Along with my colleague John Hendy QC, I had the great honour of addressing the GMB Annual Congress yesterday in Brighton, on behalf of the Institute of Employment Rights. Top of the bill, however, was Vince Cable, whose speech was well trailed, and well covered in advance in yesterday morning’s newspapers.
Vince Cable's speech. Image: AP
As I read the spin and listened to the speech – delivered in a flat, mild-mannered fashion – I was struck by the thought that the crackdown was now beginning. It was clear to me that Vince had been sent by Cameron to wave his departmental truncheon, as a warning of harsh measures to come if the unions step out of line.
The agenda is clear. The right have been barking for even tougher strike laws for some time, embracing various wings of the Tory party, from its Continuity wing (in the shape of the CBI, still fighting its own version of the class war), its juvenile wing (in the shape of right wing backbenchers like Dominic Raab, desperately seeking attention), and its silly wing (in the shape of the London mayor’s office).
What unites them all is a demand that the strike ballot rules should be changed. At the present time, trade unions need to hold a ballot in order to take protected strike action, and in accordance with normal principles, industrial action may be called with the support of a majority of those voting. The right wing malcontents want to add an additional requirement that the majority represents at least 40% – or depending on the malcontent 50% – of those eligible to vote.
As I listened to the Secretary of State ride the sporadic but gentle heckling, I thought that those present should pen an open letter – a letter to Vince – to Mr Cable. The letter would ask three questions.
Question 1. Dear Vince,
Could you please explain the size of your majority in Twickenham at the general election in 2010? No need for us to wait for an answer. The BBC website tells us that Mr Cable secured some 32,483 votes in an election in which some 59,721 people voted. Vince won handsomely with 54.4% of the vote in an election in which there was a significant number of candidates.
Closer inspection reveals, however, that only 75% of the good people of Twickers voted at the election, which makes Vince’s achievement look not quite so impressive after all. What this means is that of those eligible to vote, somewhat less than 50% voted in favour of Vince, giving rise to the obvious question:
If less than 50% is good enough for the Secretary of State for Business and the Elimin-Ation of Trade Union Protection (BEATUP) (I made up that bit), why is less than 50% not good enough for workers who want to strike to protest against a government without a mandate?
Question 2. Dear Vince,
Could you please explain which other countries have a special majority of the kind now proposed? By other countries, please avoid Bahrain, Egypt, Syria and Tunisia. No need for us to wait for an answer here either. The Tory cubs who proposed a strike threshold in May thought they had struck gold on discovering that what they were proposing had parallels in other European countries: Denmark and the Czech Republic.
Being a sceptical sort, I made inquiries of labour movement contacts in Denmark, and in particular their legal advisers. Yes, they said, we do have a special threshold. But it is 25% of those eligible to vote. Moreover, it applies only where less than 40% of those eligible to vote actually do so. In my view, Denmark thus does not really count. Which means that the best they can come up with is the Czech Republic of all ‘major democracies’ in the world.
I can only presume that the apparent lack of attraction of this particular balloting regime is that it is neither liberal nor democratic.
Question 3. Dear Vince,
Where a union calls industrial action with the support of at least 40% or 50% of those eligible to vote, could you please explain what steps you will take to ensure that unions are protected from employers using the courts like slot machines to obtain injunctions to stop strikes on trivial technical grounds?
- In 2009, 92% of Unite cabin crew members in an 80% turnout voted in favour of industrial action. The action was crucially stopped by a High Court injunction because the union had inadvertently included in the ballot a number of members who would be taking redundancy before the strike started. The injunction was granted even though the participation in the ballot of the contested individuals could not possibly have affected the result.
- In a second ballot in the aftermath of the High Court decision, 80% of cabin crew in an 80% turnout voted in favour of industrial action. This too was stopped in the High Court before sanity was restored in the Court of Appeal. The reason for the High Court injunction was that the union had failed to notify its 10,000 or so members that 11 of their number had spoiled their ballot paper in the strike vote, an omission which could not possibly have made any difference to the ballot. It seems that even the Court of Appeal was embarrassed by this pedantry.
I can only presume that a 40% or 50% threshold will not prevent injunctions being granted on such grounds, but on the contrary will provide employers with yet another litigation opportunity.
In other words, what is being proposed is (i) contrary to principle and deeply hypocritical, (ii) unparalleled in any modern industrial economy, and (iii) a recipe for even more nit-picking litigation.
While we await Vince’s response, let me conclude with three points. First we do not need any more anti-strike laws, the United Kingdom already having the toughest in the developed world. The whole point of the right to strike (as with any other human right) is that people must be permitted to use it, at least sometimes. It should not be a precondition of the exercise of any human right – including the right to strike – that its exercise is ineffective, as the Coalition appear to propose.
Secondly, the proposals for further laws threaten to be counter-productive. Remember East Lindsey in 2009? It seems that Vince does not. But the point is this. If unions are banned by law from organising industrial action, their active members may feel inclined to act on their own, around the law. This is harder for both government and employers to deal with, and it is the politics of the stupid that draws workers into this position.
Finally, trade unionists need to reflect on the bright side of all of this. The presence of Cameron’s emissary to the GMB Congress in Brighton suggested to me that the government is rocking. More importantly it suggested that protests work, and that the unions and others had really got the wind up the Coalition. Reflecting even more carefully on the situation as the day unfolded, I have become still more bewildered by the incredibility of it all.
NEVER DID I THINK THAT IN MY LIFETIME, A LIBERAL DEMOCRAT MINISTER WOULD ADDRESS A TRADE UNION AUDIENCE IN ENGLAND WITH A THINLY VEILED THREAT TO BAN THE RIGHT TO PEACEFUL PROTEST. IT WAS INCREDIBLE.
History shows that austerity breeds authoritarianism. The phoney war may now be drawing to a close.