And the prize for workers’ rights under a Tory government goes to…

By Amina Saddiq

Theresa May’s promise of the “greatest extension of rights and protections for employees by any Conservative government in history” is ridiculous on a number of levels.

Historically illiterate

In 1824 the government of the Earl of Liverpool repealed the 1799 Combination Act which had made trade unions illegal. Although he responded to the wave of strikes which followed with a harsh anti-union law, the Combination of Workmen Act, in 1825, the repeal was a huge victory for working-class pressure and paved the way for unions to grow substantially in the 1830s.

In 1867, in the midst of a huge working-class campaign, Benjamin Disraeli’s government expanded the Parliamentary franchise so that the electorate tripled. The number of workers who could vote went from almost none to well over a million, with probably the majority of male urban workers enfranchised. This paved the way for further parliamentary reform in the 1870s and 1880s.

In 1874 Disraeli returned to office and the next year his government recognised the growing importance of the labour movement by passing two acts, the Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act and the Employers and Workmen Act, which went further in decriminalising trade unions by making various forms of workers’ action, including picketing, clearly legal.

To stray more into social rights as opposed to “right and protections” in the literal sense, the Tory governments of the 1950s continued and built on the social programs of the post-1945 Labour governments, for instance building many more council houses (though they also lowered the minimum standards).

Utterly insubstantial

As has already been written about extensively, May’s “workers’ rights pledges” are completely insubstantial. Shareholders of publicly quoted companies do not receive special information beyond what is published for anyone to read – and neither, on the basis of the comparison May made, will their workers. Having a worker or two on the board of a company does not amount to much and is a mixed blessing anyway – but, in any case, that is not what the Tories are proposing. They seem to be proposing that a company may have to designate a non-executive director as an “employee representative”.

As for all the stuff about the gig economy, the Tories’ war hostility to and attacks on trade unions means it is just spin. And of course they oppose and condemn everything positive the Labour Party is opposing in terms of workers’ rights, from strengthening union rights and collective bargaining to a £10 minimum wage to blocking bogus designation of workers as self-employed.

A low standard

Naturally, it would be bizarre if a party run by people who came up under Margaret Thatcher and over the last seven years have waged war on workers’ rights, further hobbled trade unions and overseen the biggest fall in real wages since records began suddenly became converted into a friend of workers’ rights. (For Theresa May’s own record, see here and here.)

Particularly in the last 150 years, the best performance by a Tory government on workers’ rights is a pretty low bar.

Class enemies

The concessions granted by the past Tory governments listed in this article came as largesse from above but from determined working-class and labour movement pressure in various forms. That is what we need to make progress now, whoever wins the the election – and particularly if it is won by the number one political organisation of our class enemies.

We won’t win by following the approach advocated by TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady, who has rushed to praise the Tories. O’Grady’s comments and they tell you about some of our union leaderships are possibly the more ridiculous and depressing element of this whole grim farce.

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