Is it no longer reasonable for men and women to strike for better pay?
As Labour gathers in Brighton for its annual conference there will be a lot of talk about Jeremy Corbyn’s first leader’s speech and how the party is reacting to his unexpected election; there will also be talk about the decision not to put renewal of Trident to a vote. Both are issues of importance. The former is about a man who, as leader of the opposition, could theoretically be our next prime minister; the latter is one of national security and Britain’s place in the world. Yet the chances of Labour forming a government in 2020 are remote, still more unlikely is that Jeremy Corbyn will get the opportunity to abandon Britain’s nuclear deterrent. There is a more current topic before Parliament, not insignificant, that will have a far-reaching impact on the country and Labour, but curiously may not receive front page headlines this conference.
The Trade Union Bill 2015- 2016 passed its second reading on 14th September by 317 votes to 284; a 33 vote margin for a government with a majority of 12. Its purported aim is modernisation so that “hard-working people” are not inconvenienced by unsupported strike action, but it is a massive transfer of power away from workers and to employers. Its core provisions introduce a turnout threshold for union ballots of 50% of registered members, with an even stricter one for essential public services - such as health workers, education, fire services etc. - of minimum 40% support of all members; it also allows agency workers to replace striking workers, making it easier to break strikes. The government has every right to introduce this bill and it was in the Conservative Manifesto, but this is not the 1970s or 1980s. According to the ONS, in 2014 788,000 days were lost to industrial action; in 2013 that figure was 444,000. 788,000 is a tiny fraction - a fall of 90% - of the figure from past decades. Is it no longer reasonable for men and women to strike for better pay? If 788,000 is too high, what is a reasonable expectation for days to be lost due to strike action?
It gets worse. The bill transfers large powers to the Certification Officer, who in future will be able to investigate unions without cause, will receive detailed administrative information on strikes and union’s political activities, and will also have the power to expropriate union records to ensure against union sedition. Moreover - and in truth I struggle to find adjectives to condemn this powerfully enough - picket organisers will be forced to wear armbands to show they have been given permission to go on strike. They will have to inform police of any activity relating strike action they post on social media. Leave aside that this could become a gross waste of police time this is an assault on accepted civil rights. It is profoundly illiberal. It is profoundly undemocratic. It is profoundly menacing. This from a party which used to have the torch of freedom as its logo; that believes in lighter touch regulation. Unless it is dealing with trade unions.
THIS is a nakedly partisan attempt to bankrupt a rival party
Finally, Clause Ten of the bill would make it unlawful to require a trade unionist to contribute to a political fund unless they opt-in, replacing the current opt-out system. This may sound justifiable but busy people sometimes do not always opt in to things they mean to. And does not trade union membership imply agreement with their political, as well as sometimes party, activities? This bill has at its core a rationale to starve the Labour Party. It is a nakedly partisan attempt to bankrupt a rival party, and has all the subtlety of a sumo wrestler dancing Swan Lake.
The Labour Party does not have a good history of dealing with trade union reform. In 1969 then Home Secretary Jim Callaghan scuppered In Place of Strife. A decade later his government fell after the Winter of Discount. In the face of Labour’s strident attacks, his successor Margaret Thatcher with Norman Tebbit kept a gnat’s tip-toe ahead of public opinion as they introduced stricter industrial relations laws. Her language about the “enemy within” and aggressive tactics against the miners in 1984-85 alienated a generation of working class voters but the Conservatives went on to win two more general elections. For good or ill, there has never been much support for repealing any of her trade union policies.
There is a possibility though that the Conservatives imperil their renewed “one nation” brand. There is also risk for Labour. If the last Parliament taught us anything, it is that governments can enact unpopular legislation and get re-elected, and oppositions can promise repeal and still lose. The temptation will be to reply to the senselessness of this bill with equally forceful attacks. Absolute calls for repeal are pointless. If this act passes, it will be the new consensus. Jeremy Corbyn lacks credibility and can easily be attacked as a union stooge so it might be wiser for Labour to outline a framework which allows them to be on trade unions’ side but also voters’. If campaigners for direct democracy can talk about iDemocracy, Labour can talk about iTrade Unions. The prosaism may make Steve Jobs vibrate in his grave but could show that Labour is not against reforming unions’ relations with their members and the public for a digital age.
Too often Labour and union leaders’ tactics have been hyperbolic, confrontational and counter-productive. They have become like the little boy who cried “wolf”. The trouble is this time there really is a wolf. And he is very, very hungry.
About the author
Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).
A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.
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