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6 June 2011

Cable doesn’t go to war with the unions

Despite the headlines, the Business Secretary hasn't called for tougher strike laws.

By George Eaton

As so often with Vince Cable speeches, you need to look beyond the headlines to find out what the Business Secretary’s really up to. Today’s address to the GMB conference was a case in point. The speech was billed by the papers as an attack on the trade unions but in reality it was far more conciliatory.

The Business Secretary positioned himself a moderate, condemning the “usual suspects” who call for a general strike but also the “usual suspects” who “exploit the situation to call for the tightening of strike law.” As Andrew Sparrow notes, Cable’s words imply that Boris Johnson is just as bad as Bob Crow. Radical stuff for a cabinet minister.

Cable went on to rightly note that “strike levels remain historically low” and added that, on this basis, “the case for changing strike law is not compelling.” Again, with those words, Cable put some clear red water between himself and the likes of Boris, who have demanded the immediate introduction of a 50 per cent turnout threshold for strikes.

The Business Secretary did go on to add that “should the position change, and should strikes impose serious damage to our economic and social fabric, the pressure on us to act would ratchet up.” But even so, this hardly qualifies as a commitment to act. The government’s position – that there is no current need to tighten anti-strike laws – remains the same.

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Yet there was still something rather disingenuous about Cable’s comments. “We don’t want to act,” his words implied, “but we may be forced to do so”. In reality, no one – not even the formidable Boris – could force ministers to legislate against the unions. It would be more honest of Cable to tell us what he really thinks.