Conservatives set to take on unions with new legislation

The Tories are drafting new laws to restrict unions’ right to strike. With a general election looming, they should choose their battles more carefully.

Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude has announced new legislation that seeks to prevent public sector workers from striking on ‘weak’ or outdated ballots, such as votes taken over 2 years before a proposed strike. Under current rules public sector workers have the right to determine a strike with a simple majority of members who choose to vote; the government proposals would seek to introduce a threshold to ensure that at least 50% of all members supported union actions.

This comes ahead of scheduled strikes on Thursday 10 of July that are predicted to involve over 1 million public sector workers including teachers, fire-fighters and civil servants. Unions are protesting changes to pension contributions, increases in the retirement age and a 1% pay cap despite a 2.4% rate of RPI inflation. The National Union of Teachers has stated that they are taking action because ‘teachers are under attack with regards to workload, pay, conditions and job security’. But Mr Maude has retorted that many of the unions involved are striking predicated on votes taken in 2012, in some cases involving voting turnouts of just 20%. He further described revising previous changes to pensions and pay as “totally irresponsible”.

The Tories may have a point when they argue that the unions’ mandate for Thursday’s industrial action is rather shaky, but the ground they stand on is hardly stable. For one, the Conservatives themselves only garnered 32% of ballots from a 65% turnout in an election held 4 years ago. That means they are supported by 21% of the voting public, almost exactly the figure that Mr Maude is so unhappy about. Union ballots and general elections may well be apples and oranges, but expecting unions to consistently achieve high turnouts and overall majorities is rather unfair.

Further, the timing of this new legislation means that it looks like a direct attack on the unions for their planned strikes, which is not only a tad vindictive but also unnecessary. The Cabinet Office released figures evidencing that combined caps on public sector wages saved £1.1 billion last year, or 3.3% of 2014’s debt interest repayments. In other words, it’s not critical. The argument that pay cuts are needed to pay off the national debt wears thinner as the economy moves well into the recovery stages. Just 2 months ago Chancellor George Osborne stated that “Britain is coming back”; to turn round and wrestle over minor increases in teachers’ pay is highly disingenuous.

Politically, the new legislation is a poor move. This isn’t Boris Johnson vs. Bob Crow in a headline war over £50k-a-year tube drivers and a shiny city to fight over. Whoever ‘wins’ this ‘showdown’ doesn’t appear stronger in the slightest. No, this is the Cabinet Office of the coalition government vs. an uncontroversial array of unions.

Unfortunately for the Conservatives, the ‘Nasty Party’ headlines still pretty much write themselves, and if given a choice between tired arguments for fiscal responsibility and moving images of teachers and fire-fighters holding banners, majority public sentiment will only ever go one way. Forget the £1.1 billion, roll over, and try to avoid any more union-bashing headlines for another year.