Tuesday, 12 April 2016

It’s a funny old world

It’s a funny old world when the Trades Union movement and the ancient House of Lords combine to defeat a reactionary Tory Government, not once, but three times!

But that is what we did on 16th. March on the Trades Union Bill, which is attempting to shackle the Trades Union movement and slash TU funding of Labour in a way even Thatcher baulked at.

This Bill, the brainchild of Cameron and Osborne, is being pushed relentlessly by the right wing ideologue, Nick Boles MP, and the hapless Baroness Neville-Rolfe who has no authority to make concessions in the Lords.

So we have mounted one of the best coordinated assaults on a Bill I have ever seen. There has been unprecedented cooperation between the TUC, STUC and Labour Peers.

At a meeting with Frances O’Grady she identified the key areas we should fight on as the threshold in strike ballots, political funds, facility time and check off.

John Monks, Former TUC General Secretary, who made one of the most powerful speeches against the Bill at Second Reading suggested this strategy.

We then established we had the support of the Liberal Democrats, thanks to the leadership on this of Ben Stoneham, formerly of the SDP.

So we now had to work hard to get support from the Crossbench Peers who hold the balance of power in the Lords.

This was done through a meticulous canvass, planned by the movement, to approach as many as possible to explain the arguments and seek their support.

As an example, I worked closely with Karen Whitefield and Michael Wheeler of USDAW with a list of potential supportive Crossbenchers I had identified.

The arguments were then made. Why is it possible to elect MPs, councillors, Police Commissioners with no threshold but there must be one for strike ballots. Why can there be electronic voting for the Tory candidate for Mayor of London but not for TU ballots?

Why take action on the funding of Labour but not other parties as had been agreed previously. How can we have facility time elsewhere in Europe but not in the UK.

The first success was when we defeated the Government and set up a special Select Committee, chaired by former top civil servant, Lord Burns, to look into political funds. This produced, as we had hoped a compromise proposal.

But the master stroke came on 16th. March when we were due to vote on this and other amendments at Report Stage.

Our Labour Bill Committee met and agreed the strategy put forward by John Mendelsohn. All the arguments had been made in Committee. We needed to get to the votes quickly so there would be no Labour speeches from either the Front or Backbenches. The Liberal Democrats went along with it.

It had also been agreed that the key amendments would be moved by Crossbenchers. Lord Burns moved his Committee compromise on funding and another former head of the civil service, Bob Kerslake, moved the other two.

The tactics were spectacularly successful. On the two Kerslake motions on Ballots and facility time we had majorities of 140 and 88 respectively. On the Burns amendment on funding it was 148, the largest Government defeat I have seen in the Lords.

The second day of Report stage is on 19th. April when we debate and vote on Check off and we expect another victory then.

So far the Government remain defiant in spite of these defeats and it is expected they will overturn them with their majority in the Commons, although Jeremy Corbyn has promised vigorous opposition.

We will then have what is called “ping-pong” between the two Houses. This is when the Lords is expected to eventually give way to the elected Chamber where the Government claim they have a mandate.

Usually the Crossbenchers cave in under this pressure of precedent. But with such huge majorities it is not certain this time and we can try to extract compromises.

Foolishly the Government have imposed a deadline by announcing that the Queen’s Speech will be on 18th. March May so they must get their Bill through by the week before that.

Now is the time for the STUC to redouble their already powerful opposition to this Bill and to put pressure on the Crossbench Peers to stand by the principles they so powerfully displayed last month.

One thing is certain. Labour Peers will be there in large numbers to continue leading the opposition to this despicable measure. We defeated the Tories on their plan to cut child tax credits and showed that we can do it again when we think the Tory controlled Commons is wrong.

Don’t get me wrong. I still want the Lords replaced by a Chamber with democratic authority, like the Senate of the Nations and Regions Labour proposed in our Manifesto

But while the Lords exists and we can muster majorities to defeat repressive and regressive legislation we should continue to do so.

George Foulkes
Former MP and MSP and GMB member

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