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Sunak’s Tories are a party teetering on the edge

A new year is upon us. However, the inevitable sense of Westminster’s political sands shifting gathers pace writes Jonathan Edwards MP.

I suspect the Tories know their long run in power is not far from its end. They appear to me to be a party resembling a coyote with its leg trapped in a snare – desperately thrashing around, seeking relevance, and weaponising any issue they can. They hope this will give the impression they are re-energised. They’re carrying on like this instead of governing responsibly in the face of political challenges.

This week in the Commons, we debated the latest attempt at turning a political issue into a so-called culture war issue.

Cause and effect: Conservatives have only themselves to blame for strike chaos

The ongoing strikes directly result from working people’s living standards dropping as their incomes fall because of inflation. Pay squeezes over the last decade heightened the financial pressure people experience. The current economic instability, for which the Government carries most of the blame, has made their positions intolerable. 

It’s hardly surprising that Trade Unions would seek to represent the interests of their members and ensure that their remuneration resembles their financial realities. That’s especially the case when the richest in society see their wealth increase. Meanwhile, according to the Resolution Foundation, the average family will see their income fall by 7% in the next two years.

Instead of accepting the reality faced by working people, the UK Government has chosen to bring forward legislation that will do nothing to help with the current pay disputes spreading like wildfire through the public sector.  

The UK Government frames the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill as a reasonable step to protect the wider public from disruption in the event of industrial action. However, its intentions are wholly ideological. It will do nothing to address the immediate industrial turmoil. In its propaganda, the Government refer to minimum’ safety’ and minimum’ services’ interchangeably, ignoring the fact that representatives of health workers already work with NHS bosses to ensure no harm is done by any industrial action they decide to take.

The Bill is “enabling legislation”. It will allow Government Ministers to decide what minimum services levels and unilaterally impose them in the future without Parliamentary scrutiny. 

It raises two issues; firstly, the Government is asking MPs to give Ministers a blank cheque. No MP worth their salt should ever provide the Executive with such unfettered power. Our job is to hold Ministers to account. Once Ministers get the control they want via this Bill, MPs will have no way of amending the Minimum Service Levels. Secondly, the Government are right to point out that in much of Europe, Minimum Service Levels exist in key sectors such as Health. However, employers and employees’ representatives negotiated them. That is the opposite of the Tories’ approach: top-down regulation with no consultation or discussion.

Another major concern is that future draconian Minimum Service Levels will lead to more protracted industrial action. 

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The Government’s impact assessment of the Transport Strikes (Minimum Services Bill), which was the forerunner to the Strikes Bill, indicated that unions would have to hold more days of strikes to achieve the same impact. Therefore, the Government’s assessment showed legislation of this nature is completely self-defeating.

Most worryingly, the Bill strips away the rights of individuals to withdraw their labour if they are in dispute with their employers. This is a fundamental democratic right. The Bill will permit employers to sack key workers if they undertake industrial action using the Minimum Service Levels as an excuse. This extremely worrying legislative development has far-reaching consequences for industrial relations.

In Wales, the Welsh Government’s Social Partnership and Public Procurement Bill tries to integrate workers and Trade Unions into economic decision-making. As a philosophical approach to industrial relations, Wales is taking a completely different approach. The problem for us is that, unlike Northern Ireland, employment law is currently reserved to Westminster. 

England, Scotland and Wales already have some of the most draconian restrictions on Trade Union activity in Europe. This Bill further undermines workers’ protection at a time of heightened tensions. 

A sensible Administration would be doing everything in its power to defuse the situation. The danger for the Tories is increasingly looking like they will try any desperate measure to keep a hold on power while teetering on the precipice of a hole they dug.