Yvette Cooper writes for Unions21 on Fair Work

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believe deeply in the Trade Union movement.When my mum went to work it was still legal to pay women less – our Trade Unions, working with the Labour Party, changed that. My dad was a trade unionist – for IPCS, Prospect and EMA. In office I fought to stop GCHQ trade union rights being removed. And I want a strong ongoing relationship between Labour and the unions.


Both Labour and the Trade Unions need to respond to a fast-changing world, workplace and politics or we will be left behind and Britain will be a poorer place.


At the start of the industrial age, Britain turned amazing science into amazing energy, amazing trade, and amazing growth and prosperity.


Technology and global trade also created huge new social challenges, inequality and division.


And the Labour Party emerged, born out of industrialisation and progress, to fight against injustice and calling for that growing prosperity to be shared by all.


Today, Britain is still driving new ideas and amazing science that leads the world – graphene being a good example. But this time, we aren’t turning it into amazing trade or growth and our productivity has stalled.


Technology and globalisation are creating new social challenges. Our country is becoming more divided and unequal, with growing insecurity for those on both low and middle incomes.


I don’t believe the Tories have the answers to these challenges facing modern Britain.


Right now Britain isn’t winning in the world. Growth isn’t strong enough or balanced enough. We aren’t getting enough of the good jobs. Those on low income are being left behind. Those on middle income feel not so much squeezed as over stretched.


We’re buffeted too much by the harsher winds of globalisation, without any plan to manage change or make sure more people feel the benefits.


The UK recovery was the slowest since comparable records began. The UK’s labour productivity was 14% below the average for the G7 – the largest gap since 1991.


The squeeze on pay is historically unprecedented. Real wages have continued to stagnate throughout this Parliament. Full-time wages grew by just 0.1 per cent – the smallest rate of annual growth since the series began and well below the comparable rate of inflation.


Job growth is very welcome. But over most of the last Parliament, jobs in low-paid sectors grew twice as fast as high paid jobs. On skills, the Office of National Statistics has warned the share of high-skilled jobs in our economy is falling as the share of low-skilled work takes its place.


And far from keeping us an outward looking country they are turning inwards – especially on Europe.


And the Government are failing completely to ensure that growth is fair and prosperity is shared. I welcome a higher minimum wage but it is misleading to call it a living wage – especially when it is more than offset by hitting the child tax credits that so many middle and low earning families rely on.


But these are the challenges for Labour too – both economic and political. Because people weren’t convinced about our answers at the election. They knew we would offer a fairer deal – end exploitative zero hours contracts and tackle insecure, low paid jobs – but they didn’t think we could deliver a better deal.


Labour needs to offer an optimistic vision for the future.


One rooted in our values but also hard headed and credible. One that sets out a vision for growth and shared prosperity, where our nation becomes fairer and less divided, backed by strong and sustainable public finances. And one that includes everyone.


We need to be part of Europe. And Labour needs a strong Yes campaign.


But we also need improvements to the markets to help business, as well as fairer rules so working people benefit too. Europe needs to work for everyone – so we should defending things like the right to paid holidays against any attempt by David Cameron to water them down. And I will argue for stronger employment protection across Europe, strengthening the rules on agency workers and posted workers, and fairer benefit rules so people who travel to this country contribute before they claim.


As well as a strong minimum wage I want to see Whitehall Departments all paying a Living Wage – we have to lead from the front. And I want the best incentives to get as many employers as possible paying a Living Wage.


I will set an ambition for the UK economy – public and private – of 3% GDP investment in science, research and development – including cutting edge green technologies. This could help us deliver 2m more manufacturing jobs.


And I will make it a priority to end the Government’s punitive tribunal fees and the two year qualification for unfair dismissal rules.


I want to work with Trade Union members to put workplace representatives at the heart of this shift in our economy towards high skill, high productivity jobs learning from abroad about stronger models of shared working.


That is my approach – proud of our values, but with the strength to win.


Unions21 publishes collection of articles from Labour’s leadership candidates

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The exam question Labour’s leadership candidates were posed for our new publication was set by the Unions21 steering committee: “Outline your views on fair work, particularly focusing on work quality, pay, training and productivity”. A straight forward interview question from leading trade unionists for those vying for the job of Labour leader or deputy.


But the articles submitted in response are revealing on a number of fronts, they seek also to answer some of the more fundamental questions union members might have. How deep is your connection to the trade union movement? What ability do you have to remake the case for trade unions? What future do you see for Labour and the unions?


Not only – What policy prescription do you have? But also, how will you persuade people?

And importantly: Are you an election winner?


The process, we hoped, would be a useful exercise for the candidates in organising and presenting their thoughts on ‘fair work’ directly to a union audience. The result is a rich resource for trade unions and those interested the future of the world of work.


Yvette Cooper begins the collection with a positive vision of a high value, high tech economy. She will ensure 3% of GDP is invested in science and R&D to deliver it—and 2 million more manufacturing jobs. Increased productivity and trade growth need to be national targets. Meanwhile, tribunal fees will be scrapped as will the two year qualifying period for unfair dismissal claims. Her view is that unions and Labour face a common challenge in needing to respond to a fast changing world or be left behind.


Andy Burnham also sees investing in the skills and industries of the future as key. He emphasises the need to boost pay at the low end – and will make any rises in the Minimum Wage apply to working people under 25 years of age. He will create parity between academic and technical education. And Councils will be allowed to build more homes.


Liz Kendal’s article remakes the case for trade unions, drawing on examples of their contribution to campaigns for the National Minimum Wage and their practical success in boosting training. Liz aspires to make it easier for unions to organise and deliver for members. She will bring in online balloting for industrial action, and put employees on the boards of firms.


Jeremy Corbyn describes a crisis in the labour market “not of quantity, but of quality”. He sees unions as “the most effective force for equality in our society”. He will restore national pay bargaining and above inflation pay rises in the public sector. He wants trade unions to have the right to access workplaces to recruit and organise. Jeremy’s prescription of wage councils in low paid industries and an extended remit for the gangmasters licensing authority are broadly in tune with the ideas explored in Unions21’s Fair Work Commission project of 2013.


Caroline Flint’s article begins our collection of articles from Deputy Leadership candidates. Caroline believes union recognition creates better firms – a view she has backed with organising action in her own constituency. She believes “flexibility should not equal insecurity”. Caroline’s range of policy ideas includes a duty on employers to provide employees who make a complaint a list of agencies that could represent them, to include unions.


Stella Creasy uses the lyrics of Billy Bragg’s “To Have And To Have Not” to set the scene for her article. Stella’s focus is on Labour’s regaining of momentum and winning form. “Winning is the only way we can guarantee a government that respects and appreciates trade unions”. Unions are partners to business in building a productive economy, and to Labour in providing the energy, experience and ideas for an effective alternative government.


Ben Bradshaw as Deputy Prime Minister would see the return of the union learning agenda in government. Ben wants to see it grow into a bigger and stronger programme than before 2010. High quality apprenticeships are part of the route to the high skilled jobs of the future. Ben supports workers on boards and wants to see the Equal Pay Act and Equality Act fully implemented. He wants Labour to do more work with unions to develop the next generation of political leaders.


Tom Watson identifies the Government’s “one dimensional political approach to employment” centred on private sector job quantity rather than quality, as a key issue. He believes industrial policy, more ambitious employment standards and collective bargaining are all part of the answer. Speaking as a former trade union official, he paints a picture of a workforce under pressure and his desire to work with unions from “day one” to improve the world of work.


Angela Eagle focuses on pay and training. As Deputy leader she would fight for all workers to be paid a proper living wage, champion stronger sector skills training and strengthen collective bargaining.  Of the Government’s attacks on unions Angela says “A government that was serious about representing workers and ensuring they’re treated fairly would work with trade unions, not try to use the law to weaken them”.


Three conclusions can be reassuringly drawn from this collection: The field of Labour leadership candidates see unions as crucially important to a fair economy, they believe in the role of government in creating the conditions for high quality work and training, and (whether they win or lose the contest) each have a range of credible policy prescriptions to take forward.


Reading across the contributions there is common ground to be found on investment in skills and further education, the prescription of partnership between employees and employers to increase productivity and the need for action on low pay.


Unions21 will continue to work with these politicians, and across all political parties where we find support for a sustainable future for the trade union movement.


Unions respond to check-off attack

The government has said it is scrapping the system under which public sector workers can have trade union subscriptions deducted straight from their salaries

TUC Assistant General Secretary Paul Nowak said:

“If payroll payment for union membership was outdated, it would not be popular with so many of the UK’s biggest and most successful private companies.

The public will see this for what it really is – yet another attack on union members from a government that is determined to rebalance power in the workplace so that workers lose their voice and their rights. And it goes hand-in-hand with new proposals that threaten the right to strike.

Instead of going out of their way to poison industrial relations, the government should work positively with workers and their representatives for the good of public services and the economy.”

Cameron’s token gesture on the gender pay gap is an act of weakness

Victoria Phillips is head of employment rights at Thompsons Solicitors

David Cameron’s announcement that his government would end the gender pay gap “within a generation” by forcing companies to disclose their figures could have been a reason for tentative optimism about this government’s attitude to equality and worker’s rights.


Yet, once we take a look at the detail of the policy, we can see that its ambitions are unfortunately as superficial as this government’s ridiculous claims to be the new party of the working person.


If this proposal is the measure of “a really big move” in tackling the gender pay gap it is clear the government is happy treading-water whilst claiming to be swimming the Channel.


Under the new proposals, set out in a consultation document from the Government Equalities Office, the government said that employers in the private and voluntary sectors with fewer than 250 members of staff will be exempted from publishing figures describing the size of the gender pay gap in their organisations. This exemption ensures that 99.5% of all private businesses will be excluded from the new plans. In comparison, similar reporting requirements are triggered at businesses with 150 employees in Austria, 35 in Finland and 24 in Sweden.


In one swoop, this gaping hole makes the policy largely useless, little more than headline-generating flimflam, and shows that the Tories are still failing to face up to the very real issue at hand – that women in companies of all sizes are continuing to face discrimination in their pay packets.


The policy is even more surprising when we recall that it was the Tories who attacked Labour’s plans to introduce pay audits in the first place. Subsequently, in coalition, they passed the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 that actually weakened equality legislation by removing – on the grounds of cutting so-called “red tape” – the ability of a worker concerned that they were being discriminated against to submit an equality questionnaire and find out the true level of the gender pay gap in their organisation.


Yet, aside from the moral argument for equality, the strength of the economic case for equal pay makes it strange that a government so obsessed with GDP growth is showing such little ambition. It is even stated in the consultation that equal pay would generate an additional £600bn for the economy, increasing its size 10% by 2030. Given this can the Tories, who in the coalition government oversaw a rise in child poverty (the first in over a decade) and an unprecedented use of food banks, really afford to address this issue with tokenism?


Thanks to union campaigning, the Equal Pay Act was brought in by a Labour Government in 1970. Now the Equality Act 2010 is supposed to ensure equal pay but the government’s failure to properly enforce it means the legislation remains weak.


Employers who discriminate based on gender are already breaking the law and it is therefore difficult to understand why the number of private businesses required to publish their records under these new proposals is so low. Is it too much to ask that the government properly enforces the law already in place? Sadly this move is simply nowhere near enough to effect real change, to ensure that women’s right to equal pay is respected, and to contribute to the economic boost that equal pay would no doubt bring.


Cameron’s token gesture is an act of weakness. Thompsons will continue to work with unions to campaign for gender equality in the workplace and will never shy away from representing workers who have been discriminated against on account of gender, race, sexuality, disability or age.

Productivity should be an integral part of the progressive agenda

Paul Moloney is a member of the Unions21 Steering Committee and Industrial Relations Manager for the Society of Radiographers

Throughout post war history but markedly since the election UK workers have been told they are not productive enough. In a return to the union bashing anti-worker approach of the 1970s and 1980s the Conservative Government claims that UK workers lag behind their colleagues in other parts of Europe, notably Germany when it comes to producing things quickly and cost-effectively. They go on to argue that without increased productivity the UKs ability to prosper is significantly impaired and the blame will lie with working people.


When seen as part of the overall ideology that permeates through many Tory policies this argument can be seen as nothing more than another attempt to suggest that many working people are in fact lazy. Furthermore it is those people the Labour Party seeks to represent, and trade Unions defend, not the aspirational workers who, according to the ideology, have a natural home in the Tory party.


Reality of course is very different and not for the first time the British Conservative party is very cleverly taking an issue that belongs in any progressive approach to our problems, re-writing it in a sinister way and then using it as a stick with which to hit the very people who otherwise would be standing up for true productivity improvements.


Take for example members of my own Union, The Society of Radiographers.  There are two significant areas where we have been pushing the various authorities to allow our members who are radiographers, to take on additional roles which will increase their productivity and improve the cost-effectiveness of the work they do. We want those of our members who are trained and competent to do so to be able to report on the scans they undertake and to prescribe a limited number of drugs to patients in certain defined situations.


Reporting is particularly important. By this we mean that radiographers, having taken an image, should be the ones who can diagnose based on the image. By allowing our members to undertake this work it will reduce the waiting time for patients between a scan being undertaken and the results being made available to consultants etc and, of equal importance, to patients themselves. This has obvious benefits for the successful treatment of patients.


With recent reports of thousands of unreported scans in one area of the UK, each one meaning a patient who has had a scan never getting the results of the scan, we believe allowing our members to undertake reporting is one of the essential changes that could be made to help improve NHS efficiency and save money but actually improving patient care rather than by cutting it. It will reduce the acknowledged heavy workload of radiologists who in turn will become more productive in their areas of expertise.


Prescribing, particularly in radiotherapy where our members are part of a team treating cancer patients is equally important by ensuring that appropriate work is carried out at the correct skill level but cost-effectively by again potentially improving patient experience and outcome.


We have campaigned long and hard in these two areas but it is us, the Trade Union, calling for these essential changes. It is us demanding the right of our members to be more productive and to be higher skilled and to contribute as much as they can in line with their skill levels for better, and yes the cheaper delivery of, healthcare.


However, we have had little support from Government. While we appreciate more than anyone the need for careful planning in these areas there has been very little support from politicians to ensure radiographers are equipped with the skills to undertake these new roles. In fact all we have had is cuts to training budgets and the almost total removal of protected study time for those employed in the NHS. By the way these are the same politicians now jumping on the productivity bandwagon and telling us how uncompetitive UK workers are.


And that is why our own experience, which on one level is somewhat unique, will actually have similarities with others in other unions and why increasing productivity is our movements issue, one that belongs to us and does not belong to those who have overseen the cuts in training, the introduction and growth of zero hours contracts, the widespread use of the minimum wage as not just the living wage but the maximum wage, and now want to see the UK be free from any EU employment law at all as part of the renegotiation ahead of the in/out referendum.


Working people do want to use their skills to the maximum effect, they do want to learn and acquire new skills and they do want to use their talents to improve their income but also to improve the collective good whether they work in healthcare, transport, retail or pretty much any sector of the economy.


And for many they would be the first to admit they are not as productive as they would like to be because they know there is no training, there is no job security, and there are no incentives to progress because there is a Government that is actively attacking each and every one of these areas.  And of course that is really how the Conservative party want it. The want to pretend increasing productivity is synonymous with working harder and longer because they want to perpetuate the myth of the lazy poor for their own political reasons. We need to reclaim the word productivity and start exposing these Tory myths quickly. For us it is about working better, about unleashing the skills of people and making sure they are rewarded properly and fairly for their skills. These maybe old ideas but ones that have never had more relevance and ones that desperately need articulating not just by trade Unions but also by the Labour Party.


Unions21 is currently undertaking a workstream on productivity. To take the Unions21 productivity survey click here.




Older workers – Can we afford to ignore them?

The workplace at present is full of uncertainties and insecurity.  But one thing is certain. The workforce is getting older and workers, by choice or necessity, are working longer.  So what are employers and trade unions doing about this major demographic shift?


Employers frequently bemoan the shortage of relevant skills yet allow experience and skills leave through early retirement or redundancy.  Trade unions focus on pension rights for older workers whilst sometimes failing to ask older workers what they want from their employers.


A recent report from the CIPD  stated that there are currently over 1.5 million workers over the age of 50 in health and social work and more than 1.2 million over 50 in both education and retail. It is doubtful that the replacements for these workers will be fully met by school leavers and many industries have a poor record on retaining older workers, seeing a large drop-off in the number of workers between the ages of 45–49 and 60–64. The CIPD Report points in particular to finance, public administration and ICT all of which see a drop of greater than 60% between the number of workers they employ in their late forties and in their late sixties. Such falls would suggest that these sectors are not doing enough to support longer working lives and will be hampered by the loss of skilled and experienced staff.


The TUC is currently engaged in a European funded research project “Workage”. The three year project is being led by Nottingham Trent University in partnership with Workplace Innovation Limited (part of UKWON) and aims to inform policy guidelines about the engagement and retention of older workers through the application of workplace interventions. The TUC itself commissioned research last year  looking at the challenges and opportunities for trade unions in representing an ageing workforce. It produced seven key recommendations and, in particular, recognised the diversity within the older workforce – those that delay retirement because they want to while others that are compelled to work longer for economic reasons and others who want to work but are prevented from doing so by health reasons. Trade unions need to provide support in many different ways to meet these diverse needs and workplace interventions offers a solution to some of them.


Workage is identifying and piloting non-age related workplace interventions that enhance the engagement of workers aged over 50 years and delay the intention to retire as well as developing evidence-based workplace practices. Specifically, the interventions will focus on workplace innovation practices that enable people at all levels of an organisation to use and develop their skills to the fullest possible extent during their working lives.


Workage is concerned with four areas of workplace practice – work organisation, structures and work systems, learning and reflection, and worker engagement.  To help deliver and evaluate these interventions Workage has appointed 3 Change Facilitators from the two organisations being used to implement this project – Stoke-on-Trent City Council and the Southern Health and Social Care Trust in Northern Ireland. Throughout the project participation of the workforce and their trade unions has been entirely voluntary and the output of the interventions will be monitored and evaluated during and at the end of the project. Although only currently half way through the project, benefits are already being identified in workplaces where the project is taking place.  In Stoke, the mobile cleaning team have seen their ideas taken up and front line workers now participate in monthly meetings with management. In the Maternity Unit in the Southern Health and Social Care Trust, the project has resulted in multi disciplinary team meetings now taking place monthly improving participation and removing duplication.  In both cases the introduction of greater participation of workers at all levels is resulting in improved morale and a sense of well being.  The project team will be measuring the impact of the interventions and will return to undertake another survey of all staff after 12 months to evaluate the work and examine what if any impact the interventions might have on older workers and retirement decisions.


Part of the Workage Project’s objectives is to disseminate to the widest possible audience the outcomes of the research and practices undertaken during the three year period. It is designed to develop workplace policy/practice solutions that can inform government policy on older workers and the workplace. It will also generate rigorous evidence for practical solutions with strong links to policy thinking as well as supporting the scaling up of these innovations across Europe through the delivery of transferable lessons with a resource toolkit in pursuit of active and healthy ageing through prolonging working lives in a decent and fair manner.


The project will conclude in 2016 with major presentations being held across Europe. More detailed information about the project and the outcomes of the pilot schemes can be obtained from the project web site at www.workage.eu or by contacting Roger Jeary on rogerjeary@btinternet.com


Roger Jeary TUC Representative on Workage Policy and Dissemination Panel


READ: Related Unions21 publication ‘The Generation Game – Does Age Matter’

The Trade Union Bill: The Government should be careful what it wishes for

Let’s give credit where it is due.  And the hype is true.  The government’s new Trade Union Bill is the most significant piece of trade union legislation in a generation; perhaps even longer than that, because it goes further, wider and deeper than anything that has preceded it.  It is an audacious piece of legislation which fundamentally alters the balance of industrial relations in favour of the employer.


But although measures on industrial action and political donations have grabbed the headlines, as the saying goes – the devil is in the detail.


We are right to be worried about the rules on industrial action.  The “double whammy” of a statutory threshold for both turnout and “yes” votes sets standards for trade unions that politicians would never apply to themselves.  They would also never have applied them to the employer-equivalent of industrial action – withholding investment, taking excess profits, shutting up shop and moving somewhere else.  And it is not just strike ballots, but the requirement to give longer notice and the incitement for employers to use strike-breaking agency workers.


We should be critical of the proposals for political funds too.  Harriet Harman was right to point out in the House of Commons that there is no equivalent when it comes to big business bankrolling of the Conservative Party.  But the recycling of arguments from the 1980s about political funds conveniently overlooks the reforms that the Labour Party itself put into place require a conscious opting-in by trade unionists who not only pay a political levy, but wish it to be directed to that destination.


So far, so bad.  But like a malignant game of “find the lady”, while our attention is diverted to these big ticket issues, there are areas just as potent and controversial below.


And that is why it is more a question of “be careful what you wish for” than the devil being in the detail.


Every trade union official knows that industrial action represents a failure of the negotiating process.  But successful companies have mature, robust and highly innovative trade union/employer partnerships.  A lopsided Trade Union Bill seems to presume that the collective voice of employees has nothing to offer.  Employers are to be dealt hands stuffed with aces and trump cards.  Where is the incentive to truly engage and genuinely negotiate?


The Bill seeks to ride roughshod over other important pieces of legislation.  A challenge under Article 11 of the Human Rights Act can surely be on the radar.


Despite the blithe assurances in government statements yesterday that the Bill is not inconsistent with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR); however if after a lengthy and expensive legal process it turns out not to be the case, hey no problem: there are many in the government who want to scrap the Human Rights Act which would leave withdrawal from the ECHR as an inevitable and logical next step.


And finally, if I was the Certification Officer, I am not sure how I would feel about the huge armoury of extra powers the Bill gives me.  It sounds like a legal minefield which involves a purgatory of unending court appearances.  But in any event, the invasive powers vested by the Bill surely cut across the provisions of the Data Protection Act which grants special status to the question of an individual’s trade union membership (or not).  That provision is also underpinned by the Human Rights Act.


And the obligation to pre-approve tweets and comments on social media during periods of industrial unrest – well hello Big Brother, come in and warm your feet by the fire.  Is this is a stunning land-grab on the rights of freedom of expression or alternatively just a clumsy stalking horse to be killed off during the Bill’s Committee Stage.


An objective observer would be forced to conclude that this Bill is a throw-back addressing a problem that no longer exists. Days lost to industrial action have fallen by 95% over the last 35 years.  The risk to civil liberties and the destabilising effect this will have on employer relations in the workplace makes this Bill unnecessary as well as unworkable.


The TUC is approaching its 150th anniversary.  Time and time again our movement has shown the tenacity, determination, imagination and chutzpah to continue to work with good employers, expose bad ones and above all, repay the trust our members show in us by achieving dignity and fairness at work. The Trade Union Bill encourages the bad and suppresses the good. Be careful what you wish for indeed.

Unions respond to the Government’s Trade Union Bill

The Government has published the Trade Union Bill and drawn criticism from across the movement, writing on the touchstone blog, TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said:


“The proposals will make getting a much-needed pay rise, stopping job losses or negotiating better conditions at work much more difficult. They’ll make it harder for unions to do their day-to-day job of dealing with problems in the workplace before they escalate into disputes. And they’ll stifle protests against cuts to public services, like closures of SureStart centres, libraries and care services.


It’s a strange choice for the party that wants to position itself as the workers’ champion. Not measures to tackle exploitation at work or boost productivity, but an unnecessary attack on workers’ rights and civil liberties.”

Read More…

Is industrial action undemocratic? Let’s bust that myth

The government’s legislative plans for the year ahead include a Trade Unions Bill that would create a 50% voting threshold for union strike ballot turnouts, and a requirement that 40% of those entitled to vote must back action in essential public services – health, education, fire and transport.


A government spokesperson said: “…we will legislate to stop undemocratic industrial action…”


But under the Trade Unions Bill a ballot in which half of those eligible to vote took part would require 80% to vote “Yes” to make action legal. A positive vote of 79.9% on a 50% turnout is undemocratic, according to the government.


So, how does this compare to the system that elected that government? 24.4% of all people eligible to vote backed the Conservatives – far less than the 40 per cent threshold it wants to impose on trade union members.


Should the government wish to legislate in a democratic way it should look to the polling. Most of the British public support the right to strike for workers. In particular, according to YouGov: Post office workers (64%), bus drivers (64%), refuse collectors (61%), railway and underground workers (60%), social workers (57%) and teachers (53%). Indeed, more people support the radical idea of a right to strike for the armed forces than voted Conservative at the election.


The TUC identifies that the Trade Unions Bill would effectively end the right to strike. A democratically minded government would be supporting the wishes of the majority – and protecting industrial action as one of the most essential checks and balances in any democracy. A modernising government would legislate to allow electronic voting in ballots for industrial action to increase the turnout and therefore the legitimacy of any vote.

The 2015 Election: Is this the end for Coalition Politics?

As we enter the last week of campaigning ahead of the election just about every opinion pollster and everyone following this election will be saying we are entering a new phase of coalition politics hitherto unknown in this country. In fact the commonly held view is that we are now entering a new and permanent era of multi-party politics with up to as many as 8 parties mentioned by political commentators as being in with a chance of influencing the shape of the next Government.

This view however ignores the fact that the old two party system was itself a battle between two coalitions, a coalition of the centre left and a coalition of the right. Two coalitions that have dominated British politics for the entire post war period.
What we are seeing now are two issues severely testing these established coalitions. On the right the coalition, after more than 30 years, is finally being tested to its limit on the issue of EU membership and underpinning that debate the real issue of the level of regulation of the market needed for an efficient economy. A battle between those who believe in a free, deregulated and unskilled economy and those who believe some regulation and skilling of the workforce builds a stronger economy.

On the left that coalition is being tested in Scotland over independence and how Scotland best protects itself from some of the policies imposed upon it by the coalition of the right.

So is it correct to describe what is likely to happen in the election as the start of coalition politics, or is it something different and perhaps less ground breaking. If so, what does this mean for the Labour Party?

It is the coalition of the right that is in deeper trouble than the coalition of the left. The underpinning issue testing the coalition is one that has festered for a generation or more beginning 40 years ago when Margaret Thatcher replaced Ted Heath as leader of the coalition. Ever since the issue of EU membership and the wider issue of what type of economy delivers wealth has tested the resolve of the coalition. John Major’s resignation as leader of the coalition to provoke a leadership election stands out as an illustration of how this issue has continued to test the coalition to its limits. Major’s gamble succeeded in keeping the coalition together at the time but which has ultimately led to the 2015 election where it appears the coalition cannot hold together over this fundamental issue.

The rise of UKIP has already led to the current coalition leader pledging to hold an in out referendum on EU membership. A gamble far greater than that of John Majors and one that may well tear the coalition apart for good whatever the outcome.

The problems for the centre left coalition are nowhere near as fundamental. The challenge to that coalition is really one of tactics rather than policy. The growth of the modern SNP as a leftwing party ironically shows that on policy issues the coalition is strong and has every chance of healing the current rift. An SNP that campaigns for the NHS, the removal of Trident, Strong public services and anti-austerity measures is only saying what the Labour Party does say or has said in the past. The only difference is the tactical one of how these policies are delivered in Scotland, there is no substantial difference over the policies themselves or over the type of economy needed to deliver a level of fairness in wealth distribution. Unlike the coalition of the right where there are fundamental differences on the economy there is broad agreement on the type of economy needed still among the centre left coalition.

If this analysis is right then it puts Ed Miliband in a very strong position if he takes the right decisions after the election. In contrast to David Cameron, Miliband has the opportunity post the election to start mending the coalition of the centre left. By working with the SNP he can recreate a coalition that can deliver for all of the UK. And there is a very real rationale for this. His coalition campaigned for a no vote in the independence referendum and the people of Scotland delivered a resounding no vote. So they now have every right to send whoever they like to Westminster and have every right to influence national politics. Ed Miliband needs to respect this and work with the SNP to deliver the long held objectives of the centre left coalition. If he does this then he has every chance of rebuilding and reinforcing the coalition known as the Labour Party.

There is no such opportunity for whoever will lead the coalition of the right. UKIP has forced them into a referendum they cannot recover from regardless of the outcome. But ultimately that is because the post-war coalition of the right has been struggling with two distinct and ultimately irreconcilable factions that have been fighting each other for 40 years. Unlike the coalition of the left they are split not on tactics, albeit important ones regarding Scotland, but on ultimately irreconcilable differences regarding how the economy is organised and for whom it is organised.
This election is certainly unusual but rather than ushering in a new era of coalition politics it could be the election that fatally wounds one of the coalitions that has dominated British politics for decades while at the same time presenting the other with an opportunity to really shape the future of the UK for a generation.

No pressure Ed!