Industrial Relations (Voting Procedures)
Tony Lloyd (Manchester Central, Labour)
Obviously, I rise to oppose the Bill. Let me be honest: it was not just the sight of the salivating rants of Tory MPs and their Lib Dem friends that got me to my feet; it was probably this sense of déjà vu, this groundhog day. I was looking round for Lord Tebbit—I have been in the House a long time—because this proposal is cast very much in the mould of what we have seen before. [Interruption.] Those same old Tories indeed.
The beginning of the speech by Mr Raab was interesting, because he invoked some of the great industrial disputes of the past, when people fought for their basic legitimate rights and the kind of things that people are now fighting for in Egypt, Syria and wherever else. However, the instinct of the parties of Government is to crush exactly that right of people to proper demonstration against injustices imposed on them whether by employers or someone else. That is what is so sad. Once again, we have a rewind of history.
I know that the hon. Member for Esher and Walton does not have the opportunity to reply to this debate, but there are some serious points that I hope he will consider. He did not mention where else our national legislation sets out such a terrifically high threshold. Not even the advocates of AV propose such a high threshold. The bizarre thing in all this is that any election with a turnout of 70% where 70% of those voting supported a proposition would fail the test for legitimacy under the hon. Gentleman’s Bill. A turnout of 70% with 70% in favour would be seen as an overwhelming victory for the proponents of a particular course of action, whether a politician standing for elected office or anyone else.
I will make an offer to Government Members. If they accepted the same concept—a 50% threshold among all those available to vote—as a means of determining the 2010 general election, when the coalition parties got under 40% of the vote between them, and if on that basis we reverted to the status quo of a Labour Government, then many people in this country would accept the legitimacy of that threshold. What they would not do, however, is accept that the Bill has anything to do with modern industrial relations.
It is interesting that in proposing the Bill, the hon. Gentleman failed to mention the fact that in many cases bad employers are involved. Bad employers have consequences for the work force. They lead to increases in, for example, absenteeism, sickness and, of course,
the capacity of the work force to think about taking industrial action. The other thing that the hon. Gentleman did not mention is the fact that in many disputes the turnout would pass his threshold—a threshold that I do not think he managed to pass in his general election results. He did not get 50% of eligible voters voting for him in the general election.
I am told that he did. Will all Government Members who got the support of 50% of those eligible to vote put their hands up?
We see three—a very poor test of democracy among representatives of the governing coalition.
The important point is that this Bill has nothing to do with modern industrial relations or ensuring that we bring parties in dispute to the negotiating table. At no point did the hon. Gentleman mention the fact that we need an industrial framework that involves ACAS at an early stage, and includes a capacity for arbitration, and give and take on both sides. Instead, for Government Members, this issue is about domination—one side being the victor under all circumstances—but that is not the modern world that Britain wants. That mentality is why, when the Conservatives and their friends were in government in the ’80s, more than 1 million days were lost every year in industrial action. That dropped by a third when a Labour Government took office, because the industrial relations climate was very different.
Members in all parts of the House—even on those on the Government Benches—should pause and ask whether this Bill is really the direction of travel that modern Britain wants to take. I have been in this House for quite a long time, and I remember the days when rather bizarre ideas were thrown up by Back Benchers in ten-minute rule Bills, early-day motions and so on. We dismissed them and laughed at them as the fancies of the rabid right-wing of the Conservative party—and now its Lib Dem friends—but the problem was that quickly afterwards those ideas were translated by those on the Front Bench into Government policies. That is why it is so important that the House and the country should recognise the irrelevance of this Bill when it comes to having any practical impact on modern Britain or addressing its need for improved industrial relations.
I invite the hon. Gentleman to get out a little more and to talk to people who work and who are not bullied by trade union bosses but who cast their vote in secret. That is the nature of the balloting process for trade unions; it is a secret ballot in which individual members cast their own votes. Those members are sovereign. Most aspects of the balloting process for industrial action are widely accepted by trade unions and by employers as the legitimate way of doing this. Very few of them are arguing that we should increase the height of the hurdles to make it difficult for legitimate industrial action to take place.
The reality is that when we restrict the capacity for people to register this kind of protest, we do not improve industrial relations. There might be short-term gains, but in the end, such action merely entrenches the disaffection of those employees who feel that they have been badly treated and increases the arrogance of the bad employers. That is exactly what we had in the 1980s: an arrogant management culture; attempts by the Government to support arrogant managers; the de-industrialisation of Britain; an increase in the number of days lost through industrial action; and the very shameful record of previous Conservative Governments on industrial relations.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should come over and talk to some of the people on the Opposition Benches who know employers and employees, and who know what good industrial relations look like. Perhaps we could give him a quick crash course on how to move forward with a measure that makes sense in modern Britain. If his Bill is not defeated today, perhaps he could gracefully withdraw it and say, “Yes, I admit that I got this wrong. I was influenced by those around me who simply wanted to turn the clock back to the 1980s. On that basis, I withdraw my Bill and we will start again with a better concept and a way of looking at industrial relations as something that involves the employer and the employee in partnership, rather than in permanent conflict.” I urge hon. Members to oppose the Bill.