Striking gardeners demonstrate in central London. Photo: Getty
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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 a Labour leadership candidate and MP for Pontypridd. 

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To beat the Trump hype, we need a return to old-fashioned political virtues

If we want to resist the Trumpification of politics, what we need is restraint, duty and incorruptibility.

After the 1992 US presidential election, Alistair Cooke’s celebrated BBC radio series Letter from America struck a poignant note. Cooke described Bill Clinton’s worn jeans and checked wool shirt, contrasting them with George H W Bush’s buttoned-up Wasp manners and buttoned-down Ivy League shirts. Clinton’s style, Cooke argued, was a rebuke to a tired social and political establishment. His casualness was the new America.

Cooke, then 83, was honest enough to admit unease about this departure from the old, patrician modes and manners. “Along with the passing of George Bush,” he said, “we shall see, I fear, the passing of the blue blazer.” Cooke seemed right at the time. But don’t write off the blue blazer just yet. As ruling elites change, so does the appropriate counterpoint. To topple Bush’s stuffy golf club elites, Clinton picked up his saxophone, took off his tie and felt everyone’s pain. And now? The subtext of these turbulent months (the inevitable second question, prompted by “How do you beat Donald Trump?”) is: “What should ­tomorrow’s leaders, the leaders we crave, look and sound like?”

My conjecture is that, to beat Trump and his type – bling, shiny suits, dodgy deals – we should push towards centre stage an underestimated set of political virtues: restraint, duty and incorruptibility. If it weren’t for the gender associations, I would be tempted to call this quality gentlemanliness. Aside from personal virtue – signally lacking in the Clinton camp – how might decency inform public debate as it comes under attack from maverick showmen trained in the media circus? How can the middle ground regain its confidence?

First, level with the public. Maybe liberalism hasn’t failed so much as its messaging has failed. Instead of smashing the electorate over the head with the idea that everything is just great, make the case that not everything can be for the best in all possible worlds. As populists reach for empty slogans, a new space has opened up. Accept and exploit those asymmetries: more people are ready to hear uncomfortable truths than politicians imagine.

Kingsley Amis once argued that a writer’s voice should stay close to his speaking voice: not the same, but close. Adapting that idea, if politicians stayed closer in public debate to the truths that they articulate in casual conversation – some things are impossible; almost every policy creates a losing as well as a winning side; there really isn’t any money – they would be surprised how many people are ready to hear that not all problems can be evaporated into thin air. Stray too far from awkward truths and elections become about simple lies v tricksy lies.

Second, centrists do more harm than good when they rush to categorise dissenting opinion as not only wrong, but unacceptable. “Any suggestion that liberal values are not humanly universal,” as John Gray wrote in a recent NS essay, “will provoke spasms of righteous indignation.” Instead, we need to be more tolerant in our tolerance.

Third, stop pretending that everything desirable can be shoehorned into the “progressive” agenda. “I really care passionately about persevering with the common-sense middle ground and doing it quite well” is a problematic political sales pitch, but not for the reasons that are usually given. The gravest difficulty may come at the beginning, with the faux passion, rather than with the substance – public service and competence – underneath.

It is revealing that those closest to David Cameron expended so much energy trying to persuade us that he was not an updated version of Harold Macmillan. That is why the gay marriage reforms, though admirable, were accorded too much significance. Ah, Cameron was a natural crusader! But he paid a price for dressing up as a “radical” when greater challenges arrived. It weakened some of his strongest cards – calmness, perspective, proportion – just as politics was coarsening. Aren’t Tories supposed to understand the virtues of yesterday? In other words, as an electoral strategy to beat Trump (or Nigel Farage), I’d put up a Macmillan type over a Clinton type every time.

Fourth, cut ties with “messaging experts”. It’s a fraud. They teach that everything must be asserted with powerful conviction. Yet ideas unworthy of powerful conviction are best left shorn of them. The electorate has endured a communications version of crying wolf. As a result of the messaging game, when something genuinely important crops up, it sounds simply like the same old shtick.

Fifth, ditch the bogus quantification. Few things signal untrustworthiness more reliably than fake precision. Something shifted in me when George Osborne argued that Brexit would leave households £4,300 worse off. What, no decimal point? Voters understand uncertainty better than politicians imagine. Precise quantification used to sound professional. Now it sounds suspicious.

Finally, think about tone. Conventional wisdom holds that the mainstream must fight the Trumpian revolution on its own terms: a simple solution, memorably expressed, a guiding vision for the country or the world. If anyone has a good one to hand, I’m all for it. But what if – after decades of ­sophisticated argument and counterargument, as politics has solved the easy problems while parking the difficult or insoluble ones – we have reached a state of such evolved equilibrium that no such easy answer can exist?

Pretending otherwise is no longer a point of difference. It takes you towards the lowest common denominator. As Trump has shown, that is well-occupied territory. Perhaps wooing the angry mob is not the solution. Instead, the admirable and successful politician of the future will have to win back the support of moderate, sensible but disillusioned voters. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage