Victoria Phillips is head of employment rights at Thompsons Solicitors
The Thompsons Solicitors Weekly Blog
Another consultation lands. The Health and Safety Executive is proposing a revised Approved Code of Practice (ACoP) on the workplace health and safety regulations.
It’s a mild one by the standards we have become used to from this government. Another emanation from the Löfstedt review of health and safety, it implements the recommendation that the HSE should review all its ACoPs.
We will be studying the detail before firmly concluding that the proposed changes are of little concern. But in general they are updates of various aspects to reflect amendments in the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 themselves, including the deletion of out of date duties and responsibilities.
Ironically, whereas the ministerial motivation for commissioning the Löfstedt review was the now well-worn path of reducing burdens on business, health and safety ACoPs are not obligatory for businesses to follow.
If they do however, they can be reasonably sure that they are complying with legal requirements. And if they don’t, and an accident happens, a court may take a dim view. So as burdens go, the ACoP is more of a help than an hindrance. It’s certainly not proactive regulation.
Yet the aim of the consultation is “to establish if the changes make it easier for employers to understand and meet their obligations”.
The Löfstedt review, and Lord Young’s before that, found little evidence that employers don’t really understand their obligations. And the burden on business was more perceived than real.
That’s an inconvenient truth. No amount of re-drafting of the regulations and codes will satisfy those in the business lobby and in government with a seemingly pathological hatred for health and safety regulations.
Every time we secure compensation for someone injured in a workplace accident, it’s a cost that could have been avoided if the employer had observed some simple rules and guidance.
At a time when the HSE is operating under swingeing budget cuts do we really need another consultation based on anecdotal evidence that life must be made easier for employers, when what is needed is increased inspections and prosecutions and to hammer home the truth that safe workplaces are more successful businesses?
And let’s not forget that this government is making it increasingly difficult for accident victims to be properly compensated by their employer’s insurer. Ironically, for a government that wants to minimise state intervention, this means that the state is likely to have pick up the tab for an employer’s negligence through welfare claims.
To read more about the consultation see this week’s LELR.
Victoria Phillips is head of employment rights at Thompsons Solicitors
The weekly UnionHome Thompsons Solicitors Blog
Employers’ body the Institute of Directors accused the government of a “poverty of ambition” in its response to this week’s Queen’s Speech. It complained that the new legislative programme “does little to cut back red tape for employers and nothing to tackle the problem of ‘gold-plated’ EU regulation”.
Aside from the fact that one of the most vicious pieces of legislation – the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act – has just received royal assent, a swathe of further employment law reforms are still in process.
So if working people appear to have been given a bit of a breather from further dismantling of their rights at work, it is not, I fear, for lack of government ambition.
The IoD is of course miffed that its bonkers “Beyond Beecroft” Bill to bring in no-fault dismissals didn’t make it onto the legislative agenda. [see this week’s LELR weekly]
Nor did its “Too Big to Strike” and “Midas” Bills – the former requiring at least 50% of union members to back industrial action and the latter restricting implementation of EU directives into UK law to the minimum required.
But if the bosses body didn’t think it had the wind behind it, it wouldn’t be persisting in its efforts to further restrict trade union rights and to rob workers of the little job security they still have.
A curious theme emerged from the comments made by IoD director general Simon Walker. Marital breakdown.
Unions have, he claims, become divorced from their original purpose, no longer representing workers from specific industries and able to cause disruption beyond the site of the original dispute.
Compensated no-fault dismissals are, he thinks, “like a divorce” – the relationship isn’t working and there is no point in going on or even going to court.
Given that a key part of the original purpose of trade unions was collective action in the absence of other influence over injustice in working life, Walker seems to be arguing against himself.
And his no-fault dismissals analogy only works if it is assumed that marriages are built on the same master and servant relationship as the employment one is. How cynical.
Walker’s “super unions” line – he wants the Competition Commission to investigate union mergers – makes no more sense. Interviewed on the Today programme, he attacked public sector super unions for being too strong, but praised private sector ones for being constructive and helping to keep factories open, citing specifically the unions at Ellesmere Port. It was early in the morning, perhaps I missed something, but aren’t those the exact same super unions that organise in the public sector?
A colleague told me of a strange lunch she was “treated” to in the IoD’s swanky brasserie at its Mayfair headquarters. The brasserie was used as a set for the Batman film the Dark Knight, in which the Joker is bent on turning Gotham on itself.
Time to return these clowns and their lunatic ideas back to Arkham Asylum.
Talk of another General Strike does bring to mind the parallels with the last one in May 1926, eighty seven years ago this month.
Like today, a new General Secretary of the TUC with much to prove, Walter Citrine, had just arrived at their pokey office in Eccleston Square, Victoria. On the sudden death of the General Secretary, Fred Bramley, he was called back from a delegation to the Soviet Union to become Acting General Secretary – would the TUC opening diplomatic relations with what was still viewed widely as the ‘first workers’ state’?
Like today, there was a right-wing Conservative government which had bowed to Treasury, Bank of England and City financial orthodoxy and tied Britain once again to ‘the Gold Standard’, so depressing wages generally and making British exports, especially coal exports, uncompetitive. Keynes’ pamphlet, ‘The Economic Consequences of Mr Churchill’ (the Chancellor), exposing this stealthy impact, had a major influence on the union leaders, particularly Citrine. The miners were seen as the ‘shock troops’ to defend against a general employers’ offensive on wages. They had a fiery left-wing General Secretary, Arthur J. Cook, General Secretary of the Miners Federation – Arthur Scargill’s hero – and the TUC General Council fell in behind them.
In fact, the TUC did its best to avert that General Strike by intervening in the coal dispute negotiations, with the blessing of the Mineworkers Federation, its 800,000-strong largest affiliate. With the threat of a repeat of the wholly successful 1925 solidarity action by the rail and road transport unions (‘Red Friday’), they tried to pressurise the government into reining in the mine-owners who were ‘gung ho’ to lock-out the miners, cut their pay and increase their hours of work. They also tried to get the government to continue the coal subsidy and re-organise the industry. Citrine, who was involved in all the negotiations, thought they were close to doing so.
Two things prevented a settlement. First, the inflexibility of the miners leaders, who felt bound to their rank-and-file pit opinion ( ‘not a penny off the pay, not a minute on the day’). The TUC had not insisted on them giving full authority in writing to conduct and conclude it, before involving themselves in the fraught coal industry dispute. The other reason was that the hawks in the Cabinet, led by Churchill, (smarting from what they saw as the humiliating government retreat of ‘Red Friday”), wanted to ‘teach the unions a lesson’. They persuaded the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, to break off the negotiations using the pretext of a Daily Mail compositor’s refusal to set a clearly provocative anti-union front page.
So, on 4th May, the General Strike started in response to that government ultimatum to call off the General Strike. This followed a conference of 1300 union delegates at the Memorial Hall, Faraday Street, as each union roll-called their decisions after rousing speeches and songs. Amazingly, over 1.5 million workers walked out in support of the 1million miners already locked-out. Never before had so many British workers been out on strike together. The transport system in the cities ground to a halt (especially in London), as hardly any buses, trams or underground trains ran. The railways closed. The docks, furnaces, iron and steel, heavy chemical and power industries became as silent as the pits. One writer described it as a ‘strange and even eery experience’.
Amazingly, by the second week, it was still solid, with the engineering and other manufacturing workers coming out. Most European General Strikes only lasted days, despite their much more syndicalist traditions. Even the government realised that they were in uncharted waters, despite their middle class ‘Volunteers’, despite the propaganda of the BBC, their ‘British Gazette’, The Mail and The Times and their best efforts to undermine the will of the strikers. Surprisingly, there was hardly any disorder (many strikers played football with the police) and it was lovely sunny May weather.
However, the General Council leaders were becoming anxious as to where it was all going. They had never intended it as a political challenge to the government, but clearly that’s what it had developed into. You can’t close down the country (food was exempt), without any government intervention, and troops were being placed on standby in their barracks. At Wellington barracks, Citrine ‘saw troops drawn up on the parade ground. Some were practising with machine guns; others had gas masks on, while some were in full marching kit.’ Some, like Jimmy Thomas of the NUR had worried from the start that they would all be arrested and some even shot! His 455,000 rail workers had been solid from the start even though they faced legal challenges and for some, loss of pension. But he was also an MP (and had been a Minister in the 1924 Labour government), with contacts all round Westminster. He was close to the Labour leader, Ramsay MacDonald, who was now also worried.
Even tough strike leaders like Ernest Bevin, whose dockers would have stayed out as long as the miners, was also perturbed by the miners’ intransigence and unwillingness to consider the wider movement. They had tried to restart negotiations but they broke down again as the miners’ leaders would not budge. This really exasperated Citrine and the negotiating committee, as the Miners Federation had, supposedly, put the negotiations in the TUC’s hands. In the circumstances, Citrine gauged the mood of the General Council generally now as being to call it off, and retreat in an orderly fashion.
This was not to be. It is not clear from Citrine’s account – though he kept a daily diary and notes of all the key meetings – why they capitulated without a ‘return to work’ agreement, which would have safeguarded the strikers from victimisation. They only had ‘warm words’ from the Prime Minister and the King. The impression is that Baldwin issued the TUC with an ultimatum to call it off ‘forthwith’ or face the consequences – the use of police and troops to break the strike, and the General Council feared that this would have meant bloodshed. So, on the night of Tuesday 11th May, Citrine received a phone call from Downing Street saying ‘the Prime Minister wants to know whether you have any news for him. He [and the Cabinet] had been sitting up for you’. The General Council were waiting for the Miners’ leaders to tell them if they would compromise. On being told no, Citrine and the TUC President, Arthur Pugh of the Iron & Steel workers, and Thomas went into the Cabinet room to give a ‘haggard and drawn’ Baldwin and other Ministers their decision. When Pugh announced the calling-off of the strike, Baldwin replied, ‘I thank God for your decision’. It was back from the brink.
Hardly surprisingly, Citrine and the TUC leaders took a lot of ‘stick’ from the miners (who stayed out for another six months!), the Left and those later victimised – though most workers were relieved. A ‘post-mortem’ conference of all the unions in January 1927, overwhelmingly accepted their account. It rejected Arthur Cook and Herbert Smith’s Minerworker’s Federation version of things, though Citrine acknowledged that it had been ill-prepared and called off without consultation with them. He regarded it as ‘a protest against the degradation of the standards of life of millions of good trade unionists’. I’m sure that Len McCluskey would say the same today with much justification! But would he accept Citrine’s view that ‘the theory of the General Strike had never been thought out ‘ and that a stoppage on such a scale for any length of time, would inevitably be taken as ‘a challenge to the Constitution’?
Looking back in 1964, Citrine still didn’t resile from his long-held view – ‘I did not regard the General Strike as a failure’:
“We have had our General Strike. Imperfect as it has been…it was the most
magnificent effort of rank-and-file solidarity that the British movement has
The general employers’ offensive on pay did not happen.
Citrine was elected General Secretary at the September 1926 annual Congress, with the support of the Miners’ leaders, Cook and Smith, who respected his conduct during the whole coal dispute. He would serve with distinction – he became Lord Citrine of Wembley – for another twenty years in some of the most eventful decades of the twentieth century. He (and Bevin) would take the TUC in a different, less confrontational direction altogether after the strike, with considerable success (after the Great Depression 1928-34). By WW2 the TUC and the union movement were being described as another ‘estate of the realm’. But that is another story.
So, the story of the General Strike is many dimensional. It could not be repeated today. Talk of General Strikes, from a movement that is so much weaker, seem ‘cloud cuckoo’ stuff, though many of the same issues are around again to justify such a nation-wide protest. So, it is not enough for our ‘One Nation’ Labour theorists to simply reject the notion of such protests – Occupy, Uncut etc and Len McCluskey, are expressions of the desperation again setting in. They must also come up with alternative policies which are not based on Treasury, Bank of England and City orthodoxy in government economic policy. Who will write and act on, ‘The Economic Consequences of Mr Osborne’?
Source: Walter Citrine, ‘Men and Work’ (1964), Volume 1 of his very interesting autobiography.
Victoria Phillips is head of employment rights at Thompsons Solicitors
The Thompsons Solicitors weekly blog
Fees for pursuing employment tribunals are expected to come in at the end of July, though a letter to stakeholders from the Courts and Tribunals Services is vague about the date and whether the systems will be ready.
In fact, now that the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act has passed into law, there’s a long list of employment law changes that the government has yet to give clear implementation dates for [see this week’s LELR weekly].
A consultation on how the fees remission system will work in practice was expected last autumn but has only recently opened. It closes on 16 May.
The government’s stated aim is that through fees it will achieve 100% recovery of the costs of running the system. Given that targets below full cost recovery have already been agreed with the Treasury, I wonder what the point of consultation on fees remission is?
Not that many claimants will qualify under the government’s proposals anyway.
If an applicant has too much “disposable capital” there will be no remission and no need to consider income levels. Disposable capital includes such things as jointly held capital, ISAs, savings and redundancy payments. The test has been set to “prevent fee remissions being paid to wealthy individuals”.
An individual or a couple with savings of as little as £3,000 will be expected to pay up to a third on fees. This rises to a half for those with £8,000 put away for leaner times. Nothing is said about the practical problems of liquidating capital assets within the three-month time limit for lodging a claim.
An applicant who passes the disposable capital test is then subject to an income test, which is now based on gross monthly, not annual income. No explanation is given for this, nor for the fact that the income threshold is being slashed at the same time.
A single person’s lower threshold remains at about £13,000, but a couple’s threshold drops from £18,000 to £15,000 – a mere £2,000 above that of a single person. The minimum wage for one person working 40 hours a week is just under £13,000. So is the majority of the population “wealthy” on this analysis?
A partner’s income is taken into account on the basis that “both the applicant and their partner gain financially or otherwise from the use of a court or tribunal”. Income levels must be proved by showing their last three months bank statements.
No account is taken of the fact that those claiming unfair dismissal or unlawful deduction from wages will no longer be in receipt of the income those statements show.
And if you want to retrospectively claim a remission you must do so within two months – so there’s not much chance to produce three months of post-dismissal bank statements.
These proposals have nothing to do with making the wealthy pay, or saving the taxpayer money. As we have come to expect from this government, the bar to qualify for remissions is being set so deliberately high that it will simply deter people pursuing legitimate employment tribunal claims, denying access to justice to those who need it most.
Victoria Phillips is head of employment rights at Thompsons Solicitors
The Thompsons Solicitors Weekly Blog
It’s been a dismal week for health and safety and rights at work.
On Monday the House of Lords voted to change the law which makes employers automatically liable for breaches of health and safety regulations, meaning an injured worker cannot rely on that breach as evidence of negligence in any claim for compensation [see this week’s LELR for more details and Thompsons’ response].
And on Wednesday peers accepted the government’s assurances on its deeply flawed shares for rights scheme.
I had been following both amendments – the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and Growth and Infrastructure Bills – as they pinged and ponged between the chambers. It was impossible not to have admiration for the Lords’ determination to see them off – perhaps constitutional reform wasn’t so urgent.
But the law in place since 1898 to protect workers, and which went on to be enshrined in the Factories Acts, was wiped out at 11.30pm because there were just too few peers left to vote the government’s amendment down.
The calling of last trains, bed and cocoa overcame the need to prevent workplace health and safety returning to the standards of Victorian England.
And then the ever-strengthening cross-party and cross-bench opposition in the Lords to Osborne’s ill-conceived and offensive plan to deny fundamental employment rights to certain workers melted away with a number of concessions, including on the need for individuals to receive independent legal advice.
So I am again firmly behind modernising our constitution.
The last ditch changes to shares for rights were in addition to earlier protections dragged out of ministers by MPs and Lords, including for jobseekers and for others who refuse the employee-shareholder status.
But the scheme remains open to abuse by employers determined to try to get something for nothing. It does not herald a great advance in share-holding democracy, whatever is claimed from the rostrums at this year’s Tory and Lib Dem party conferences.
The AWB is set to be abolished if the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill gains Royal Assent in its present form.
Labour has tabled the following motion:
That this House notes that the Agricultural Wages Board was set up in 1948 to provide a fair wage and skills structure for agricultural workers; recognises that it is used as a benchmark for other employment in the food industry and that it was the only wages council not to be scrapped in the 1980s; further notes that around a quarter of agricultural workers live in tied accommodation and that casual seasonal workers may move around the country; regrets that the Welsh Government’s wish to retain the AWB has been ignored by the UK Government; condemns the Government for its abolition of the AWB, which took place after just 4 weeks consultation and will take £260 million out of the rural economy over the next 10 years, lead to a race to the bottom on wages in rural areas, reduce living standards and impoverish rural workers, exacerbating social deprivation and harming social inclusion; further regrets that Honourable Members could not debate this issue as part of the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill; and calls on the Government to drop its plans to abolish the AWB.
The Twitter hashtag for this afternoon’s debate is #ruralwages Read More…
Victoria Phillips is head of employment rights at Thompsons Solicitors
The weekly Thompsons Solicitors blog
Although the government’s proposed changes to the TUPE regulations will benefit employers and employers alone, there’s little evidence that they actually want them.
At a recent meeting of the influential Westminster Policy Forum, a number of representatives from City law firms – employers’ lawyers – said there was no appetite among bosses for the reforms.
And for good reason. Employers appreciate the certainty that the 2006 amendments relating to service provision changes (SPCs) – which happen when work is outsourced, taken back in house, or when the contractor providing the work changes – afford.
Certainly, no clamour for change emerged from the BIS call for evidence on the issue last year. The majority of respondents wanted to retain SPCs.
Our response to the TUPE regulations consultation, reported in this week’s LELR points out that until 2007 there was a steady stream of appeals to the Court of Appeal, and even to the Court of Justice, dealing with the fundamental issues relating to whether there had been a transfer under the 1981 version of TUPE.
But the introduction of SPCs in 2006 changed all that. There have been a handful of appeals to the employment appeal tribunal, but the existence of SPCs has greatly reduced the scope for dispute as to whether TUPE applies.
Inevitably, that’s a problem for this business burden obsessed government. As with its resolve to remove strict liability from health and safety laws because they provide certainty over an employer’s responsibility for a workplace accident caused by a breach of the regulations, it is determined to free up employers to try to circumvent the TUPE rules.
That doing so will mean more litigation and cost for employers seems not to have occurred to ministers, though it has to businesses – hence their support for the status quo.
Appallingly, the government’s justification is that, anecdotally, employers have been seeking legal advice on how to avoid TUPE or at least mitigate its effects. There’s no evidence this is widespread, and the comments of the City boys this week would imply it isn’t.
There will always be employers who try to get around the rules. It’s what keeps union reps and union lawyers so busy. But it doesn’t mean the rules are wrong, anti-competitive, damaging to the economy or a deterrent to employing people.
Neither does it mean that businesses who want to be free not to respect workers’ rights are entrepreneurs while everyone else is in hock to employment lawyers, as was implied by business minister Michael Fallon during last Tuesday’s Commons debates on the equally illogical shares for rights scheme.
Joe Dromey is Head of Policy and Research at the IPA
At Labour conference last year, Ed Miliband borrowed from the Tory lexicon and set out his vision for One Nation. A key part of this would be building an economy in which success would be ‘made by the many, not just a few at the top’. But six months on from his Ed’s conference speech, there remains a significant gap in the vision for a One Nation economy. What about Trade Unions?
The Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna recently acknowledged their role as ‘wealth creators for this country’. But what role could unions play in a One Nation economy? And what would a One Nation model of trade unionism look like? With 2015 fast approaching, it’s time for Labour to address these questions.
Unions will obviously continue with their essential work both of representing employees who are mistreated, and pushing for fair pay and good terms and conditions. But in addition to this, a One Nation model of trade unionism might include a greater focus on skills development, on community campaigning and on partnership working.
First, in a One Nation economy, unions could play a vital role in skills development and utilisation. Where they are present in the workforce, unions already do sterling work here, supporting over 170,000 learners each year (1). As a result, the majority of unionised workplaces are ‘high trainers’, compared to just one in three non-unionised workforces.(2)
An incoming Labour government should put unions at the centre of their skills strategy. Working alongside employers, they can help both to identify and remedy skills gaps, and to improve skills utilisation. Giving unions a prominent role here could also bolster their presence in the private sector where, after a sustained period of decline, just one employee in seven is a union member.
Second, trade unions must retain a focus on the community where their members live and work. After all, unions grew out of the community in the early 19th century and they functioned as major providers of welfare services until the state began to take over. Membership helped define working people’s identities and build a sense of community and solidarity at work. Yet the movement has lost some of its community focus in recent years, with some unions concentrating only on industrial issues.
A One Nation model of trade unionism must continue to focus on the wider community. TSSA in their Together for Transport campaign have been using community organising approaches to great effect. They are building coalitions of support including railway workers, passengers, and the wider community to fight for common causes such as protecting ticket offices and lowering fares. The strength of the Living Wage campaign owes much to the union movement. Labour’s strategy for a living wage (and indeed for enforcing the minimum wage) must have the unions front and centre, leading the drive for decent pay in local communities.
Finally, One Nation trade unionism must have workplace partnership at its core. Employers and employees have an obvious shared interest in the sustainability, stability and success of their organisation. There will be differences of emphasis and sometimes of interests, but the key is how these are resolved for the benefit of the workforce and the organisation alike.
Despite talk of a general strike (that would be both unworkable and counterproductive), unions on the ground are recognising the need to work together with employers and compromise in order to protect jobs. Far from a new winter of discontent, strikes remain a fraction of the level seen in previous recessions.
Members want to see their representatives play a positive role; yes standing up for their rights, but also contributing towards the organisation’s success.
Working in partnership with employers, unions could help drive up employee engagement. After all, workplaces with an engagement culture are safer; employees are less stressed and have higher levels of wellbeing; they are better managed; they are listened to and know their voice counts.
There are numerous recent examples of where strong trade unions – through pursuing partnership with employers – have really made a difference to members. Take the mothballed former Corus steel plant at Redcar where Community found new buyers, bringing back thousands of good quality jobs to the local area. Or the Vauxhall plant at Ellesmere Port where Unite were instrumental in winning the contract for the new Astra, securing the future for years to come.
Obviously it takes two to tango; there has to be will on the part of employers to work together. And there are things the government could do to encourage partnership; by legislating to ensure an employee voice on boards or by re-examining the information and consultation regulations. Labour might also consider a new fund along the lines of the Union Modernisation Fund – scrapped by the Coalition – to encourage partnership working and a focus on the community.
However, it is clear that the tone and approach of unions matters too. They need to preach and practice partnership.
Obviously it’s not for the Labour Party to dictate how democratically governed unions should behave. But if Labour is serious about building a One Nation economy, it needs to set out its vision for, and provoke discussion on, the role of trade unions within it. A trade unionism focused on skills and training, on campaigning in the community, and on working in partnership with employers could help deliver the One Nation vision, and really make a difference for working people.
While one part of the nation mourns the death of Baroness Thatcher, the rest of us are left ‘spitting tacks’, ‘dancing on her grave’ and bemoaning what she did to us – or are we? It seems to me that its all too late for that. The understandable anger of the mining and manufacturing communities and northern cities has come through the fog of biased reporting from the right-wing media and establishment. However, I searched in vain for a coherent, convincing analysis or thought-piece which put this right-wing icon into a perspective which I could come to grips with as a union and Labour person. Nor have I seen one either from union or Labour commentators.
As a young T&GWU negotiator on occupational pensions, I was introduced to her in 1983 and had a brief conversation/banter with her about the upcoming general election. I was brash enough to opine that she wouldn’t last and that Michael Foot would soon see her off! With surprising good humour, she said, ‘Oh, no,no,no – I’m here for some time yet’! I was also struck by her appearance – she was then quite a diminutive figure, not the high-powered media creation which she developed into.
I’ve reflected on that exchange many times over the years, (it isn’t often you get to have one with someone so important) – both on my naiveté and on her being proved so right. Having served as a national official and a Labour activist throughout her ‘reign’, I have formed the conclusion that it was we, both wings of the labour movement, which created the monster of Thatcherism. I mean this literally. If we hadn’t frustrated the efforts of one Labour government and a second Conservative, but by no means anti-union, Prime Minister (Ted Heath in 1974), in their efforts to reform our relationships, she would never have emerged as Tory Leader in 1975. Nor would she have become Prime Minister in 1979, after another debacle – ‘The Winter of Discontent’ - with such an anti-union manifesto.
That is not to say that those governments’ proposals were exactly right – though some of us might give ‘our back teeth’ for the mild ‘In Place of Strife’ or Industrial Relations Act 1971 framework of industrial relations law today. No, they were far from perfect and the accompanying incomes policies were also deficient in those inflationary times. It was our stupid, ‘over our dead bodies’, response which did for us. In our brash overconfidence, we saw it as ‘audacity’ that even an elected government could require us to change our ways. It was this which made ‘union power’ such a negative issue for Thatcher to exploit so skilfully. She did so, even with our own members, as the elections of 1979, 1983, 1987 and even as late as 1992, proved. And we can’t blame just Arthur Scargill for that obdurate stance.
The rest, as they say, is history. Even her toppling by her Conservative colleagues in 1990, did not change the climate she had created. By the time the pendulum had swung back to Labour, the unions had lost most of their power base. – the huge loss of membership and collective bargaining coverage due to the Thatcherite switch to a service economy and global finance. We in the unions, as well as the Labour Party were desperate to get back into ‘the game.’ As a result, we did not look too closely at the slick ‘New’ Labour prospectus from 1994 onwards. Some of it was clearly necessary, but I now deeply regret that we didn’t chew it more, as it proved a ‘thin gruel’ for thirteen years in government.
I think that we do now have another chance, as Ed Miliband is proving to be a much deeper Labour thinker than we’ve had as Leader for some time. He has many of the characteristics which made Thatcher so formidable – courage, determination and a distinctive philosophical outlook, but one that is in tune with Labour values and people. Hopefully, he will seek to restore a shared outlook and philosophy for the two wings of the labour movement. We are strongest together and a new-found social democratic unity would be the best reaction to Thatcher’s death.
‘Where there is discord, we will bring harmony.’ Yes, this was St Francis of Assisi! On 4 May 1979, Margaret Hilda Thatcher had the audacity to regurgitate this quotation at the beginning of dividing the nation in a way that had not been seen since the overthrow of Charles I.
Speaking for the nation as a whole entails understanding and feeling the pain, as well as understanding the aspiration of the different cultural, social and political make-up of the nation. That is Labour’s challenge today.
At the heart of our politics and as an expression of our values, rests an all-embracing yet simple philosophy of our humanity. Namely, that we have a mutual interdependence which springs from a bond of parent to child, and is writ large in different ways and through various cultures, from extended family and physical community to nation state and the desire for protection and security.
Reciprocity helps us balance the need for self-determination and creative individuality with mutual hope, and therefore what might be described as ‘solidarity’.
As we say, ‘we can achieve so much more together than we can divided’. Balancing the common good with the freedom and liberty to exercise that individuality has been and remains a challenge for those committed to democracy, while understanding that the Polis ensures our participation and therefore our citizenship.
At its crudest we need to understand where power lies, how it is exercised and by whom, and what can be achieved through coming together and working collectively to protect ourselves from exploitation, to promote the best interests of what has come to be known as ‘society’. The existence of which was bizarrely denied in that famous Woman’s Own interview with Margaret Thatcher!
The clash between capital and labour, between those seeking to maximise profit and those with only their toil to sell, was of course the driving force for the creation of the trade unions in the 19th century. Coupled as it was with the crusade to increase the franchise and enable people to have a political voice, we saw the development of an understanding of how people united together in a particular cause could give themselves some chance of being empowered, no matter how modestly.
The reshaping of Ed Miliband’s ‘One Nation Britain’ is an endeavour to articulate that belief, that what we do to others engineers the circumstances which benefit or damage ourselves and our family.
The ill-educated child is a drain on our economic prosperity, productivity and competitiveness, as well as a waste of talent and an immoral denial of the nurturing of every child.
At its crudest the ill-health of others is a drain on our taxes, even if, as a minority, people decide to buy themselves out of that service.
Few people can escape from the wider environment in which they live and work. Again, most crudely, unsafe, ill-lit and filthy streets can be avoided by the very rich for most of the time but for the majority of people only part of the time.
But ‘One Nation’ cannot and should never be simply the avoidance of the most obvious injustice or collective suicide. It has to be about a great deal more than politics built on grievance and the unhappiness of a resentful and selfish public sphere. More than putting right the playing-off of public sector workers against those in private enterprise. The retired versus the young, the migrant versus the resentful and excluded. Or, the badly housed versus the homeless.
In other words, replacing the politics of Conservative division with a morally more superior and a politically more cohesive engagement.
For if we are to pull the nations of Britain together, the inner city with the rural hinterland, the more affluent south-east with the once-powerful and prosperous economic engine room of the north, it is involvement and that mutual sense of purpose which will be so vital.
Bringing people together, for their own benefit but also to counterweight global economic forces and powerful vested interests, will not only bring material gain, it will also be educative, informative and empowering.
One simple example (which, ironically, the present government are assisting) is what has become known as the Big Switch. Bringing people together to use the power of collective bargaining to reduce energy bills. This example can be seen as an essential part of the purpose of modern local government, as well as reinforcing civil society.
What, therefore, if a radical incoming Labour government offered the opportunity of both influence and affluence by engaging the power of people in underpinning the macro action in the economic and social policy of the government. Government and people together.
To fail to pay even minimal taxes in major developed countries is a scandal, but one that does not have to be tolerated. Yes, of course government has to act (sensibly) in cooperation with like-minded representative democracies elsewhere. But it has also a common-sense duty to mobilise and support its own electorate.
Boycotts have been used effectively over the decades in different parts of the world to combat injustice. The ‘strike’ of the consumer can and should be effective. Governments cannot and should not do this for people, but there is no reason at all why they should not facilitate and support such action.
Equally, changing the way in which we deliver our public services (as opposed to simply slashing and burning) offers common cause as much in Berkshire or Bedfordshire as it does in Bury or Bolton.
Back in the late 19th and early 20th century, municipal enterprise was the driving force for innovation and enterprise in creating not only availability of clean water, but gas and electricity. The Goose and Burial Clubs of EP Thompson’s ‘The Making of the English Working Class’ was followed by the creation of the embryo welfare state – bottom up, not top down.
So ‘earned entitlement’, the balancing of rights and duties, an understanding of mutual responsibility based on self-reliance, are ingrained in the values of those who count themselves to be social democrats.
Above all, in a rapidly changing world where global forces determine so much of our lives, from the elbow room of our elected representatives even to the survival of our planet, rooting what we stand for in the sense of belonging, wellbeing of the people we call our ‘fellow citizens’ and the liberation of talent has to be both common sense and good politics.
Turning this into practical reality that touches the day-to-day lives of those people is the challenge for the politics of the moment.
Our Treasurer Chris Weavers is chairing a policy discussion with Rt Hon David Blunkett MP in Parliament tomorrow, to attend click here.