Cameron prepares to go to war with the trade unions

Is the Prime Minister planning a Thatcher-style assault on organised labour?

There was once a time when David Cameron was keen to win over the trade union movement. He became the first Conservative leader in more than a decade to meet the TUC general secretary, Brendan Barber and even appointed a union emissary -- the former Labour MEP Richard Balfe -- to spearhead secret negotiations with "the brothers".

But this was in 2008, when Cameron still spoke cheerily of "sharing the proceeds of growth" (the Tories, as much as Labour, failed to see the crash coming) and was still committed to Gordon Brown's spending plans.

Now, as he prepares to implement a series of savage cuts, in which some departments will be cut by up to 33 per cent, Cameron is planning to make Britain's strike laws -- already some of the most restrictive in the western world -- even tougher.

Today's Times reports: "Ministers have held confidential talks over changing union strike laws as the government prepares plans to shed up to a million public-sector jobs."

The changes under discussion include raising the proportion of workers required to vote for a strike before it takes place. As things stand, only a simple majority of voters is required but the government is considering introducing a minimum turnout threshold of 40 per cent.

The Times's Sam Coates adds: "The government is also under pressure from senior business figures to change the rules to replace striking workers with agency employees, to reduce the time before they can be dismissed without reballoting from 12 to eight weeks -- and even to make unions legally liable for the consequences of strikes."

It is understandable that Cameron wishes to avoid a wave of strikes, but he should do so by making a persuasive case for cuts rather than changing the rules of the game. Downing Street may say that the coalition has "no plans" to change strike legislation, but that's the same formulation as Cameron used when asked about a possible VAT rise.

That the Tories are in coalition with the Lib Dems, who have never had much affection for the trade unions, in many ways makes a Thatcher-style assault more achievable. But for now, I'd say the coalition has enough on its hands without triggering a war with the unions.

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Jeremy Corbyn's Labour conference speech shows how he's grown

The leader's confident address will have impressed even his fiercest foes. 

It is not just Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate that has been improved by his re-election. The Labour leader’s conference speech was, by some distance, the best he has delivered. He spoke with far greater confidence, clarity and energy than previously. From its self-deprecating opening onwards ("Virgin Trains assure me there are 800 empty seats") we saw a leader improved in almost every respect. 

Even Corbyn’s firecest foes will have found less to take issue with than they may have anticipated. He avoided picking a fight on Trident (unlike last year), delivered his most forceful condemnation of anti-Semitism (“an evil”) and, with the exception of the Iraq war, avoided attacks on New Labour’s record. The video which preceded his arrival, and highlighted achievements from the Blair-Brown years, was another olive branch. But deselection, which Corbyn again refused to denounce, will remain a running sore (MPs alleged that Hillsborough campaigner Sheila Coleman, who introduced Corbyn, is seeking to deselect Louise Ellman and backed the rival TUSC last May).

Corbyn is frequently charged with lacking policies. But his lengthy address contained several new ones: the removal of the cap on council borrowing (allowing an extra 60,000 houses to be built), a ban on arms sales to abusive regimes and an arts pupil premium in every primary school.

On policy, Corbyn frequently resembles Ed Miliband in his more radical moments, unrestrained by Ed Balls and other shadow cabinet members. He promised £500bn of infrastructure investment (spread over a decade with £150bn from the private sector), “a real living wage”, the renationalisation of the railways, rent controls and a ban on zero-hours contracts.

Labour’s greatest divisions are not over policy but rules, strategy and culture. Corbyn’s opponents will charge him with doing far too little to appeal to the unconverted - Conservative voters most of all. But he spoke with greater conviction than before of preparing for a general election (acknowledging that Labour faced an arithmetical “mountain”) and successfully delivered the attack lines he has often shunned.

“Even Theresa May gets it, that people want change,” he said. “That’s why she stood on the steps of Downing Street and talked about the inequalities and burning injustices in today’s Britain. She promised a country: ‘that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us’. But even if she manages to talk the talk, she can’t walk the walk. This isn’t a new government, it’s David Cameron’s government repackaged with progressive slogans but with a new harsh right-wing edge, taking the country backwards and dithering before the historic challenges of Brexit.”

After a second landslide victory, Corbyn is, for now, unassailable. Many MPs, having voted no confidence in him, will never serve on the frontbench. But an increasing number, recognising Corbyn’s immovability, speak once again of seeking to “make it work”. For all the ructions of this summer, Corbyn’s speech will have helped to persuade them that they can.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.