Will Cameron introduce new anti-strike laws?

Ministers are considering a new 50% turnout law to restrict strike action.

The decision by PCS union staff to vote in favour of strike action on the eve of the Olympics has revived the debate among Conservatives about whether to tighten the UK's anti-union laws. The latter are already the most restrictive in the western world but Tory MPs want the coalition to go further and ban strikes unless at least 50 per cent of union members participate in the ballot. In the case of the PCS, just 20 per cent did (57 per cent of whom voted in favour of action). Others argue that border guards, like the police, should be banned from striking at all.

Until now, ministers have insisted that they have "no plans" to change the law but today's Telegraph reports that  the government is "now considering legislation to stop unions striking unless more than half their members vote." Aware that Boris Johnson, who has previously called for the introduction of a minimum turnout law, will seize any opportunity to outflank the coalition, Cameron may be tempted to indicate movement on this front.

Then there are those who will only be satisfied if the Prime Minister emulates Ronald Reagan and sacks anyone who participates in the strike. Conservative commentator Donal Blaney declared on Twitter: "Cameron should do a Reagan and fire every single immigration officer who strikes next Thursday. We need to face these selfish militants down". It was in 1981 that the then US president fired 11,000 air traffic controllers who ignored his order to return to work.

Since the PCS, led by Mark Serwotka, is not a Labour-affiliated union, Ed Miliband has found it easier to condemn this strike than others. But if he is retain credibility among the wider union movement, he must voice his opposition to any change in the law.

Up to 5,500 Border Force staff, members of the PCS union, will strike next Thursday. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Martin Whitfield
Show Hide image

Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

0800 7318496