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
PETER MACDIARMID/REX
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Ken Clarke: Theresa May has “no idea” what to do about Brexit

According to the former Chancellor, “nobody in the government has the first idea of what they’re going to do next”.

Has Ken Clarke lost the greatest political battle of his career? He doesn’t think so. With his shoes off, he pads around his Westminster office in a striped shirt, bottle-green cords and spotty socks. Parliament’s most persistent Europhile seems relaxed. He laughs at the pervasive phrase that has issued from Downing Street since Theresa May became Prime Minister: “Brexit means Brexit.”

“A very simple phrase, but it didn’t mean anything,” he says. His blue eyes, still boyish at 76, twinkle. “It’s a brilliant reply! I thought it was rather witty. It took a day or two before people realised it didn’t actually answer the question.”

A former chancellor of the Exchequer, Clarke has served in three Conservative cabinets. His support for the European Union is well known. He has represented the seat of Rushcliffe in Nottinghamshire for 46 years, and his commitment to the European project has never wavered over the decades. It has survived every Tory civil war and even his three failed attempts to be elected Tory leader, standing on a pro-Europe platform, in 1997, 2001 and 2005.

“My political career looks as though it will coincide with Britain’s membership of the EU,” Clarke says, lowering himself into an armchair that overlooks the Thames. There are model cars perched along the windowsill – a hint of his love of motor racing.

Clarke won’t be based here, in this poky rooftop room in Portcullis House, Westminster, much longer. He has decided to step down at the next election, when he will be nearly 80. “I began by campaigning [in the 1960s] in support of Harold Macmillan’s application to enter [the EU], and I shall retire at the next election, when Britain will be on the point of leaving,” he says grimly.

Clarke supports Theresa May, having worked with her in cabinet for four years. But his allegiance was somewhat undermined when he was recorded describing her as a “bloody difficult woman” during this year’s leadership contest. He is openly critical of her regime, dismissing it as a “government with no policies”.

For a senior politician with a big reputation, Clarke is light-hearted in person – his face is usually scrunched up in merriment beneath his floppy hair. A number of times during our discussion, he says that he is trying to avoid getting “into trouble”. A painting of a stern Churchill and multiple illustrations of Gladstone look down at him from his walls as he proceeds to do just that.

“Nobody in the government has the first idea of what they’re going to do next on the Brexit front,” he says. He has a warning for his former cabinet colleagues: “Serious uncertainty in your trading and political relationships with the rest of the world is dangerous if you allow it to persist.”

Clarke has seen some of the Tories’ bitterest feuds of the past at first hand, and he is concerned about party unity again. “Whatever is negotiated will be denounced by the ultra-Eurosceptics as a betrayal,” he says. “Theresa May has had the misfortune of taking over at the most impossible time. She faces an appalling problem of trying to get these ‘Three Brexiteers’ [Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox] to agree with each other, and putting together a coherent policy which a united cabinet can present to a waiting Parliament and public. Because nobody has the foggiest notion of what they want us to do.”

Clarke reserves his fiercest anger for these high-profile Brexiteers, lamenting: “People like Johnson and [Michael] Gove gave respectability to [Nigel] Farage’s arguments that immigration was somehow a great peril caused by the EU.”

During the referendum campaign, Clarke made headlines by describing Boris Johnson as “a nicer version of Donald Trump”, but today he seems more concerned about David Cameron. He has harsh words for his friend the former prime minister, calling the pledge to hold the referendum “a catastrophic decision”. “He will go down in history as the man who made the mistake of taking us out of the European Union, by mistake,” he says.

Clarke left the government in Cameron’s 2014 cabinet reshuffle – which came to be known as a “purge” of liberal Conservatives – and swapped his role as a minister without portfolio for life on the back benches. From there, he says, he will vote against the result of the referendum, which he dismisses as a “bizarre protest vote”.

“The idea that I’m suddenly going to change my lifelong opinions about the national interest and regard myself as instructed to vote in parliament on the basis of an opinion poll is laughable,” he growls. “My constituents voted Remain. I trust nobody will seriously suggest that I should vote in favour of leaving the European Union. I think it’s going to do serious damage.”

But No 10 has hinted that MPs won’t be given a say. “I do think parliament sooner or later is going to have to debate this,” Clarke insists. “In the normal way, holding the government to account for any policy the government produces . . . The idea that parliament’s going to have no say in this, and it’s all to be left to ministers, I would regard as appalling.”

Clarke has been characterised as a Tory “wet” since his days as one of the more liberal members of Margaret Thatcher’s government. It is thought that the former prime minister had a soft spot for his robust manner but viewed his left-wing leanings and pro-European passion with suspicion. He is one of parliament’s most enduring One-Nation Conservatives. Yet, with the Brexit vote, it feels as though his centrist strand of Tory politics is disappearing.

“I don’t think that’s extinct,” Clarke says. “The Conservative Party is certainly not doomed to go to the right.”

He does, however, see the rise of populism in the West as a warning. “I don’t want us to go lurching to the right,” he says. “There is a tendency for traditional parties to polarise, and for the right-wing one to go ever more to the right, and the left-wing one to go ever more to the left . . . It would be a catastrophe if that were to happen.”

Clarke’s dream of keeping the UK in Europe may be over, but he won’t be quiet while he feels that his party’s future is under threat. “Don’t get me into too much trouble,” he pleads, widening his eyes in a show of innocence, as he returns to his desk to finish his work. 

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories