Sunday, 27 September 2015

Annual conference to shape Labour's vision for Britain - my Catholic Universe column

As you settle down this morning to your post mass cup of coffee and browse through Britain’s favourite Catholic newspaper spare a thought for the thousands of people descending on Brighton for the Labour Party’s annual shindig by the sea, the Party Conference.

For the uninitiated political party conferences are either an inspiring opportunity to gather the troops for another season of conflict and campaigning or a soulless experience in all that is wrong in our political system.

Take a wander through the village of exhibitors inside the secure zone at any party conference and you cannot fail to see the real and wannabe special advisors in their best business suits forming entourages around the latest upcoming junior minister. You will see them, always, talking earnestly into their mobile phones with a ridiculous amount of self-importance about what I can only guess, but in all likelihood about where they are planning to meet up for drinks.

You will see, depending on the conference of your persuasion, hundreds of middle aged and elderly activists sporting the obligatory tweed jackets and brooches or union endorsed sweatshirts adorned with badges for every cause under the sun. All too often their main topic of discussion isn’t what their party wants to achieve but rather why the opposition is the devil incarnate, effectively and massively out of touch with the views of ordinary people.

You will be bowled over by the sheer number of stands all there with the sole purpose of influencing their business or issue on the wills of the real decision makers. In reality most of their time will be spent fending off delegates on the hunt for whatever freebies they can get their hands on.

If you look hard enough you may even spot one or two ‘ordinary’ people although in my experience upon closer inspection they tend to be venue staff.

No, when it comes to party political conferences I definitely fall into the desolate, soulless category.

But this year Labour’s conference may well be worth watching.

By any measure the two weeks following the election of Jeremy Corbyn as party leader has been a roller coaster ride, albeit one with more downs than ups. As I sit writing this column a few days before conference I am expecting that Mr Corbyn will still be leader but really who can tell?

We’ve seen refusals to take part in major interviews, a furore over the national anthem, apologies for terrorist sympathies, and a shadow cabinet with some extraordinary appointments and seemingly with senior shadow ministers willing to openly speak out against the views of their leader. And that was just week one!

As the party has reeled from one media storm to another there has been some glimmers of hope. In the form of upcoming MP Luciana Berger Mr Corbyn has at last appointed a shadow minister for mental health, an issue increasingly becoming one of major importance throughout the country.

It is hugely pleasing to see Mr Corbyn taking a fresh approach to the issue of Prime Ministers Questions, the weekly half hour of playground behaviour most of us associate with parliament, by asking questions submitted by members of the public and fostering an atmosphere of real questions and real answers. Let’s hope such a dignified tack becomes the norm.

It is probably fair to say that as far as party conferences go this one is going to be a humdinger. Whilst the conference stage itself may well be carefully managed away from the hall we can safely expect to see reams of salacious gossip and backstabbing from those with scores to settle. It almost makes me wish I was going. Almost.

Thankfully as the party tries to recover after such a damaging leadership contest there are at least some things all activists can still agree on.

At the very top of that very short list is legislation passing through parliament right now to limit the powers of trade unions and their members.

In 1969 then Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity, Barbara Castle, proposed a government white paper titled ‘In Place of Strife’. The white paper proposed a number of measures to reform the role of trade unions in the workplace, not least of which was the proposal to force unions to call a ballot before holding a strike.

In the face of a great deal of pressure from the trade unions then Prime Minister Harold Wilson forced the proposals to be dropped. It has been argued, with some justification, that had the Labour government pressed ahead with them potentially the legendary ‘Winter of Discontent’ and the rise of Mrs Thatcher would never have happened. Who can possibly tell?

The point is however that nearly 50 years later it is clearly astonishing to virtually everyone that it was possible for strikes to happen without ballots.

Undoubtedly all organisations need to refresh and reform, usually without the need for primary legislation, but there is a strong argument to be made that this government’s Trade Union Bill isn’t about a pressing public need but rather an ideological battle.

I have written in these pages before of the good trade unions, over the years, have done. They have been at the centre of workers’ rights such as paid holiday and sick pay that we now all take for granted. Trade unions do an outstanding job of representing their members when subject to erroneous or malicious allegations. I’m very proud to be a member of a trade union.

The number of days lost to industrial action is at an historic low albeit there have been isolated incidences, not least a National Union of Teacher strike reliant on a ballot over a year old, where action has rancoured with the public.

In the face of this the government are proposing hugely damaging legislation for the future of employee representation in this country.

If legislation, which faced its second reading in the Commons last week, is adopted many strike ballots will require minimum turnout and support far exceeding the levels needed to return a member of parliament to Westminster.

Unions will be required to double the notice period given to employers to take strike action as well as severely limiting the right to picket a workplace.

Employers are to be given the legal right to hire agency workers throughout employment disputes, an issue which is unlikely to help management worker relationships down the line.  

Perhaps most damaging to the future of trade unions is the seemingly innocuous suggestion of outlawing ‘check off’, the process by which employers agree to take union subscriptions directly from earnings. Of course what unions rightly fear is that in many cases when members with busy lives are faced with having to go to the trouble of setting up alternative payment methods many will simply not do so.

I have spoken to many people about the current Trade Union bill, some who are union members and some with no love for them at all. When faced with the full facts I can honestly say that I have not come across one person who thinks the great swathe of proposed reforms are absolutely necessary.

And so as I and many other Labour members express our deep reservations about the future of our party under the leadership of Mr Corbyn it is pleasing to know that there are issues on which we can all stand united, not least protecting the future of our trade union movement and the rights of workers.

With those words I will for this week draw to a close. On another note if you are going to conference see if you can pick me up a few freebies won’t you?

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