Striking gardeners demonstrate in central London. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The Conservatives' attacks on trade unions are an attack on our most fundamental freedoms

In seeking to undermine the Labour Party, the Tories are putting our most fundamental freedoms at risk.

Politics is a battle of ideas and if the voters don’t agree with yours they can let you know in no uncertain terms.  We should all be thankful for that, even if as a Labour MP that message hurts right now.

However, despite this unforgiving political back-and-forth, throughout our recent history there has been an abiding commitment to the ideal of freedom that binds British people together.  That ideal shouldn’t be the subject of debate, but the very platform that allows these debates to take place, transcending the political divides of the day.

This freedom doesn’t just mean the narrow right to elect our representatives, it includes our freedom of speech, freedom from intrusion and the freedom of association, which is protected under article 11 of the Human Rights Act.  We should cherish the fact it is up to us what groups we join and that, within reason, how those groups manage their affairs is beyond interference from the state.  These are our precious rights as individuals and it falls to each generation to defend these liberties, which were hard won by our foremothers and forefathers.                                                                                                   

Yet, in the Queen’s Speech, we have seen this Tory government launch an attack on these freedoms.  Much has already been said, across the political spectrum, about the grave threat posed by proposals to scrap the Human Rights Act and distance Britain from the European convention on human rights, including by my colleague Keir Starmer.

This threat to the Human Rights Act has been coupled with draconian proposals to curb trade union freedoms, which risks taking our country down a dark path.  They are a move away from freedom and towards greater control for the state over the lives of individuals.  In short, the Tories propose to diminish freedoms that are not theirs to give away.

The government is proposing to introduce a new threshold for strike action, in a bid to prevent working people from withdrawing their labour.  This is not just an affront to civil liberties, it also reeks of hypocrisy from a government elected with 36 per cent support of the 65 per cent of people who voted in the general election.  They clearly have a mandate from the electorate and a right to form the government, yet for them to them turn around and suggest trade unions are required to pass an arbitrary 50 per cent ballot threshold is a shameless example of double standards.

Their proposals might have a little more credibility if they were accompanied by measures allowing trade unions to ballot their members in a more modern way.  Many members are reasonably asking, in a world where people do sensitive, private work online, like personal banking, why on earth can’t members cast their ballots on the internet?  It could be done easily and if the right safeguards were put in place, it would increase turn out in ballots, while minimising any potential for voting fraud.  However, the truth is the government is not interested in increasing the say of working people, they simply want to encroach on workplace democracy.

As part of the government’s package of measures, they are also trying to dictate even more forcefully the ways in which the subs of trade union members are used.  This is a bid to make it even more difficult for trade unions to set aside a proportion of their funds for political campaigning, on issues like opposing the exploitation of workers by gangmasters. 

The political funds that allow trade unions to undertake this type of campaigning are already subject, by law, to a vote every 10 years by members, asking if they want to see it continue, while all trade union members have the option to opt-out of the fund if they want.  So an onerous system is already in place to ensure union membership fees are properly used. 

This government is simply trying tie up democratically-run trade unions in red tape.  Yet ask them to take action on tackling legal loan sharks or rogue landlords and the response every time is we are anti-bureaucracy.  Well so much for the government’s ‘red tape challenge’ when it comes to the UK’s biggest democratic organisations. 

Also, let’s be absolutely clear, this is a cynical attempt by the Tories to make it even more difficult for trade unions to donate to the Labour Party.  No doubt hoping that a labour movement, bruised by defeat, will be reluctant to fight back.  In response, we must leave no doubt that the Labour Party is strengthened immeasurably by our links to working people.  The funding we receive from trade unionists comes from the donations of builders, agricultural workers, cleaners and care workers.  It’s the cleanest money in politics, openly and transparently donated by democratic organisations – we are a labour movement and proud of it.  This is a stark contrast to the Tory Party, which is bankrolled by hedge funds and oligarchs.  So if the Tories want that debate, I say bring it on.

Even before this clampdown, British workers already have among of the fewest rights in Europe. Is it right that call centre workers in Hannover or engineers in Helsinki have more rights than a waitress or bus driver in Harlow?  In fact, the restrictions on workers’ rights here in Britain means that we are already in breach of parts of the European Social Charter, which was set up to guarantee social and economic human rights. 

If we allow the Tories to succeed in their mission of further stripping hard won freedoms from the British people we will see our country’s reputation diminished on the international stage. 

With so many people in the world denied access to basic freedoms, we should be proudly acting as a beacon, celebrating and defending our civil liberties.  Instead we are at risk of setting a dangerous precedent that says it is ok to take away freedoms, if the government of the day finds them inconvenient.

There are many people right across the political spectrum who have a proud record of fighting for the rights of the individual and civil liberties.  If we don’t come together now to oppose these attacks, we risk leaving our children a less free country than the one we inherited, which is a pretty miserable legacy. 

Owen Smith is Labour MP for Pontypridd and Shadow Secretary of State for Work & Pensions.

Getty
Show Hide image

Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.