Inflation forecast to reach 13%, the threat of recession looming, the cost of food, energy and petrol spiralling. No, this isn’t yet another throwback to the 1970s, but the latest headlines from the Tories’ self-inflicted cost-of-living crisis.
12 years of Conservative economic mismanagement have left us with a floundering economy, sluggish growth and record falls in real pay. So many are feeling poorer and struggling to make ends meet. It is in this context that BT and Openreach workers took strike action earlier this week through their union CWU.
Decisions to take industrial action are never taken lightly, and this one was particularly unprecedented as the first national telecoms group ballot in 35 years – and the first ever national call centre strike. The strength of feeling among these workers is clear. As times keep getting tougher for working families and in-work poverty rises under the Tories’ watch, others will also demand action.
Labour unequivocally supports workers’ right to strike. We stand with workers struggling to pay their bills. And we will stand firm against Conservative threats to take away that basic right to take collective action. But we also want to see these strikes resolved with employers getting round the negotiating table to agree a fair deal for their staff.
The consequences of not doing so are significant. This is not just some private dispute. As key workers operating critical national infrastructure, BT and Openreach employees kept the economy going during the pandemic by ensuring that we could work from home. They kept families connected in times of sweeping isolation. And, as the nature of work changes and flexible working becomes more widespread, their expertise is vital to accelerate the government’s stalled rollout of fibre-optic broadband everywhere.
BT is an important partner in delivering digital infrastructure, and ensuring this dispute is resolved matters to our economy and to us all. There is a simple way to end this – negotiating to find a resolution. BT is a profitable company, paying out millions to shareholders yet opening food banks for staff. It is disappointing to learn that the CEO of the BT Group, whose own pay package increased by 32%, has refused any such negotiation. This is highly unusual, which is why this week we have urged him to lead from the front and to open negotiations with the CWU in order to resolve this.
That is in the best interests of the workers, the company and the public – which is why the silence of another player in this dispute is so alarming. It is the role of the government to keep the country moving. But the Tories aren’t working. From overseeing the biggest fall in living standards in over 65 years to wrecking an economy already teetering on the edge of recession, to having no straight answers for distressed families who can’t fathom how they are going to pay for their soaring rent and bills, the government is letting us all down.
Instead of ill-judged attacks on leadership contenders, Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries should be doing her day job – and keeping her promise on broadband rollout. The Tories have already watered down their target to get the whole country connected. We need a government focused on the needs of the economy, embedding digital infrastructure, across all our nations and regions, with cities, towns and villages plugged into gigabit broadband, which is vital to national resilience and growth.
As Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, and Rishi Sunak, the former Chancellor, attempt to distance themselves from their own records and the Tories’ 12 years of damage, it’s clear that the public has had enough of them already. Labour has a plan for power to grow the economy, transform workers’ rights, and secure fair pay and deliver better working conditions through our new deal for working people. Until then, as a pro-worker and pro-business party, it is up to us to keep holding the government to account whilst the country suffers due to its inaction.