Scrapping the anti-union laws: where do the leadership candidates stand?

By Sacha Ismail

Where do the candidates in Labour’s leadership and deputy leadership elections stand on repealing the UK’s many anti-trade union/anti-strike laws?

All are ambiguous – despite the clear policy passed at Labour Party conference in 2015, 2017, 2018 and 2019 and at TUC Congress 2019.

Except for support from former leadership candidate Clive Lewis, none has even replied to the Free Our Union campaigns’s pledge on these issues – which summarises and endorses the policy passed by Labour conference and TUC Congress, as well as calling for organisation and mobilisation against the Tories’ new anti-strike proposals.

It has been implied by supporters of some of the candidates that they have taken a stronger position than they in fact have. At best, certainly in terms of anything said publicly, we have nods and indications in the right direction. (Obviously I may have missed this or that comment or hint, but the basic picture seems clear to me.)

None of the candidates indicate any awareness of the policy passed by party conference, let alone interest in fighting for it.

The analysis here draws mostly on the replies the candidates gave to questions from Labour Unions, the collective organisation of Labour-affiliated trade unions. In addition to a lot of warm words, all of them say concretely worthwhile things about various aspects of workers’ rights: but I focus particularly on the much-evaded issue of the right to strike and repealing anti-strike laws. What the all candidates say about this is, in one way or another, frustratingly partial, vague and inconclusive.

During and after the election, we should push for clarity, solid commitment to the policies passed by Labour conference and summarised in the Free Our Unions pledge, and sustained argument and campaigning around them.

Why the reticence?

It’s hard to know exactly why even left-wing Labour politicians (including even Corbyn and McDonnell) have been reticent about commiting to a clear policy on these issues. Factors at play seem to include:

• Fear of arguments from the Tories, the right-wing media, etc, about going back to the 1970s, strikes without ballots and notice periods, etc, losing the party votes. Fear of confronting these arguments has became deep-rooted in Labour culture over decades.

• The fact the leaderships of the big unions, at least, certainly think anti-strike laws have gone too far (eg the 2016 Act), but don’t seem enthusiastic about allowing strikes to happen without an elaborate and onerous legal framework that puts national union officers rather than workers in the workplace in control of the process. In addition, even more radical unions have tended to avoid the arguments on all this as too difficult. Then there is the wider issue of general union pessimism and defeatism.

• Hostility from right-wing Labour MPs.

• A top-down, Fabian political culture distrustful of militant workers’ action across all wings of the party.

Against all these barriers and pressures, the push by left-wing trade unionists and party activists has made progress on these issues since 2015. We should use the leadership election to make further progress, not allow things to fall back.

LEADER

Rebecca Long-Bailey

In her reply to Labour Unions, Long-Bailey says: “I’ve been really clear in standing by the commitments we made in the 2019 manifesto… In do this [sic] we will not just repeal the Trade Union Act 2016 and previous anti-trade union laws.”

But as explained here, the 2019 manifesto, while it implied steps forward from previous Labour leadership commitments to repeal just the 2016 Trade Union Act, remained highly ambiguous.

The Corbyn leadership and its spokespeople never campaigned clearly on these issues or even acknowledged the much more radical policy passed at Labour conferences. Even the 2019 manifesto formulations represented a shift in the right direction, but an isolated, partial and last minute one.

Long-Bailey commits to “back workers in every dispute and strike against unfair, exloitative and unjust employers. This will range from actions on opposing cuts, tackling the climate crisis, and standing up to the resurgent far right”.

However, she does not explain whether this means repealing the legislation banning strike action over anything other than narrowly defined workplace issues (or that banning solidarity action).

Keir Starmer

Keir Starmer’s rightly came under fire for his campaign committing to “Repeal [only?] the Trade Union Act 2016” – retreating from the ambiguous 2019 manifesto position, let alone clear conference policy to repeal all the anti-union laws.

In his reply to Labour Unions, Starmer does commit to “repeal anti-trade union legislation including the Trade Union Act 2016 and create new rights and freedoms for trade unions to help them win a better deal for working people”. He says “we… need to be clear that any Labour government should repeal the malicious Trade Union Act and wider Tory trade union laws.”

This may be a response to criticism of his initial position. It remains unclear.

Starmer repeats the manifesto’s formulation: “Remove unnecessary restrictions on industrial action”, begging the question which existing restrictions he regards as necessary. However, to be fair to him, this is the same manifesto that RLB has also cited.

Lisa Nandy

Beyond a remark to Labour Unions that Britain’s laws on union action “are some of the most restrictive in the OECD”, Nandy makes no commitment on these issues that I can see.

DEPUTY LEADER

Rosena Allin-Khan

Allin-Khan says: “If elected into Government, I would immediately work to repeal the Trade Union Act and other anti-union legislation, such as the Lobbying Act and the recent plans unveiled by Grant Shapps to prevent transport workers the right to strike.”

All very well, but ambiguous and with a strong implication that pre-2016 anti-strike laws would not be touched.

To give Allin-Khan her due she does mention opposition to the Tories’ new anti-strike proposals.

Richard Burgon

So does Richard Burgon. Like RLB, he also commits to mobilising for picket lines and so on.

He tells Labour Unions that “The disgraceful barriers to organising and taking industrial action are an attack on basic workers’ freedoms. Unions should not be shackled from being able to properly defend and advance the safety, pay and terms and conditions of their members.”

He says: “I would run a programme of political education, materials and discussion forums on the need for us to oppose all anti-trade union laws”. However, his immediate practical conclusions are: “The Trade Union Act must be repealed… If elected Deputy Leader I would fight to ensure that the repealing of the Trade Union Act”.

Dawn Butler

Butler recently wrote an article for the Guardian entitled “As Labour deputy leader, I would repeal draconian anti-trade union laws”, but the contents were ambiguous and the article linked specifically to the 2016 Trade Union Act.

In her reply to Labour Unions, Butler says: “This is why it is essential that a Labour government immediately repeal anti-trade union legislation especially the Trade Union Act 2016. We must also look at historical legislation stretching as far back as the 80s including the Employment Acts of 1980, 1982, 1988, 1989, 1990 all of which restrict union activity in one form or another.”

The reference to earlier laws is welcome. It’s not at all clear why Butler’s list misses out eg Thatcher’s 1984 Trade Union Act and 1986 Public Order Act – is this deliberate or sloppy? And why only “look at” earlier legislation, rather than commit to repeal it? (For a chronology of all anti-union laws, see here.)

Butler also says: “I do not believe that we should wait until we form a Labour government to challenge the Tories on their hostile anti-trade union policies. We must be an effective and pro-active Opposition using all the tools available to us. This includes working in the House of Commons to actively challenge anti-trade union legislation via any means necessary and campaigning for it to be repealed.”

Ian Murray

Ian Murray commits only to “scrapping the pernicious Trade Union Act”.

Angela Rayner

Rayner told Labour Unions: “I am not only committed to repealing the 2016 trade union act and other anti-union legislation but I also want to bring forward a new vision for workplace rights that is truly fit for the 21st century… That includes… new ways for trade unions to organise including statutory access and modernising outdated industrial action legislation.”

What Rayner means by all this is far from clear to me. The implication of “outdated”, that Thatcher’s legislation was right and necessary at the time, is also not good.

Let us know what you think? Write a reply? theclarionmag@gmail.com

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