The Tories’ shameful attack on trade unionism

The decision to end funding for the International Labour Organisation is a betrayal of Arab workers.

Why does this government hate workers so much? Yesterday, two of the richest men in European politics, the former Lazard banker Andrew Mitchell and the former oil trader Alan Duncan, sat side by side on the Commons front bench smirking with self-satisfaction as they announced a major assault on democratic trade unionism.

Tucked away at the end of a rambling statement about changes in Britain's overseas aid budget was a bombshell. The two millionaires said the UK would cut support to the International Labour Organisation. Britain will stay an ILO member, but the consistent cross-party financial support for the organisation's work has now been terminated.

The ILO cut is incoherent in Whitehall terms. In his speech in Kuwait and again in his statement in the Commons on Monday, David Cameron said he supported free association as a core right that Arabs rising in revolt against authoritarian rulers should enjoy. Freedom of association is at the very centre of ILO philosophy. The Mitchell-Duncan cuts seem, therefore, to contradict what Cameron called for – unless, of course, the Prime Minister did not understand what he was saying.

For Britain, it is a shameful and shaming act that out of the £8.4bn overseas development budget, there will be no money to support the development of workers' rights. Britain founded the ILO in 1919. In the 1920s and 1930s, the great Labour and union leader Ernest Bevin attended ILO meetings and used the organisation, which is based on tripartitite co-operation between governments, employers and unions, to nudge forward international conventions to outlaw child labour and protect seafarers' rights.

Roosevelt took the US into the ILO in the 1930s as part of seeking to lessen US isolationism when faced with the twin totalitarianisms of fascism and communism. Fast-forward to the 1970s and 1980s, and the ILO was the world forum where the suppression of Polish Solidarity was highlighted and rights of black workers in South Africa upheld. Workers striving for freedom in Brazil under Lula's trade union leaders, in China or in South Korea, were all able to find a voice and a hearing at the ILO.

The Tories have never forgiven the ILO for upholding the right of GCHQ workers to belong to a union. The first act of Tony Blair was to bring Britain into compliance with the ILO, though sadly the 1997-2010 Labour government never sent a cabinet minister to the ILO conference and had no policy to use the ILO to support Labour policy goals. But that is different from this new Tory ideological attack on workers' rights at a time when, in North Africa and elsewhere, free and independent trade unions are needed more than ever.

Underneath his smooth charm, Mitchell, the International Development Secretary, remains a High Tory millionaire banker, with all his class's dislike of trade unions and worker rights. It is a terrible signal to send to workers in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain and Yemen who need ILO help more than ever to put in place what the Prime Minister calls the building blocks of democracy. It is a victory for Lazard, where Mitchell made his millions, and a defeat for workers.

Labour and the TUC should highlight this attack on workers and unions and expose the shameful and shaming cynicism of this decision.

Denis MacShane is the MP for Rotherham and a former Europe minister.

Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and was a minister at Foreign and Commonwealth Office
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The Tory-DUP deal has left Scotland and Wales seething

It is quite something to threaten the Northern Irish peace process and set the various nations of the UK at loggerheads with merely one act.

Politics in the UK is rarely quite this crude, or this blatant. The deal agreed between the Conservatives and Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party has – finally – been delivered. But both the deal and much of the opposition to it come with barely even the pretence of principled behaviour.

The Conservatives are looking to shore up their parliamentary and broader political position after a nightmare month. The DUP deal gives the Tories some parliamentary security, and some political breathing space. It is not yet clear what they as a party will do with this – whether, for instance, there will be an attempt to seek new leadership for the party now that the immediate parliamentary position has been secured.

But while some stability has been achieved, the deal does not provide the Tories with much additional strength. Indeed, the DUP deal emphasises their weakness. To finalise the agreement the government has had to throw money at Northern Ireland and align with a deeply socially conservative political force. At a stroke, the last of what remained of the entire Cameron project – the Conservative’s rebuilt reputation as the better party for the economy and fiscal stability, and their development as a much more socially inclusive and liberal party – has been thrown overboard.

Read more: Theresa May's magic money tree is growing in Northern Ireland

For the DUP, the reasoning behind the deal is as obvious as it is for the Conservatives. The DUP has maximised the leverage that the parliamentary arithmetic gives it. As a socially conservative and unionist party, it has absolutely no wish to see Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street. But it has kept the Conservatives waiting, and used the current position to get as good a deal as possible. Why should we expect it to do anything else? Still, it is hardly seemly for votes to be bought quite so blatantly.

The politics behind much of the criticism of the deal has been equally obvious. Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones – representing not only the Labour party, but also a nation whose relative needs are at least as great as those of the six counties – abandoned his normally restrained tone to describe the deal as a "bung" for Northern Ireland. Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was also sharply critical of the deal’s lack of concern for financial fairness across the UK. In doing so, she rather blithely ignored the fact that the Barnett Formula, out of which Scotland has long done rather well, never had much to do with fairness anyway. But we could hardly expect the Scottish National Party First Minister to do anything but criticise both the Conservatives and the current functioning of the UK.

Beyond the depressingly predictable short-term politics, the long-term consequences of the Tory-DUP deal are much less foreseeable. It is quite something to threaten the integrity of the Northern Irish peace process and set the various nations of the UK at loggerheads with merely one act. Perhaps everything will work out OK. But it is concerning that, for the current government, short-term political survival appears all-important, even at potential cost to the long-term stability and integrity of the state.

But one thing is clear. The political unity of the UK is breaking down. British party politics is in retreat, possibly even existential decay. This not to say that political parties as a whole are in decline. But the political ties that bind across the UK are.

The DUP deal comes after the second general election in a row where four different parties have come first in the four nations of the UK, something which had never happened before 2015. But perhaps even more significantly, the 2017 election was one where the campaigns across the four nations were perhaps less connected than ever before.

Of course, Northern Ireland’s party and electoral politics have long been largely separate from those on the mainland. But Ulster Unionist MPs long took the Tory whip at Westminster. Even after that practice ceased in the 1970s, some vestigial links between the parties remained, while there were also loose ties between the Social Democratic and Labour Party and Labour. But in 2017, both these Northern Irish parties had their last Commons representation eliminated.

In Scotland, 2017 saw the SNP lose some ground; the main unionist parties are, it seems, back in the game. But even to stage their partial comeback, the unionist parties had to fight – albeit with some success – on the SNP’s turf, focusing the general election campaign in Scotland heavily around the issue of a potential second independence referendum.

Even in Wales, Labour’s 26th successive general election victory was achieved in a very different way to the previous 25. The party campaigned almost exclusively as Welsh Labour. The main face and voice of the campaign was Carwyn Jones, with Jeremy Corbyn almost invisible in official campaign materials. Immediately post-election, Conservatives responded to their failure by calling for the creation of a clear Welsh Conservative leader.

Read more: Did Carwyn Jones win Wales for Labour  - or Jeremy Corbyn?

Yet these four increasingly separate political arenas still exist within one state. The UK was always an odd entity: what James Mitchell astutely termed a "state of unions", with the minority nations grafted on in distinct and even contradictory ways to the English core. The politics of the four nations are drifting apart, yet circumstances will still sometimes mean that they have to intersect. In the current instance, the parliamentary arithmetic means the Tories having to work with a party that celebrates a form of "Britishness" viewed increasingly with baffled incomprehension, if not outright revulsion, by the majority of Conservatives, even, on the British mainland. In turn, the Tories and other parties, as well as the news-media, are having to deal with sudden relevance of a party whose concerns and traditions they understand very little of.

Expect more of this incomprehension, not less, in the post-2017 general election world. 

Roger Scully is Professor of Political Science in the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University.

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