Lib Dems expose Tory self-interest on the Trade Union Bill

Yesterday, Lorely Burt, Cathy Bakewell, Ben Stoneham, Barbara Janke, Chris Rennard and I all spoke on the Government’s Trade Union Bill.

As our BIS spokesperson, Lorely gave an excellent run down of the issues, and of the Liberal Democrat approach to them, pointing out the flaws in the parts of the Bill which deal with strike action. She argued the measures in the Bill will entrench positions on either side of an industrial dispute, and take workers more frequently and quickly down the path to industrial action as a result.

In those terms the Bill fails in its own objectives. Where it will not fail is in the Government’s objective to stifle any serious challenge to its own endurance in office. The Labour Party is doing a very good idea of dismembering the concept of serious opposition all on its own. And while Labour is down, the Conservative instinct is to kick.

Clauses 10 and 11 of the Trade Union Bill sets out to reform the system of party funding for just one party: the Labour Party. Big business and wealthy moguls’ funding of the Conservative Party (and indeed large donations to other parties, including our own) are to be untouched, while Labour could lose £40m over the course of a Parliament.

This will further entrench the disparity of funding between the Conservatives and their competitors. In the four quarters running up to the 2015 election, the Conservatives raised £38m, some 60% more than Labour’s £23m, including all their trade union donations. So the disparity of power in this funding war is already considerable. It’s what enabled the Conservatives to spend some £30m (according to their own adviser, Jim Messina) at the election. The Bill will, if left unamended, place the Conservatives in an eye-wateringly strong position for 2020.
The principle at stake, of transparency and consent in trade union members’ contributions to the Labour Party, is not one we would quarrel with. But this reform has always been recognised as being part of a package, which should include a donation cap to limit the vast sums sloshing into Conservative coffers too. To do one without the other is bad enough on its own. In the context of the Tories removing 2 million people from the electoral register last year, and of the planned boundary changes, the Bill tilts the political playing field sharply in favour of the Conservative Party. It amounts to a plan to stay in office – seemingly forever – by changing the rules of the electoral game.

This extraordinary abuse of power provoked me to take an unusual step. I tabled an amendment to the ‘commitment motion’ to try to stop the Bill going into the usual legislative process, and instead to have it put before a Lords Select Committee. This rare device was used successfully when the Blair government tried to abolish the post of Lord Chancellor in a press release. My speech is available here. As it turns out, a vote on this amendment would have taken place very late at night, when we could not have been confident of winning, so I decided to withdraw it rather than lose. However, I will be working on a cross-party basis to bring a similar motion back before the Lords in ‘prime-time’.

The Lib Dems will be at the forefront of arguing for a return to a comprehensive package of party funding reform, as advocated by the Committee on Standards in Public Life in 2011 – and as the Conservatives promised in their own manifesto. Watch this space!

* Paul Tyler is the Liberal Democrat spokesman in the Lords on constitutional reform issues

1 comment to Lib Dems expose Tory self-interest on the Trade Union Bill

  • Christopher Young

    Lord Tyler, I did not make it up to London last year, too busy, as you might remember I attended Mount House at the same time that you did. I published a small book about it “I survived prep school” and have tried to get you a copy without success. I attended the funeral of Ms Lee in Tavistock, few were there. And follow you career with interest. I still work as an Expert Witness for disabled veterans and hopefully I can get up to London next year.
    Good luck, regards Christopher Young

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