Damaging Our Democracy

The Trade Union Bill Poses a Threat to Our Political Culture


Last week, the House of Lords debated the Trade Union Bill.  We are used to thinking of the Bill as a threat to our members and our union.  We are very familiar with the dangers posed by the Bill to our union’s income, our ability to support members, and our identity as a campaigning union.  But I was interested to hear the Lords’ debate as they tended to emphasise the wider effects of the Bill on our democracy.

Baroness Dawn Primarolo, who served in the Blair and Brown governments described how “our liberal democracy is built on a foundation of tolerance” but that the trade union bill; is “illiberal, potentially punitive and therefore damaging to our democracy.” 

Similarly the Lib Dem peer Baroness Burt regarded the Bill as “partisan” and failing to respect “the rules of the game and... fair play”.  She argued that “the Government’s aim is not to reform trade unions to reduce workplace conflict but simply to make it harder for unions to operate”.

Lord Frank Judd, who served in the Callaghan Government in the 1970s, emphasised the impact of the Bill on our “constitutional balance”.  He criticised the Government for pushing through the legislation without consensus-building and consultation, whilst ignoring the weakness of their own electoral mandate.  He feared that the Bill will lead to “confrontation and antagonism” and finished with the famous “they came for the trade unionists” quote from Pastor Niemoller on how important it is to speak out when others are being attacked.  

It crossed my mind that there are some people who feel that they haven’t been hit by austerity and that their living standards have not been attacked by the Government.  Perhaps they work in the commercial sector and have had a wage rise, perhaps they haven’t used the health service recently, perhaps they don’t have young children or elderly relatives, perhaps they can’t imagine ever needing to draw on the welfare state.  I would advise people in this position not to regard this as evidence that the Government is ‘on their side’.  Unless they’re in the top 1% wealthiest people in the country, it’s more likely that the Government just hasn’t got around to them yet. 

Trade unions are in the Government’s sights at present, but we need to be in no doubt that should we fall, others will become the focus of attack.  We need to build on the broad opposition to the Trade Union Bill.  In the week commencing Monday 8 February, we will be highlighting the work that UNISON and other unions do during the TUC ‘heart unions’ week.  Our events will include a public meeting at the Mechanics' Institute on Thursday 11 February at 6pm.  This is a great opportunity to both celebrate the role of trade unions in our society and build pressure on the politicians who are soon to vote again on the Bill. 

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