Tories plan more curbs on union rights

Don Flynn explains the new threat to trade unions and their role in fighting the undemocratic Elections Bill

The assault on democratic standards by Boris Johnson’s Conservatives extends beyond even the corruption and duplicity which run through its method of governing, which makes cronyism and lying a key part of statecraft.

The Elections Bill currently going through Parliament has been much criticised for the headline issue of making the presentation of ID a condition of the right to vote. This is a provision that is likely to chill participation in elections on the part of young voters and poorer people who are less likely to have the driving licences, passports and other official documents which are deemed acceptable evidence of identity. But in recent weeks the trade unions have begun to raise their voices against clauses that will stifle their role as civil society bodies campaigning for changes in laws and policies.

The Trade Union and Labour Party Liaison Organisation (TULO), which brings together the eleven national unions affiliated to the party, has pointed out that its constituent organisations have a legitimate interest in campaigning together to change laws that have an adverse effect on workers’ rights, such as outlawing zero hour contracts or giving holiday and sick pay entitlements to people contracted to companies as independent agents.

However, the bill empowers the Electoral Commission to regard all union campaign spending that takes place in the twelve months prior to an election to be rolled into the total spend that is permitted to the Labour Party during an election campaign itself. Helen Pearce, the director of TULO, has criticised this provision in a recent LabourList blog, asking “How can unions, NGOs and civil society organisations take part in public life when they know that, should an election be called, all their campaigning could count towards election spend limits, with rules and guidelines that could be changed by ministers after the fact?”

In a comment to the Guardian, Mick Whelan, general secretary of the ASLEF rail union and TULO chair, denounced the measures on the grounds that they were “a deliberate attempt to silence the trade unions that have a century-long relationship with the Labour Party”. He went on to say: “It’s not only an attack on freedom of expression, it’s also utterly unnecessary – trade union money is the cleanest money in politics.”

It is encouraging to see the trade union movement enter the fray on issues that go to the heart of the way democracy operates in Britain. There are many issues under this heading on which the voice of organised labour needs to be heard. Another provision in the bill deals with elections for executive mayors in the English towns and regions, running what are known as ‘combined authorities’, which are currently conducted on the basis of a supplementary voting (SV) system that aims to secure outcomes which reflect a consensual majority across the spectrum of voters.

A trade union issue

Elections conducted on this basis tend to favour the centre-left consensus that exists in most cities and large towns in England, with eight resulting in victories for Labour candidates, and two for the Conservatives. The government intends that the Elections Bill will contain provisions that will scrap SV and return to a first-past-the-post system of balloting, which has tended to favour centre-right candidates who can claim victory on the basis of minorities of votes cast.

Trade unions need to register a stronger interest in this aspect of the Elections Bill. The combined authorities, which are big players in regional economies, and the leadership provided by executive mayors, are likely to have a significant effect on labour markets and conditions of employment for hundreds of thousands, if not millions of workers. The two largest authorities – Greater Manchester and West Midlands – contribute nearly eight percent in total to UK gross added value and have the potential to outstrip this figure. The reindustrialisation of Britain outside London and the South East will only be accomplished through a vigorous local democracy which is committed to intervention in regional economies.

This makes the defence of SV in the English regions a cause for the trade union movement to take up on the grounds that it provides the best basis for a democratic partnership between government and civil society to be secured. This is a precondition for the policies that will produce the hundreds of thousands of decent jobs and high quality public services that the country will need as it faces up to the challenges of the transition to a zero carbon economy.

This bill comes on top of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which will further restrict freedom of speech for trade unions. Let us not also forget that the 80-seat Tory majority in the House of Commons is only there because of the first-past-the-post voting system.

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