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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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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