Many commentators have described the trade union bill as unfinished business from the Thatcher era. While there is a truth to this, the bill also needs to be seen in the context of the government’s legislative agenda in both the current and last parliament.
A clear pattern is emerging of a government using its dominant position in the House of Commons to undermine and suppress organisations that challenge its policies and ideologies.
In the last parliament this was most obviously manifested in the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014. This piece of legislation was described by Polly Toynbee as ‘illiberal’, by the Guardian as ‘partisan’ and ‘particularly despicable’ and by Owen Jones as having a ‘chilling effect’ on charities campaigning on matters of policy in the lead up to a general election.
In the current parliament, the education and adoption bill not only removes parents’ fundamental rights to have a say in the type of school in which their child is educated, it abolishes any mechanism through which they can raise legitimate concerns. The government plans to abolish the Human Rights Act which enshrines in UK law the right to freedom of thought, belief and religion, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and association to be replaced with an as yet undefined ‘British Bill of Rights’.
Alongside these legislative plans sit the cut to Short money for opposition parties, the boundary review which will favour the Conservative party, and the removal of millions from the electoral register against the advice of the Electoral Commission.
The trade union bill proposes to further restrict the right to strike or take other forms of industrial action, curtail the ability of unions to effectively represent their members and subjects trade unions to far greater government interference than any other membership organisation. It also makes the certification officer de facto prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner in enforcing these laws, charging unions for the cost of this travesty of natural justice.
A major element of the bill seeks to undermine the ability of unions to run ‘political’ campaigns. In 1992, the then Tory government attempted to stifle the political voice of the labour movement by requiring unions to establish separate opt-out political funds for expenditure on ‘political objects’. However, recent research has shown that a very large majority of trade union members choose not to opt out of their union’s political fund. In addition, recent ballots by unions on whether or not to maintain a political fund show overwhelming support – recent results include PCS 91 per cent, Bectu 90 per cent, UCU 73 per cent, Aslef 81 per cent and NASUWT 79 per cent. The current proposals to now introduce a postal ‘opt-in’ system have nothing to do with democracy and accountability and completely driven by a partisan desire to suppress dissent
There is also a great deal of misunderstanding about what ‘political objects’ are and why unions maintain political funds. For some it allows them to affiliate to and support political parties or candidates but for all it is about being able campaign on a range issues such as encouraging electoral registration and campaigning against far-right parties such as the British National party.
However, unlike the previous parliament, while the Conservatives have a majority in the House of Commons, the House of Lords has since May 2015 shown its willingness to amend and knock back poor legislation. And the bill faces critics on all sides – crossbencher Bob Kerslake, former head of the civil service, described the trade union bill as ‘partisan and disproportionate’ and Conservative peer Patrick Cormack said the government was being ‘disingenuous’ in claiming the bill was not related to political funding.
The leaked letter from BIS minister Nick Boles published earlier this week shows the government is now on the back foot and needing to concede amendments. The pressure needs to be maintained – even amended this bad bill remains a bad bill.
The trade union bill and other policies bring pursued by the government have a chilling common theme – to restrict, stifle and silence opposition and attack our fundamental democratic rights and freedoms. For this reason alone this bill should be opposed in its entirety.
Chris Weavers is chair of Tower Hamlets Labour party and trade union official. He tweets @ChrisWeavers
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