There was once a time when David Cameron was keen to win over the trade union movement. He became the first Conservative leader in more than a decade to meet the TUC general secretary, Brendan Barber and even appointed a union emissary — the former Labour MEP Richard Balfe — to spearhead secret negotiations with “the brothers”.
But this was in 2008, when Cameron still spoke cheerily of “sharing the proceeds of growth” (the Tories, as much as Labour, failed to see the crash coming) and was still committed to Gordon Brown’s spending plans.
Now, as he prepares to implement a series of savage cuts, in which some departments will be cut by up to 33 per cent, Cameron is planning to make Britain’s strike laws — already some of the most restrictive in the western world — even tougher.
Today’s Times reports: “Ministers have held confidential talks over changing union strike laws as the government prepares plans to shed up to a million public-sector jobs.”
The changes under discussion include raising the proportion of workers required to vote for a strike before it takes place. As things stand, only a simple majority of voters is required but the government is considering introducing a minimum turnout threshold of 40 per cent.
The Times’s Sam Coates adds: “The government is also under pressure from senior business figures to change the rules to replace striking workers with agency employees, to reduce the time before they can be dismissed without reballoting from 12 to eight weeks — and even to make unions legally liable for the consequences of strikes.”
It is understandable that Cameron wishes to avoid a wave of strikes, but he should do so by making a persuasive case for cuts rather than changing the rules of the game. Downing Street may say that the coalition has “no plans” to change strike legislation, but that’s the same formulation as Cameron used when asked about a possible VAT rise.
That the Tories are in coalition with the Lib Dems, who have never had much affection for the trade unions, in many ways makes a Thatcher-style assault more achievable. But for now, I’d say the coalition has enough on its hands without triggering a war with the unions.