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

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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