Principles over pragmatism?

15 February 2023
Authors Matt Hay

Why cooperation and negotiation are crucial to get the UK back on its feet

3 min read
3 min read

Britain is in the midst of unprecedented industrial action. Workers in transport, health, education, mail and the civil service are downing tools, but the government seems unmoved. 

Since the industrial revolution, workers have been halting activities to create change. Causes usually include things like better pay and safer conditions. If you work for a living, you owe something to those who have taken this decision in the past. Strikes are the reason that employers no longer expect you to work for sixteen hours a day, six days a week. 

Look hard enough, and most of the progressive moves made in this country can be traced to somebody putting down a tool and picking up a placard. Industrial action is intrinsically tied up with our notions of community. When individuals put themselves at risk in pursuit of a higher aspiration, social ties are strengthened. Striking is a power play that has a clear purpose. A byproduct of this is a boost in solidarity. 

Principles over pragmatism

There is a problem with the current situation: both sides are putting principles over pragmatism. The consequence of this is that we now live in a country where trains don’t run, roads are overcrowded, hospitals are deadly, the postal service is in disarray, and parts of education are on pause. 

The government thinks it can get us back on track by stifling strikes with a load of new laws that would prohibit people from doing so. Under the plans, unions get sued if they launch industrial action, and workers get fired if they participate. A move like this isn’t quite as draconian as Russia’s 1993 outright ban on striking, but (perhaps rather shockingly) it isn’t quite as progressive as China’s policy on it. Despite the role of human rights abuses in the country, there’s no legal prohibition from withholding labour if you want to campaign to make things better. 

More anxious to agree than to disagree

Both sides need a refresher course in how to negotiate and concede. The differences between arguing and negotiation are subtle but crucial. Dean Acheson, who was US secretary of state and a policy advisor during the cold war, put it well: “Negotiation in the classic diplomatic sense assumes parties are more anxious to agree than to disagree.” 

Impasse occurs when principles creep in. That is outrage at what the other side is requesting or the assumption that for one party to win, another must lose. A successful negotiation involves a trade where everyone involved walks away with something of value. As with any form of community, divisions weaken, and disparate groups find a common goal. 

The government and unions must come together to focus on what might be gained in the current scenario. While public support for rail workers is waning, people are more generous with the action taken by NHS staff. The image of the Tory government wouldn’t suffer from loosening the purse strings and easing the cost of living crisis for essential workers. This might encourage union leaders to put outrage to one side and accept that it’s better that some (rather than none) of their demands are met. 

Arguments don’t make society better, negotiations do. Having more compassionate and concessionary ones will make the community stronger. They might even make the UK’s basic services something that people can once again rely on.  

Matt Hay
Founder and CEO at Bulbshare


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