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19 December 2016

Why Theresa May isn’t backing new anti-strike laws

The Prime Minister's small majority, "pro-worker" stance and Brexit are all reasons not to act.

By George Eaton

The UK, Tony Blair once boasted, has “the most restrictive trade union laws in the western world”. Under the Conservatives, they have become more restrictive still. The Trade Union Act, which became law last May, imposed a minimum turnout threshold of 50 per cent for strike action and an additional threshold of 40 per cent support from eligible members in “essential” services.

But the current series of rail and postal strikes has led some Tories to argue for yet further legislation. In a recent meeting with Transport Secretary Chris Grayling, Conservative backbencher Chris Philp proposed three changes to “prevent unreasonable strike action”. In the case of public transport, he argued that a 50 per cent service should be maintained during industrial action (as in Canada), that it should be mandatory to attend mediation at conciliation service Acas, and that there should be a legal requirement for strikes on critical infrastructure to be “reasonable and proportionate” (with the balance adjudicated by the High Court).

Grayling, a long-standing bête noire of the unions, stated last week that he did not “rule anything out” when asked whether new laws could be introduced. But No.10 has struck a notably different tone. “Any changes to union laws would not be able to solve the current disputes,” a source said. “They will be solved by mediation and we would urge the unions to get round the table.” The source added: “In this parliament, we have already passed legislation to provide people with better protection from undemocratic industrial action. Of course, we will keep under review how these measures are working in practice.” 

That statement keeps open the possibility of action (“under review”) but there are important reasons why May has avoided picking a fight with the unions. The government has no mandate for new legislation, giving the House of Lords grounds to obstruct it (the upper chamber inflicted several crucial defeats during the passage of the Trade Unon Act). May could also run into trouble in the Commons, where her working majority is now just 12. Unlike David Cameron, Tory MPs say, the Prime Minister only enters battle when she is certain of winning.

Beyond this, May allies emphasise that fresh anti-union legislation would undermine her “pro-worker” stance and her repositioning of the Tories. The former Labour adviser Matthew Taylor is currently leading a review of workers’ rights and practices.

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Though more than 280,000 days have been lost to strike action this year, compared to last year’s 170,000, the total remains remarkably low by historic standards. In 1979, the year Margaret Thatcher took office, 29.5 million days were lost. The anti-union laws passed by the Conservatives, and retained by Labour, helped achieve a collapse in strike action. But already faced with the epic task of Brexit, May is unlikely to begin a new crusade.