The key note speaker at this year’s event held on May 22nd was Keith Ewing, Professor of Public Law at King’s College London and co-author of two of Britain’s leading textbooks in constitutional and administrative law. His most recent work relates to reforming labour law to strengthen trade union freedom, constitutional reform, relating to public participation in the political process and the status of social and economic rights.
In his contribution, Professor Keith Ewing explained the scale of the challenges facing the trade union movement following the election of a majority Conservative government:
“Tory plans are set out clearly enough in their election manifesto, including the much trumpeted proposals for yet more restrictions on strike ballots, most notably a requirement that strikes in certain sectors will need the support of 40% of those eligible to vote, as well as a majority of those voting.
“As has been said many times before, this is a requirement that offends democratic principle, and it has been rightly condemned. At the 2015 general election the Tories won about 37% of the vote nationally, representing only about 25% of those eligible to vote. The legitimacy of the Tory mandate will of course make no difference: but the hypocrisy is clear and complete.
“Nor will a lack of legitimacy stop the proposed attack on trade union facility time or the use of the check off to collect trade union dues. The attack spearheaded by the Coalition against PCS seems about to go viral. Nor will the lack of legitimacy stop the proposed attack on the trade union political levy and the right of unions to an effective political voice.
“Yet it will get worse – much worse – before it ever gets better, if only because of the European Question. Whether we are in or out – it will lead to further erosion of employment rights – paid holidays, TUPE and redundancy consultation.
“For trade unions, this is a crisis like no other, and it is one that catches us ill-prepared. Membership is in decline, leading to a loss of authority and income; collective bargaining coverage is at historically low levels, so that we are touching the lives of fewer and fewer workers; and we are about to have zero political influence, as civil war breaks out in the Labour Party.
“Yet my fear now is that the present government is embedded for another ten years. Labour will not be ready for government in 2020, and in any event there is about to be boundary changes and fewer MPs, handing another 20 parliamentary seats to the Tories in the process.
“In this bleak political landscape, the challenge for trade unionism is huge, now facing a challenge of leadership, a challenge of purpose, and a challenge for survival. How are trade unions to deal with the ideological onslaught about to overwhelm their members and their organisations? And how are we to deal with the fresh legal onslaught that is about to hit us?
“The Movement is about to be tested like never before. It would be a serious mistake to baton down the hatches until the next general election and hope for a Labour government. We need a new, clear vision to lead the Movement not for the next five years but for the next generation – a vision that questions organisational activity, as well as industrial and political strategies”, Prof. Ewing concluded.