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

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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.