Fresh from their defeat on Sunday trading last week, the Government last night suffered a humiliating triple whammy of defeats in the House of Lords over their draconian and blatantly partisan trade union bill.
First, the government was defeated on its plans to choke off trade union political funds and therefore silence the legitimate democratic voice of trade unions in civil society. The plans retrospectively wipe out all existing consent arrangements and replace them with a state-imposed system. This would have given unions just three months to sign up their members to the political fund and required them to get the written consent of every member every five years to remain in the political fund. These changes are both a clear attack on the ability of unions to campaign for their members and a thinly veiled, vindictive and partisan attack on the Labour party’s funding. Peers voted by a majority of 141 to call for a rethink, and for unions to be given a 12-month grace period for the changes to be phased in. The government should accept this amendment.
Second, the Lords voted overwhelmingly to look again at electronic ballots for strike action. The trade union bill introduces unprecedented high thresholds on strike ballots, requiring 50 per cent of members to vote for a ballot to be valid. Uniquely in all elections in the United Kingdom, this effectively counts an abstention as a ‘no’ vote. Yet the government is refusing to consider allowing unions to access electronic balloting which could help increase turnout and ensure ballots are a true representation of the views of union members. Absurdly, the Tories cite concerns over the safety of electronic balloting. This is especially surprising given the Conservative party routinely uses electronic balloting in its own internal elections, including most recently, to elect their London mayoral candidate. The refusal of the Tories to consider electronic balloting shows the bill for what it is; an attack on the rights of working people to organise and take industrial action as a last resort. We hope the government will listen and will undertake the independent review and pilots into electronic balloting that peers have called for.
Third, peers voted down the government’s proposals to cap facility time for union reps in the public sector. This is time off, agreed between employers and unions, for their elected representatives to support their members and maintain good industrial relations. Facility time represents a vanishingly small cost to the state but there is evidence to show that it has significant benefits for employees and employers. We hope that the government will accept that they should not interfere in agreements freely entered into between employers and their employees working together for the benefit of all.
The trade union bill is unnecessary, unfair and unjust. It is unnecessary because there is no problem with industrial unrest in the UK. The number of days lost to strike action is at a historic low, down 90 per cent in the last 20 years. It is unfair because it shifts the balance of power further towards employers, depriving working people of a voice at work. And it is unjust because it threatens the right to strike; a fundamental British liberty. The bill represents the most significant and sustained attack on Britain’s six million trade union members in a generation. The Tories are stuck fighting the battles of the past rather than working to tackle the challenges of today. They are being driven by ideological obsession, rather than by evidence.
There is another way. The government should be working in partnership with both employers and trade unions to address the underlying structural problems affecting our economy, such as boosting productivity and improving skills.
This triple-whammy of defeats shows the weight of opposition to the trade union bill. But it also offers the government the opportunity to reconsider. We hope that the government listens to the genuine and deeply felt concerns peers from across all parties have raised. The government should think again and withdraw this damaging and divisive bill.
Angela Eagle MP is shadow secretary of state for business and shadow first secretary of state. She tweets @AngelaEagle
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.