“Depressingly ideological and completely unnecessary” – one view the view of the Trade Union Bill rushed out by the Tory government.
It wasn’t me who said that, nor any of my union colleagues – although we all thought it.
No, these were the words of Vince Cable, until 60 or so days ago the minister responsible for employment law.
Now he has gone, in his place as business secretary is Sajid Javid, a veteran of Wall Street who cut his teeth as a bond trader when the banker almost crashed the United States economy in the 1990s and at the height of US neoconservative meddling. Now he is steadily destroying any residual notions that this government would play a constructive role in the industrial life of our nation.
In one short week, the Tory front bench went from proclaiming that Britain needed a pay rise to blistering attacks on the very organisations dedicated to wage justice for working people; trade unions.
Well, we have never relied on permission from the Tories to do our job properly, and we will not be starting to now. But had they stopped to enquire of us what we actually do to support working people, they would have realised that 95 per cent of the time we solve disputes.
We are round the table working out how to save jobs, to bring in investment, to make a plant more efficient. We are training Britain’s workers and keeping them safe at work. We are six million strong – Britain’s biggest Big Society (remember that?) – with millions more supporting us as friends and families. We are the people who teach our kids, clean our streets, keep our trains, buses and planes moving and our shelves stocked. We are the backbone of Britain. How dare this government treat us as the “enemy within”.
There has been much hysteria in the predictable quarters over the removal of the words “so far as may be lawful” from Unite’s rules by our executive.
They did this not because we are anarchists or because we are suddenly planning to rob the banks (like they’ve been robbing us), but because we have to ask ourselves the question: can we usefully serve our members when they are under vicious attack by sticking, under any and all circumstances, within the law as the Tories wish to see it?
Laws already give employers injunctions against unions almost at will, laws that struck down a 90 per cent vote for strike action on a 90 per cent turnout among British Airways cabin crew. Laws already saddle us with archaic, expensive and inefficient balloting procedures. No wonder no employer has ever, ever said to me that what they need are more anti-union laws.
But this government wants to go further, to leave workers near-defenceless against employers, and to reduce unions to bystanders in industrial life.
This fresh Tory attack on democracy will see the bar for strike ballot raised to a level that hardly any MPs would reach in their own constituencies, by a government that has repeatedly refused our requests to use modern, more effective balloting methods – by the way, the same balloting methods they deploy in their own party as they are with their London mayoral selection. What is good enough for the Tories seems to be too good for Britain’s workers.
Pickets will be criminalised, social media snooped through and our political fund – support to ensure a vibrant opposition party – will be attacked by the Tory Party that enjoys secret donations from hedge fund millionaires.
Against that background, should the law, when made by an elected parliament rather than a dictatorship, be respected under all circumstances?
To take a stark example, before 1967 any gay relationship was criminal under the law made by an elected Parliament. Who, today, would dare to say that gay men were criminals, or that they should have been obliged to obey a law that, however democratically sanctioned, represented no more than the prejudice of ages?
Or when Margaret Thatcher criminalised trade unionism at GCHQ, would any employee there who, in secret, maintained his or her trade union membership, be a criminal? Were they not right to break that law while it was in force?
It was a Tory, Lord Hailsham, who first warned of “elective dictatorship”, of a majority imposing its views on a vulnerable minority.
The comparison isn’t exact. Here we are talking about a minority – a Tory government elected by less than a quarter of the electorate – imposing its class prejudices on organisations representing millions.
This year we mark the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, the first real guarantee of the rights of the people against an over-mighty crown. Now we must be ready for the fight for our rights once again, and we will, I believe, find allies throughout society, among everyone who cares for freedom and democracy.
To everyone demanding justice at work and as citizens, we must stand up and say, loud and clear, our rights come before your unjust laws.
I was heartened to see that right across the shadow front bench they spoke with one voice on the Tories’ threats to unions. That penny has dropped – this most destructive of governments, not sated by its vandalism of the 1948 social consensus, the settlement that propelled us from post-war blight to become a confident, more equal nation, is now out to extinguish every voice of opposition in this country. Not just unions, but the official political opposition, too – the Labour Party.
So where does this past week leave us in 2015? Right back in 1900, in the days of Taff Vale when the right of workers to defend themselves by striking was eliminated. What happened over a century ago changed Britain, and should serve as a lesson to our political class. Membership of the nascent Labour Party rocketed as working people rejected the serfdom that was to be their fate and that they were to bow before the untrammelled power of the corporations.
That then is the challenge I lay down to those seeking to lead our party. Be confident in the fight ahead. It is our movement that stands for the common sense of our age, for the values of equality, decency, fairness and social justice. This country needs us more than ever.
This article first appeared in Tribune, Friday July 24