Tanker drivers and government incompetence

Is it just me, or have the tanker drivers (and their union, Unite) managed to pull off one of the most spectacular coups in modern industrial relations?  I mean, think about it: the best consequences they could have hoped for from any strike would have been fuel shortages, panic buying, a government response ricocheting between ineffectual dithering and towering incompetence, headlines in the right wing press attacking the other side in the dispute, and a public mood that doesn’t lay the blame at the door of the workers/ union.  And, just by voting for the option to strike – without setting a date, or even formally announcing that they will strike – the tanker drivers and their union have managed to achieve: fuel shortages, panic buying, a government response ricocheting between ineffectual dithering and towering incompetence, headlines in the right wing press attacking the other side in the dispute, and a public mood that’s laying the blame squarely at the door of the government and panicking consumers, not the union/ workers.

And then keep in mind that they’ve sidestepped the worst downside to any strike: the loss of earnings endured by striking workers.  Because they’re not actually on strike they’re not currently suffering loss of earnings.  But more: because of the panic buying, the government took the decision to allow tanker drivers to exceed normal health and safety restrictions on the hours they can work – and that, of course, means overtime for the tanker drivers.  If the strike does eventually go ahead, it will do so with individual workers having built up a cushion of excess earnings that will allow them to hold out for longer.  And if it doesn’t go ahead then the workers and their union will have achieved what they wanted from the strike – without striking, and with their employers having actually paid them for their trouble.

Truthfully, I’m struggling to think of any recent union campaign that’s managed to be so successful.  Of course, it has to be noted that it’s not so much the union’s achievement as it is the government’s catastrophic failure; I’d imagine that, even in their wildest dreams, the union couldn’t have hoped for a government response that would play so perfectly into their hands.

I mean, seriously, what did the government think they were doing?  They knew, when they issued their instructions to start stockpiling fuel, that any strike had to be at least 7 days away.  I’ll cheerfully admit to being a complete ignoramus on this subject – I don’t drive – but my understanding is that there was literally no point in getting people to fill up their tank that far away from any strike because, by the time the strike came along, their tanks would have been empty again.  Stockpiling could only conceivably have worked if people had stockpiled a day or two before the strike – and only if it had been accompanied by a recommendation to only drive when absolutely essential, in order to preserve your supply.

And then, too, the senior echelons of the government are made up of people who studied economics or history at university.  Surely they should know from their economic theory that hoarding always makes commodity shortages worse (because it distorts the market), or from their history that the British government introduced rationing during World War II as a measure explicitly designed to prevent hoarding of food, and thus ensure continuity of supply?

People on the left are used to thinking of politicians on the right as brutally efficient ideologues, and much of the opposition to this government is based on that assumption: commenters at The Guardian seem especially convinced that everything the government does is part of a brilliantly worked out but cunningly disguised master plan.  As I mentioned in passing in a previous post, I don’t see it like that:

And that’s perhaps the scariest thing about all of this: that the government don’t understand the consequences of their actions.  Whatever you thought of Margaret Thatcher’s policies, at least she knew what she was doing.  She may have wiped out the country’s manufacturing base (instead of refocusing it, as she should have done), but at least she didn’t do it by accident; she did it quite deliberately, in order to destroy the political power of the organised working class.  You might feel that was an unwise decision […] but at least it was intentional.  That’s not true of the current crop of Conservatives, and their Liberal Democrat enablers[.]

When I wrote that, back in late November last year, I’m not sure how many people would have been convinced by it, but the evidence for it seems to be piling up of late.  There’s the putative fuel strike, obviously – and the Conservatives’ handling of that is made even more woeful by the suggestion that they actually thought the whole sorry affair would show them in a good light.  But there was also the decision to scrap the 50p tax rate while increasing the tax paid by pensioners in the budget, the reaction to which apparently took the Conservatives completely by surprise.  (It’s one thing to include the policies in the budget, but it’s quite another to be so lacking in basic political nouse that you don’t even realise they might be unpopular.)

I think quite a number of us were expecting the coalition might not prove to be the most stable or effective government we’ve ever seen.  We were expecting tensions between the coalition partners, I think, and perhaps some infighting amongst the Conservatives on the issue of Europe.  I don’t think any of us expected to see them just fall apart, spontaneously, for no reason other than basic managerial incompetence.

The thing about the funding scandal, and the tax changes in the budget, and now the debacle of the non-existent fuel strike is that they’re all self-inflicted.  None of these are problems the government would have had to face, come what may, or major policies that they might have calculated it’s worth taking a hit on.  They’re all problems they’ve created for themselves, and which are now shredding their reputation.

I’m not going to pretend to be upset about this.  As someone who could hardly be more opposed to this government, clearly the sight of them slowly but surely falling apart is causing me a kind of slow-burning schadenfreudegasm (albeit one that’s tinged with regret, given the damage they’ve already done to the most vulnerable people with their welfare and health ‘reforms’).  Still, whether you take pleasure in it or not, it remains a remarkable thing to witness.  I mean, to be brought down by events beyond your control – that’s a risk every government runs.  And to gradually disappoint as you fail to live up to what your supporters hoped you would achieve – that’s the fate that awaits pretty much every politician.  But to fall catastrophically apart simply as a result of your own incompetence and lack of political judgement when your government is less than two years old – well, that’s really something else.

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2 Responses to Tanker drivers and government incompetence

  1. blackberryjuniper says:

    Aethelread, do you really think the fall out from this will be that bad for them? I’m worried it won’t be…

  2. Hi blackberryjuniper,

    From this one event, no. But the cumulative impression of dithering incompetence – and the way they’re annoying and alienating the kinds of people they need to vote for them if they’re to do well in a future general election – will harm them, I think. And the fact that these problems are coming so thick-and-fast so early in their term of office is not a positive sign for the Conservatives, either.

    But I wouldn’t want you to get the impression that I’m predicting their imminent failure; it’s still perfectly possible the coalition will survive the full 5 years, and that the Conservatives will win a standalone majority in 2015. I think their chances of that are currently worsening, and I don’t see any particularly strong signs they’ll be able to pull out of their downward spiral anytime soon – but 3 years is a long time, and anything might happen.

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