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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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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