Here’s why Lib Dems are wholly behind the Libya intervention

Support for action against the Gaddafi-led army is entirely in keeping with the party’s history.

Whether on European or on wider international issues, the Liberal Democrats sometimes strike others as a party obsessed with issues beyond our borders. Yet there are moments when that strong streak of internationalism, which is part of the party's history, proves wholly relevant in the present. This is one of those moments.

In 1989, the Liberal Democrats were on the verge of bankruptcy. They had just been beaten into fourth place (and just 6 per cent of the vote) by the Greens (who boasted 15 per cent) in the European elections, while national opinion polls put the party within the margin of error of not existing.

Then came the June massacre in Tiananmen Square. Paddy Ashdown, who had studied Mandarin Chinese as a mature student in Hong Kong, rushed to join protesters outside the Chinese embassy in London. He called for citizenship to be guaranteed to all Hong Kong citizens. He believed that such a move would underpin the UK's protection of the only democratic part of China, to which the UK owed so much.

He had utter conviction that, at a time of crisis, it was important to speak out for what he believed in, even when he knew it was deeply unpopular with most of the UK population. He just believed it was the right thing to do.

As it turned out, his readiness to be unpopular but to say the right thing was like a moment of emergency heart surgery on a dying party. Later, his persistence in the face of outright opposition to intervention in Bosnia was another moment when the party felt unpopular but right.

Often, it is the handling of events such as these which defines a political party and its leaders. The Liberal Democrats are to the very core of their being law-abiding liberal interventionists, as explained here by Ashdown's aid in Bosnia, Julian Astle. This is why it was wholly in their make-up to oppose the illegal war in Iraq, though at the time there were more wobbles in the leadership's thinking than they would care to let on.

Therefore, it comes as no great surprise that, in the cabinet, the Liberal Democrats were wholly in support of intervention, according to Andrew Rawnsley's column.

When it comes to international law and intervention, this is a party that does not worry about opinion polls. Last night's ITV/ComRes poll revealed a three-way split on Libya. This is a party that has shown a history of belief in intervention, strengthened, of course, by the calls for assistance from the Libyan National Council and the Arab League, and the certainty of the retribution Muammar Gaddafi was preparing for his own people.

So there was a united view at the meeting of the parliamentary party yesterday afternoon. While the Conservatives had one rebel, the Liberal Democrats had none. If the party were ever to split over anything, or show itself to be different from the government, this would be neither the issue nor the moment.

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Our trade unions are doing more for women than ever before

You don’t have to look far to find examples of unions not just “noisily fighting for”, but actually winning better pay, terms and conditions for women.

Reading Carole Easton’s article on women and unions was puzzling and disappointing in equal measure. Puzzling because it paints a picture of trade unions which bears little resemblance to the movement I know and love. Disappointing because it presents a false image of trade unions to women readers just at a time when women need strong trade unions more than ever.

While it is right to say that too little progress has been made in closing the gender pay gap or tackling the scourge of zero hour contracts, it is wrong to suggest that trade unions have been twiddling their thumbs.

Like our friends at the Young Women’s Trust, equality is at the heart of what unions do. This work isn’t measured in the number of high-profile women we have at the forefront of our movement – although we’re not doing too badly there, as anyone will attest who has seen Frances O’Grady, the first female general secretary of the TUC, speaking out for ordinary women workers.  

Trade unions contribute to equality for our 3 million women members every day. For us, that’s about the thousands of workplace reps supporting individual women facing discrimination or harassment. It’s about health and safety reps negotiating for protective clothing and better workplace policies on the menopause, terminal illness and many more issues. Our work is unions taking employment tribunal cases on behalf of women who could never afford the tribunal fees without us. And always, at the heart of everything, our work is about the collective power of workers joining together to bargain for fair pay and decent work.

You don’t have to look far to find examples of unions not just “noisily fighting for”, but actually winning better pay, terms and conditions for women. Several unions have successfully organised cleaners, supported them to take strike action for better pay, and won. The RMT is just one example of many. Unite is busy organising London’s low-paid and often exploited hotel workers. Unison organises teaching assistants, fights for better pay and conditions, and even runs a Skills for Schools project to help TAs develop in their careers. Unison and the National Union of Teachers – both unions with over 75% female membership – organise childcare workers and fight not just for better pay but also for training and development opportunities. Over in the retail sector, Usdaw and GMB are fighting the good fight for their women members in supermarkets and shops, not just on pay but on pensions, health and safety, carers’ leave and protection from violence at work.

Women have much to gain from trade union membership. Male union members are paid 7.8 per cent more than men who aren’t in a union – but women union members are paid 30 per cent more than non-members. A recent EHRC report on pregnancy discrimination found that employers who recognised unions were less likely to discriminate against their pregnant employees.

Yes, it’s true that too few young women are union members. This summer, the TUC and our member unions will launch a new organising and campaigning effort to spread the benefits of union membership and attract a new generation of women (and men).

But starting new women-only unions is no form of progress. That’s where we started out over 100 years ago. Now women workers are at the heart of all our unions, across all sectors. Women’s concerns at work are trade union concerns. And every day we make practical progress towards women’s equality at work through patient representation and negotiation and active campaigning to challenge bad bosses. Young Women’s Trust should work with us to get more women the benefit of union membership.  

Scarlet Harris is women's equality policy officer at the TUC