Sean O'Grady: It wasn't like this when Michael Gove was on the picket line

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I once stood on a picket line with Michael Gove. About 20 years ago we were working at the BBC. Cuts being imposed by the director-general John Birt would have meant the loss of the three-man crews we all used, and that we were convinced were a totem of quality television. Birt wanted to drop the "sparks", the electricians who looked after the lighting and the cameraman when he walked backwards in those shots of politicians (like the later Gove) striding down the street.

Anyway, Michael was the most courteous picket in the history of industrial disputes, reluctant to shout "scab" at even the most egregious strike-breaker. Since then he has resigned from the National Union of Journalists over some absurd boycott of Israel and become a cabinet minister. Me? I'm still paying my subs.

The BBC strike was not long after the poll tax riots and around the time of the first Gulf War. There had been a rash of (successful) strikes on the Tube for higher pay, and the economy was in the grip of recession, falling house prices and rising unemployment and inflation. The parallels are there.

Then, as now, the Labour Party was embarrassed by unrest, with its young employment spokesman, Tony Blair, planning to ditch the party's opposition to all the Tories' trade union reforms. Then, as now, Socialist Worker heralded the imminent end of capitalism.

But capitalism survived, and indeed even then you could see that it was about to entrench itself still further, as the Soviet Union lowered the hammer and sickle for the last time and "Red" China took more baby steps towards modernisation and globalisation.

So I am sceptical about claims from the left, and indeed the Government (for its own purposes), that this is the beginning of some great wave of industrial militancy. I doubt it will be.

First of all, the pattern of industrial action has changed radically, and almost unnoticed. In the good old, bad old days "proper" strikes were "indefinite stoppages" – a walkout, usually with no notice to the bosses, where you stayed out until you won your demands, even if that took months. British Leyland car factories were the archetypal battlegrounds of the era, often going for long periods without a single vehicle leaving the gates.

Indeed, when the workers at the Triumph plant at Speke in Merseyside went on strike in August 1977 they never built another car ever; the management closed the place in May 1978. Now that was a proper strike.

These days we have slightly pathetic 24-hour stoppages, more gesture than serious resistance, and one reason for that is the removal of unemployment and housing benefit payments to strikers.

When you start losing pay, the calculations become more finely balanced and purely pecuniary. Appeals to class solidarity are less effective if the mortgage falls into arrears.

Second, public opinion is not unequivocally behind these strikes, in part because they're about generous pension provisions that were lost by the private sector decades ago, and there are six million public-sector workers against 23 million private-sector ones.

Third, we just don't seem able to do decent unrest. Supposed "anarchist chaos" is usually a matter of a few broken windows. On the "day of action" and "march of the alternative" in March, one supposed rioter got into a bank and couldn't find anything more Lenin-like to do than chuck some leaflets about cash ISAs on the floor. Some "alternative" economic strategy that is.

But if future protest did turn nasty and frightening enough, it would simply alienate the silent majority of the population who have, in fact, bought the coalition argument that we're in too much debt and we need to get out of it.

If you can't win the argument, you cannot win – and do not deserve to win – the strike.