“Wave after wave of legislation by this Conservative government, whether the Police Act, the Elections Act or the Public Order Act are stifling democracy. After the recent wave of strike action over pay the measure to deal with that is the Strikes Bill.”
By Beth Winter MP
Despite the Conservatives dismal local election results last week where they lost in excess of 1,000 council seats, they’ve remained intent on using new powers to limit scrutiny and difference of opinion as they desperately seek to hang on to power during the worst cost of living crisis in living memory.
The damaging local elections saw the first-time voters were required to bring identification to receive a ballot paper – leaving an unknown number unable to vote – and also saw threats to democracy protesters wishing to express their opposition to the coronation of King Charles.
Wave after wave of legislation by this Conservative government, whether the Police Act, the Elections Act or the Public Order Act and whichever Tory PM leads it whether Boris Johnson, Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak, they are stifling democracy because the measures they enact are harming the majority of households, to favour a few at the top.
The most significant challenge to the Conservative agenda has been the recent wave of strike action over pay. A measure to deal with that, which we will soon see return to the House of Commons, is the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill.
The Strikes Bill, brought about during the most significant period of industrial action for decades as workers face a cost-of-living crisis due to low pay, seeks to crush the impact of trade union strike action by forcing trades unionists back to work. The TUC believes around 5.5 million workers will have their right to strike threatened because of the Bill.
Yet the scale of industrial action is due to the Conservative low pay agenda which has held down public sector incomes – for nurses, teachers, civil servants and firefighters – for over a decade and has finally seen vast swathes of schools, hospitals and civil service departments effectively shut down by union action.
The Strikes Bill is now facing multiple challenges in different arenas – in Parliament, by devolved Government, in court, and through the recent wave of strike action. The case for the Conservatives assault on trade union rights is being pulled apart but it needs also to be challenged by the public.
The House of Lords defeated the Conservative Government to pass four amendments to the Strike (Minimum Service Levels) Bill on 26 April. These included those by Labour peers Lord Collins and Baroness O’Grady and crossbenchers Lord Fox and Lord Thomas.
One amendment required government to consult and submit that consultation to committees of both Houses of Parliament, before using those powers to impose minimum service levels. Another struck out requirements on unions to take ‘reasonable steps’ to ensure members receiving work notices comply with them.
Baroness O’Grady’s amendment meant failure to comply with a work notice could not be regarded as a breach of the contract of employment, or constitute lawful grounds for dismissal.
And a fourth amendment in the Lords, clarified that it would apply only to England, and not Wales and Scotland with the argument that with devolved governments managing various public services, the UK Secretary of State should not determine minimum service levels.
This final amendment replicated an amendment I had tabled and spoken to in the House of Commons, where I cited the opposition of the Labour Government in Wales to the bill.
Formalising that opposition by leading the voting down of a Legislative Consent Motion, Counsel-General Mick Antoniw MS said, “It is no secret that the Welsh Government opposes this Bill. This Bill is an attack on workers’ rights and trade unions.”
The Legislative Consent Motion was rejected by 37 votes to 15, meaning the Senedd as a whole backed Welsh Government in opposing the passage of the Bill and its application to Wales.
Subsequently to the amending of the Bill by the Lords, and its rejection by the Senedd, the TUC has launched a legal challenge against changes to regulations governing the use of agency workers in place of striking employees.
However, whilst the unions challenge the agency worker regulations in the court, it is the activism and the energy of the wave of strike action that will defeat the restrictions the Bill puts in place.
As Mick Lynch of the RMT union told the TUC Congress last October, he said, “we will strike no matter what the hurdles they put in front of us.” And warning against the reliance on court action, he also said to the General Council and the wider movement, “don’t trust the courts, the courts will do nothing for us … we need a wave of industrial action and a wave of community action.”
Strike action continues in the the health sector, in education and in the civil service, and it is the organisation of the trade union and social movements that can wield the most effective power to change political situations – and to make opportunities possible when the parliamentary arithmetic seems not to allow it.
Labour MPs must use all methods at their disposal to challenge the Conservatives in the Commons but ultimately it is through joint work with the trade unions and through advocacy of public demands like lifting pay and challenging the politically generated cost of living crisis that Labour can form a government that can deliver for the majority of voters.
The Strikes Bill may return in a matter of days. Let’s get organised.
- Beth Winter is the MP for Cynon Valley and a regular contributor to Labour Outlook, you can follow her on Facebook, Instagram and twitter.
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