Lots has changed this weekend. One that has not is the Tory government’s attempt to destroy Labour, and the movement with which we share a name, history and future.
And the first thing on the agenda as we emerge from a long leadership election is the trade union bill – the second reading is tonight.
And on this, this party is as one. The government’s proposals hit at the heart of our movement – attacking the very organising ability of trade unions, their rights to support political parties, and workers’ right to strike – the last resort protection of working Britain against unreasonable employers.
You might be forgiven for thinking that the only proposal in the bill was about thresholds or strike action – that is what the government wants you to think, but the proposals themselves are much wider.
The government does not just want to stack the odds against the employee – they are proposing to allow employers to bring in agency workers in to break strikes – they want to deligitimise striking workers. And they suggest that during a strike unions must submit a detailed campaign plan to the police, the employer and the authorities, two weeks in advance. The plan must even specify if unions will use social media – and what they will say on it! And each picket must have a designated lead person, who must wear an armband and give their details to the police and their employer. In the same way Thatcher banned trade unions a GCHQ, in order to send a message that you cannot trust trade unions.
It is clear there will be a chilling effect on freedom of speech, as Amnesty International and other civil liberties groups have flagged. And given that blacklisting deprived a generation of union activists in the construction industry of their livelihoods, the danger of victimisation is ever-present. But the real purpose is clear: it is all about making life difficult for unions – and creating ways for employers to challenge them.
And the proposed rule changes affecting the political fund are even more nakedly political – intended as they are to unilaterally cut off union funding to the party. A far cry from the established precedent that changes to party funding happen only by consensus across parties.
And yet again, the trade union bill gives cause to doubt the Conservatives’ much-vaunted commitment to localism. The government proposes to cap the amount of time public sector union reps can spend representing their members and to stop union members paying their subs through payroll. Health, local government and education are all devolved in Scotland and Wales – but how those employers run their relations with their own workforces will soon be up to Westminster.
Ditto in the Northern Powerhouse: why should our great cities, finally realising more of the local control they have long needed, have to ask central government permission to support good industrial relations?
This summer, every leadership candidate spoke out against the bill. Liz Kendall rightly commented that the bill ‘is not about reforming the unions, it is about attacking the movement itself’, and promised to oppose it ‘tooth and nail’. Andy Burnham promised to ‘build a coalition of support’ against the bill, and Yvette Cooper said that ‘Labour must do all it can to stop these divisive and damaging measures from coming into force’.
We thank the Tories for uniting Labour against these plans. Unnecessary, sectarian and centralising. All sections of the party united in opposing it. Regretting we are not in government, not just preventing it, but confining it to a churlish line in a failed Tory manifesto. If you ever need a reason why a Labour government on its worst ever day is better than any Tory government, look no further.
Richard Angell is director of Progress