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The Rebuttal - New Year, New Strikes, New Lines


Issue:

How should the Government brief the papers ahead of the worst week of rail strikes in thirty years?

Context:

Millions of workers face difficulties returning to the office with an estimated 80,000 trains being cancelled over five days of industrial action. The strikes centre on long-running pay disputes between the train operating companies and the rail unions. Technically, the Government has no role in the negotiations. But that isn’t stopping the Government being blamed for not breaking the deadlock.

The Government ‘line to take’:

“This is an act of self-harm — a generation of passengers will just write off the railways. We’re talking about permanent scarring. The longer the strikes continue, the greater the risk.”

Line review:

We get it. The Government is trying to say that it’s on the side of rail passengers. And that it’s not technically picking sides in this line. But it also kind of is. Which is why you end up with a headline which reads: “Millions will shun the railways forever, government tells unions”.

It’s not the best look to begin a year of strikes with a line which instantly raises eyebrows. It simply fails the sniff test. Will millions of passengers find a different way to travel forever? No. Why? Because they can’t. Yes, some might drive. But for many more, their only alternative to public transport is moving house (and we’re not building enough of those). It’s a dumb line. Worse, it makes the Government sound out of touch.

So why did they get it wrong? And how should they have made their point?

The Government needs to get across three messages. First, the Government needs to persuade the public that they’re on their side. This is difficult when a lot of the public are members of unions which are (or will be) striking and all of the public would quite like a pay rise. But it’s not impossible.

Express disappointment that the strikes are going ahead, highlight the small businesses that are struggling - particularly in the hospitality sector. Say that commuters deserve better. It’s not rocket science. It is predictable. It still works. And it’s definitely better than telling the public that they will write off the railways when they know they don’t have that option.

Secondly, the Government needs to explain that there is a structural problem with the railways. Passenger numbers have not recovered post-Covid and the network is in constant need of repair and updating. The result is that the railways keep needing to be bailed out by the Government or privatised. And this is particularly awkward for a Conservative government.

Perhaps by saying that strikes will exacerbate low rail usage, the Government is trying to shift some of the blame onto the unions for dwindling passenger numbers. But it’s not clear how persuasive this argument is. Your audience is the (voting) public. They know why they’re getting the train less and it’s probably more to do with their office letting them work from home than strikes. Better to acknowledge that people’s lives have changed, explain the impact of low passenger numbers and talk about how else to promote rail use.

Finally, the Government needs to explain that they can’t give everyone a pay rise. The line doesn’t address this. Yet, with nurses, ambulance workers. Royal Mail workers and (awkwardly) the civil service amongst a long list of striking sectors, intervening in the rail dispute would set an expensive precedent. And it’s one the Government needs to address.

The thing is, the public understands this. They get that inflation is a problem. They also get that not everyone can get a pay rise. There’s even a bit more resentment of striking rail workers than there is of nurses. Yes, they instinctively want the Government to step in and fix the problem. But the better approach would have been to set out why it’s not that simple.

Memo to “Government source” - don’t make up alarmist exaggerated predictions, just set out the facts instead. The public are suffering from the strikes. They’re thinking about why they’re happening. So just be honest and provide some context.

Line rating: Blinder Strong Does the job Problematic ✅ Piss poor


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