“I am unable to accept the invitation but I would like to pass on my best wishes for the event” these are the chirpy words of Business Secretary Sajid Javid in a letter explaining why he couldn’t attend an event in his constituency of Bromsgrove a couple of months ago. That event wasn’t a harvest festival as you might presume from those warm words. The event was organised to give the MP for Bromsgrove the opportunity to talk directly to voters in his constituency about why he has introduced - and wholeheartedly supports - the Trade Union Reform Bill.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that Mr Javid wasn’t willing to visit his own constituency or take the trouble to talk directly to the hundreds of local trade union members who, unlike him, will be affected by the bill he is steering through Parliament.
Had the voters of Bromsgrove read the Conservative manifesto they would have come across the pledge to “tackle the disproportionate impact of strikes in essential public services.”
So how did we get from those words on page eighteen of the Conservative Manifesto to a bill that severely curtails the right to strike, takes an axe to facility time, ends the post-war consensus on party funding, bans check-off in public services and allows agency workers to replace striking union members?
The answer is that the first majority Conservative Government for twenty three years took power and they're not keen on ever heading back into opposition.
Having received 37% of the popular vote not even a year ago they have no shame in imposing turnout thresholds on trade union ballots (that many an MP would fail to meet). This measure basically means not casting a vote in a strike ballot is the same as voting against it.
The Tories tell us this is about 'modernisation' and 'reform' but if that were the case, secure online and workplace balloting would be included in the Bill to bring outdated rules on union ballots into the 21st century. If they want increased turnout, those measures are a decent starting point in making it happen, but that would mean removing barriers for democratic participation in trade unions. That Tories aren't interested in that at all.
For months the government failed to publish an impact assessment, now they have we see evidence of what we already knew, these measures are going to cost the union movement millions and millions of pounds. The equality impact assessment can basically be summed up as 'well, it's really bad for everyone so there's no real equality impact', but we know that's not true.
TUC statistics show that three quarters of union members affected by this bill are women, which is unsurprising when you consider the fact 67% of public sector workers are women, 79% of healthcare workers and 72% of those who work in education. At a time when 54,000 women reportedly lose their jobs due to maternity related discrimination, this bill will make challenging this and so many other areas of abuse and inequality much harder.
Nearly a 1000 people attended a lobby of Parliament at the end of last year and many more across the country contacted their local MP’s to register their opposition and reason with their Conservative Members of Parliament to little avail. But not all Tory MPs are convinced, one even compared the measures to something from “Franco’s Spain” and others attempted to amend their own government’s legislation. In spite of this and vocal opposition from many other organisations from Liberty to the British Institute for Human Rights the governing party voted down every single amendment in the House of Commons that would have made this piece of legislation just a tiny bit better.
David Cameron reportedly has a photograph of Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan on his desk to signal his commitment to compassionate one nation Conservatism but this bill is a clear example of just how far from that this Government is. What they dislike the most is opposition, in any and all forms. And that is what this bill is actually about, weakening the ability for workers to organise and campaigns to oppose them and expose the gaps between their promises and actions.
Taken together with changes to voter registration, the planned boundary changes, the Gagging Act, attacks on FOI and the BBC we really are facing an all out assault on the ability to hold our government to account when we think they're wrong - and let's remember, 63% of the population never voted for this lot.
We'll be watching the House of Lords with interest. Peers throughout this parliament and the last have acted to mitigate the worst of the Tory government's attacks on the most vulnerable - as we saw recently with tax credits. We're urging them to do the same now.
Stephanie Peacock is the GMB’s Regional Political Officer in Birmingham and the West Midlands