By Joy Johnson
Conference season is over. If it hadn’t been for the politically expedient fix of a fixed-term Parliament, we would be in an electoral cycle – and on the final run to get rid of the worst, harshest and most out of touch government we’ve ever had.
It’s now commonplace to say that Margaret Thatcher’s government wasn’t as harsh as this one. She didn’t privatise rail nor did she sell off the Royal Mail. It was for Thatcher a step too far. She wasn’t about to privatise the Queen’s head.
But arguing about 50 shades of blue Tory ideology misses the point. By selling off public utilities, she set in motion the profiteering that we are reeling from now. Gas, water, electricity – fundamental to people’s lives – all sold off. Vital utilities including transport fell to foreign ownership.
Even the Daily Mail complained that the country is at the mercy of foreign conglomerates which could “bring Britain PLC to a shuddering halt”. As Alex Brummer, the Mail’s city editor warned: “They owe no particular allegiance to this country their foreign fortresses shield them from our bitter complaints.”
That is the truth. The trade unions don’t hold a “Sword of Damocles” over us, the oligopolies do.
New Labour picked up the privatisation bug by way of the Private Finance Initiative. Money raised in the short term allowed Tony Blair to stick to his promise not to raise taxes. A major failure during New Labour’s time was the absence of any argument for taxation linked to public services.
The myth that only the market can provide innovation and the necessary investment has rarely been exposed. The billionaires’ fortunes were made on the backs of university professors and defence specialists, among others.
So here we are now. The coalition has brought working people to their knees. They’ve set one group against another – the strivers versus the so-called scroungers, the able against the disabled and the pensioners who are seen as a burden on society.
With the utilities and the rest of our infrastructure sold, now they’re selling off the welfare state – privatising the Queen’s head to plug a financial hole.
And the Tories have turned their vindictiveness once again on the trade unions. The lobbying bill – more correctly dubbed the “gagging bill” – is designed to silence the unions and indeed any opponents.
Opposition is part and parcel of democracy, yet the Liberal Democrats have colluded in this anti-democratic measure.
Despite all the evidence that demonstrates strong unions achieving high wages for their members is good for the economy, the Tories want to continue Thatcher’s demolition job. Conservative chairman Grant Shapps has laid out his wish list. First up – and none of this is new – end the right to paid time off for trade union duties.
Forty-five years ago, in his public enquiry into British industrial relations, Lord Donovan concluded that shop stewards were often more of a lubricant rather than an irritant to the system. It was actually better for industrial harmony to be released from work, with pay, to attend to union “duties”.
These duties were not a licence to bunk off with pay. They were tightly defined. Industrial relations issues were separated from trade union “activities”. For instance, you couldn’t go to a union conference and get paid.
Then there is the old chestnut of banning check-off of fees from salaries, which some public sector unions use to maintain membership. Thatcher tried this one. Previously, union members paying subscriptions via check-off had to go through the hoop of signing up every three years. This was one of the few anti-union laws New Labour repealed.
On statutory recognition, the Tories want to go from 10 per cent of a workforce to 30 per cent.
And the one to make most people cry ‘hypocrite’ is the need for a 40 per cent threshold before industrial action. Every non-vote is effectively a “No” vote. Forty per cent thresholds haven’t been used for anything else – not least the Tory flagship policy of police and crime commissioners. The turnouts in those elections were abysmal.
There is a stark choice. Fear from George Osborne – “It’s not over yet” – and hope from Ed Miliband. General election year, 2015, looms. It’s an election that Labour simply must win.