Outside the marginals

a commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010 & 2015 elections

Conservatives: Strike 2

Yesterday the Conservatives moved one step closer to their objective of neutering the Trade Unions, proposing to:

impose a minimum 50% turnout – and public sector strikes would need the backing of at least 40% of those eligible to vote. …

force unions to give employers 14 days notice of strike action and allow them to bring in agency staff to cover for striking workers. …

cut the amount of money unions have to mount campaigns – or donate to parties such as Labour – with members actively having to “opt in” to pay the so-called political levy, which is currently automatic unless members opt-out. …

have a named individual supervising a picket line.
BBC News Website 15 July 2015 : Trade Union Bill: Ministers deny ‘attack on workers’ rights’

At first sight each of these proposals may seem “reasonable” – particularly if you have been inconvenienced by say a recent tube strike, but at second sight and viewed as a package they appear much more partial and unreasonable.

Why?

I have written previously about the Government having an absolute majority based on a minority (36.9%) of the votes cast and the “opt-in” support of an even smaller proportion of the electorate (24.6%), and how it is strange that they think this gives them a mandate to require trade unions to have an even higher mandate for action that at worst will create a few days inconvenience as opposed to a five-year administration.

Yet, government spokesmen were on the media yesterday agreeing that recent strikes would have met these thresholds – and trying to argue “so why oppose them?”. In some respects this highlights a rather nasty aspect of recent conservative administrations’ attitudes. They take action against what to them are very minor matters but which play well to their more rabid supporters.

If these proposals will affect very few proposed strikes – why spend parliamentary time legislating against them?

Likewise if very few people are actually getting more benefits that the level defined in the “benefit cap” – why spend parliamentary time legislating against them?

Is this “dog whistle politics” playing to your heartland voters? Let a few large families who have to live in central London to be near their poorly paid cleaning jobs suffer under the benefit cap – it’s good red meat to the baying banshees back home in the constituency. Likewise ban a few strikes so that groups of employees who feel they are dealing with intransigent management just have to lump it or like it – it makes the unthinking think “something is being done”.

The Conservatives are taking these actions “because they can”. Arguably it is very “good party politics” – and the Conservatives are masters of “raw politics”.

In the last Parliament they did their (rather naive) coalition partners up like kippers causing Lib Dem activists to feel disaffected and disillusioned and marginal support to ebb away. Then at the last election by targeting many of their partner’s seats they delivered a near knock-out blow. Excellent “party politics”, but is it necessarily “good government”?

In this Parliament, the official opposition has again gone absent without leave whilst they go through the labyrinthine process of electing a new leader. (Perhaps that should be labour-inthine?) Into this vacuum step the Conservatives with proposals to attack Labour’s old heartland supporters and to undermine the opposition’s organisational and financial base. Again excellent “party politics” (out of the master’s playbook), but again is it necessarily “good government”?


impose a minimum 50% turnout – and public sector strikes would need the backing of at least 40% of those eligible to vote. …

These are artificial thresholds – anything other than a requirement for a straight majority is artificial.

Why “40%” of those “eligible to vote” – why not 50% or even 75%? Or is that to be kept back for later amendment once the heartlands realise that for many of the strikes that they personally detest the 40% threshold is met?

It also strikes me as strange that the Tories are quite happy to legislate for a referendum which could take us out of Europe without any of these thresholds. The UK leaving Europe (no matter which side of that argument you lie on) has a far greater impact than a two-day rail strike.


force unions to give employers 14 days notice of strike action …

have a named individual supervising a picket line.

In isolation these proposals may look fine, but they represent further attempts to tie the trade unions up in red-tape. And I thought the Conservatives wanted to do away with regulations!

I can see action being taken against strikers because the “named individual supervising a picket line” is not there due to being delayed in traffic or called away to a family crisis (trade unionists are often strong family men/women), and the regulations making it practically impossible to name a short-notice replacement.

Likewise will we see the “named individual” being held responsible for every action that happens on the picket line – such as knocking a policeman’s helmet off whilst trying to remonstrate with “scab labour” trying to “cross the picket line”? The conservatives may then find that “reasonable” “level-headed” trade union officials are unwilling to take on that responsibility, leaving the way open for the “hot-head” to “supervise” picket lines. This is a recipe for picket line violence – but perhaps that just keys up the Conservative’s next reforms.


and allow them to bring in agency staff to cover for striking workers. …

This basically means that those workers with the least “market force” power – because they can be easily replaced will no longer be able to take effective strike action (particularly if their employers have 14 days to organise agency staff). This is “strike breaking” with “scab labour” and the Conservatives know that this is highly emotive but have no understanding or empathy as to why.

Again this is a recipe for picket line violence – and keys up the Conservative’s next reforms.


cut the amount of money unions have to mount campaigns – or donate to parties such as Labour – with members actively having to “opt in” to pay the so-called political levy, which is currently automatic unless members opt-out. …

As a shareholder I do not have the option to “opt out” of money going to political causes rather than being paid as dividends. When I do business with big corporations, I do not have an option to “opt out” of seeing some of their profits go to support political causes that advance ideas that are anathema to me.

The political levy is already voluntary and represents the aggregation of lots of small optional donations made by many individuals – in contrast to large donations made by a few corporations. Attacking it is the wrong way to start to reform party political funding.


This is all partial, ugly and unnecessary – unless your political objective is not just to beat Labour but to permanently eradicate them. It is not the job of a government to eradicate an opposition political party – that is the job of the electorate.

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