The government’s ‘controversial’ Trade Union Bill passed its second reading this week. Union bosses, professional left wing ‘activists’ and the insane new Labour leadership have reacted in the usual way – with hysterical anti-Tory rhetoric and blood-curdling threats of a new ‘general strike’. We’ve seen it all before.
Obsessed with re-fighting the Miners Strike of 1984 – and dripping with contempt for ordinary voters who have rejected socialism at the ballot box time and time again – the newly-energised forces of the left are clearly spoiling for a fight.
But there is a gulf between the militant posturing of the union bosses and the vast majority of ordinary working people, who just want to be able to go about their daily lives without hassle.
The things trade union activists and their Labour Party cheerleaders are most riled up about are the most worthy parts of the bill: the strike ballot threshold and the relaxation of restrictions on temporary workers.
Under the new proposals any strike ballot must have at least a 50 percent turnout to be valid. Public sector strikes will require the support of at least 40 percent of all eligible voters. Employers will be able to cover vacancies during strikes using agency temps.
Business Secretary and all-around good egg Sajid Javid said the bill was “not a declaration of war” against unions but was necessary to stop “endless” threats of industrial action.
Javid’s fight is a worthy one. All right-thinking people who don’t particularly fancy being held to ransom by a shouty minority should back him to the hilt. Why should a minority of militant ‘activists’ be allowed to force a moderate majority of union members to strike against their will? Why should public services be withdrawn from the vast majority of taxpayers (you know, the people who actually pay for them) on the say-so of a narrow-minded cabal of radicals?
I’ve spoken to a number of my more left-leaning friends about this. None of them have yet given me a satisfactory answer.
The classic trade unionist argument that ballot thresholds are illegitimate because the government does not have 40-50 percent of the popular vote is nonsensical. All the people of the nation vote in a general election – or at least those who bother to show up do. The government exists to protect the nation, and to preserve the lives and freedoms of its people. It doesn’t always do a particularly good job at either but that’s a topic for another time.
A strike ballot is taken by members of a single club – one faction within the wider society. A vote to strike commits members to making life as difficult as possible for anyone who is not a member of the club.
Even so, Trade unions are part of a free society. If we truly believe in freedom of speech, freedom of expression and above all in freedom of association, then we must admit those rights even to people we don’t like very much.
That does not entitle them to special privileges. Trade unions cannot be allowed to elevate themselves above the law. The proposals in the bill will protect ordinary men and women from being held up, hassled, barracked and abused on their way to work.
There are obvious attractions here for sensible trade unionists. I know it is heresy for a Conservative to say this but not all strikes are illegitimate. The proposed measures would entrench the legitimacy of strike ballots that do attract a big enough turnout.
I am, however, distinctly uneasy about other parts of the bill. Requiring picketers to register their names with the police smacks of the creeping authoritarianism that has characterised this government. Even trade unionists are entitled to the presumption of innocence. Measures like that belong in a Stalinist police state, not in modern Britain (as David Davis has pointed out). They should make all of us who treasure liberty groan with despair.
Automatically treating trade unionists as potential criminals would be a terrible injustice. Liberty is not a commodity to be rationed out to people we approve of and withheld from people we don’t.
That said, I believe wholeheartedly in most of the sensible parts of the Trade Union Bill. Three decades ago the trade union ‘movement’ tried to bring down the elected government of Margaret Thatcher – as they had brought down the two governments that preceded her. They failed. They will never succeed again.