, the piece speculates that the actor’s potential inclusion would “send shivers down the spines of executives at ITV, which is screening the event.”
The paper then takes aim at ITV and, more specifically, its chief executive Carolyn McCall. According to the author, ITV has become more ‘politically correct’ under McCall, former boss of the Guardian.
The Daily Mail has never held back in launching excoriating attacks on the Guardian, describing the newspaper as the ‘Fascist left’ and accusing it of ‘fake news’ and being a ‘purveyor of hatred.’ It’s therefore not surprising that it should take aim at the former chief executive of the Guardian Media Group.
Returning the focus on the Brit Awards, the article continues to slate organisers for abolishing gender categories, such as Best Male Artist and Best Female Artist. Reacting to the 2022 Brit Awards in February, the Mail had published the same grievances of the awards ceremony apparently being blasted as ‘woke drivel’ after going gender neutral by scrapping male and female categories.
It seems that no UK institution is immune to the aggressive clutches of culture war stoking, right-wing media.
ITV, its chief executive, and the Brit Awards, with a bit of Johnny Depp thrown in as clickbait, are the latest victims of the Mail’s unashamedly loud and brazen attacks on anyone and anything they deem to be ‘woke.’
You wonder who their next scapegoat will be.
Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is author of Right-Wing Watch
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