In recent weeks, there has been a growing difference in attitudes to the lockdown between those who can work from home and those who can’t.
Mark Drakeford, a Welsh politician, summed up this predicament on The Andrew Marr show last week: ‘You can open anything you like, but if people don’t think it’s safe to go there, then they’ll vote with their feet… we are going to have to persuade people it’s safe to resume normal activity’.
What Drakeford is referring to is an event that has not been seen in British politics for decades: a walkout by workers over their rights. He’s spot on, and we should expect over the coming weeks and months trade unions to play a pivotal role in our exit from lockdown.
I came to this conclusion a few weeks ago when my mum, an administrator at a secondary school, said to me she had joined the public sector union, Unison, because she wanted to know her rights in the workplace. She is not alone — over 16,000 people joined Unison alone during the peak of the coronavirus pandemic.
Several other trade unions have also expressed an appetite in taking on the government. RMT, TSSA, NASUWT and PCS have all made clear that they will not tolerate workplaces that are unsafe for their members.
Trade unions appear to have a renewed sense of confidence in their role as intermediaries in society. For decades, such groups have been irrelevant to public opinion in relation to politics. Other than decisively electing Corbyn as leader of Labour, what else have the unions done for the politics of labour?
But this time round, the unions have been the first association in our body politic to capture the mood of public opinion. Rightly or wrongly, ordinary people are scared of coming out of lockdown, and do not want to be the government’s cannon fodder while everyone else works from home for the next 12 months.
You can see from a mile away what the headline of the red-tops will be if they have don’t get their say over the lifting of lockdown: ‘Government abandons the people for profit’, ‘Tories over workers, again’, ‘a return to the 1980s’.
The government is doing everything possible to avoid that moment, so expect deference to trade unions in a way we haven’t seen for decades.