Having barely scraped back into Downing Street after fighting one of the dirtiest election campaigns in British political history, the Cameron cabinet is now putting the final touches on a Queen’s speech that is likely to unveil one of the most radical – and dangerous – agendas that any government has sought to push through in decades.
Now that the Tories are off the leash, the rights we take for granted every day – rights to privacy and free speech included – are under threat. Repealing the Human Rights Act and threatening to withdraw from the ECHR could well be nothing more than a warm-up act.
By setting the precedent for any present or future government, beginning with his own, to start picking and choosing which rights should be protected, and which disfavoured groups they should not apply to, Cameron is truly playing with fire.
Barely had the dust settled in the small hours of 8th May when senior Tory ministers began rattling off their ideological wish lists: not just scrapping the Human Rights Act but also radically enhancing the surveillance powers of the security services; giving ministers sweeping new powers to muzzle extremists (however elastically defined); and even going after one of the most fundamental rights of a democracy – the right of workers to collectively bargain for respect and dignity in the work place.
The Tories’ hostility towards working people is nothing new, but last week’s announcement by Sajid Javid – his first in his new role as Business Secretary – brought a disturbing new twist to the Tories’ long history of efforts to break the backs of the trade unions.
The proposal – which would make it impossible for public sector workers to strike unless more than 40% of those eligible to vote approved the action – is ludicrous on its face. No-one questioned the legitimacy of the election that just returned David Cameron’s government to office, even though just 25% of those eligible to vote cast their ballot for the Conservatives. Even such Cabinet favourites as Iain Duncan Smith, who was re-elected with the support of just 24% of eligible voters in Chingford and Woodford Green, enjoy comfortable majorities in their constituencies.
In fact, to appreciate the irony of this proposal you don’t have to look any further than Javid himself, who may be complacently suggesting these changes while sitting on a majority of more than 16,000 votes, but whose own re-election last month would be cast into doubt under the standard he’s now proposing to set for union members. Just 38% of the Bromsgrove electorate voted to send Javid back to the House of Commons this month – a result which I can’t imagine he’s suggesting lacks democratic legitimacy.
The truth is that low turnout is a fact of life in liberal democracies across the world. Why should the votes of union members be treated differently from those of any other citizens exercising their right to vote? What the Tories are suggesting is a brazen double standard. It’s one rule for Tory ministers and another for trade union members.
On top of making legitimate strike action more difficult from the outset, the Tories have also proposed to make it easier for employers to bring agency workers to replace employees out on strike – undermining even those workers who are able to get around the obstacles newly put in their way.
What all this adds up to is simply a recipe for chaos. Putting roadblocks in the way of legitimate strike action only increases the likelihood of more wildcat strikes, which in turn will make it that much harder for employers to address legitimate grievances, given that they’ll lose the ability to negotiate with recognised union leaders.
The right to strike is one of the most important safeguards working people have in this country. It’s a weapon of last resort that has served throughout history as a bargaining tool which allows unions to push for recognition of ordinary workers’ rights to be paid fairly and treated with dignity. At a time when working people are already struggling with a chronic slump in their living standards brought about by the combination of stagnating wages and a rising cost of living, these are not principles that any government should be seeking to undermine.
The questions I’ve long been asking – about which rights the Tories have on their hit list, and which groups of people they plan to start stripping rights from if they’re successful in undermining the principle of universal human rights – seem to have begun to be answered.
Unless we can stop them in their tracks, their next target is anyone’s guess.