By Dr Diarmaid Kelliher

IN response to the cost of living crisis, we may be seeing the start of the most significant period of strikes in Britain for a generation. Railway staff, BT engineers, postal workers and more have already taken or balloted for industrial action. After more than a decade of stagnant real wages, and facing a recession and escalating inflation, many workers will see strikes as necessary to defend their living standards.

With strikes comes picketing. Picket lines have been a crucial, and controversial, part of British trade unionism since the 19th century. For most in the labour movement, picketing allows people to demonstrate solidarity, explain the reason for a dispute, and encourage other workers to join the strike. In contrast, those hostile to unions have often characterised pickets as sites of violence and intimidation.

For some commentators today, picket lines are a historical relic. Sky News’ Kay Burley interrogated RMT General Secretary Mick Lynch during the recent rail strike about what they would do with people crossing picket lines. She implied that they may go beyond peaceful means, justifying this by explaining that she remembered the miners’ strike.

The strikes of the 1970s and 1980s, especially the 1984-5 coal dispute, are crucial in shaping dominant conceptions of what picketing means. Often this is rooted in questionable history. The period from the early 1970s to the mid-1980s was one of comparatively high levels of industrial action. But little of it looked like the massed lines of police and miners seen at places like Hunterston power station in 1984. Picketing mostly involved small groups of workers seeking to peacefully persuade others of their cause. This was true even of the miners’ strike itself.

A concerted effort was made by politicians, business interests, and sections of the media to demonise picketing in the 1970s and 1980s. This justified more aggressive policing of striking workers. The result was the kind of injustices that have been powerfully demonstrated by the recent independent review of the policing of the miners’ strike in Scotland.

To prevent this happening again means recognising picketing as a legitimate tactic in industrial disputes. Picketing is an important way that workers can challenge the imbalance of power in our society. Attempts to restrict them are fundamentally attacks on democratic rights.

Centre-left parties often have an ambivalent relationship to picketing. Labour, in particular, has appeared conflicted on the issue. Anas Sarwar was among the party’s MSPs to join RMT picket lines. In contrast, Sir Keir Starmer ordered his shadow cabinet to stay away. But assertions of neutrality in strikes by the UK Labour leadership are of no use.

The frequently repeated refrain that we "shouldn’t go back to the 1970s" is correct in one sense. Ultimately, Margaret Thatcher’s government made working-class people pay for the crises of that decade. The current strikes will need to be part of a broader movement to ensure a different outcome this time. The party of Labour – and all other progressives – have to show which side they’re on, including by joining picket lines.

Dr Diarmaid Kelliher is a British Academy Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow’s School of Geographical & Earth Sciences