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IRA ghost may come to haunt the Tories

The echoes of the 1970s are all around us.  Minority governments propped up by the Ulster Unionists, social division over Europe, the rise of extremist political parties, and terror attacks in our cities.  It is, however, the ghost of the less well known of the two IRAs that were around in the 1970s that may be about to make its return.

I refer to the Industrial Relations Act of 1971, which was as near to a ban on trade unions as Edward Heath’s Tory Government could get away with.  Protections for workers over such things as unfair dismissal were removed.  Trade unions were obliged to register and comply with restrictive conditions on industrial action if they wished to continue to enjoy legal rights and immunities.  Agreements with employers were to be legally binding.  Unless explicitly stated otherwise, a “no strike” clause was to be implied in contracts of employment (allowing employers to sack striking workers).  Unofficial ‘wildcat strikes’ were outlawed.  Limited official strikes were subject to the oversight of a new Industrial Relations Court, which could grant injunctions to halt industrial action.

The ghost of the Industrial Relations Act is to be found in the Trade Union Act 2016.  Among other things, the Act all but outlaws official strikes by requiring a minimum 50 percent turnout on a strike ballot that has a ‘yes’ vote of at least 40 percent of all eligible voters.  In a close parallel to events in 1971, the Act also requires that pickets have an authorised supervisor.

When the 2016 Act was introduced, it was wholly disproportionate to the amount of industrial unrest in the UK; which has been declining steadily since the 1980s.  One suspects that it was put in place to pre-empt the inevitable anti-austerity mood that is currently brewing among public service workers whose wages have stagnated since 2010.  It is notable that both Jeremy Corbyn and Shami Chakrabarti, the shadow attorney general, have pointedly refused to condemn any trade unionist choosing to defy the 2016 Act, while Labour is committed to repealing the Act if elected.  And as Anushka Asthana and Rowena Mason report in the Guardian, Unite leader Len McCluskey has threatened to break the law if needs be:

“In terms of the concept of a coordinated public service workers’ action, yes I think that’s very likely and very much on the cards. If the government has pushed us outside the law, they will have to stand the consequences.”

What might those consequences be?

In 1972, Britain faced a de facto general strike as workers across the country walked out in sympathy with ‘the Pentonville Five’ – a group of dock workers’ shop stewards who were accused of leading an unlawful strike and breaking an injunction preventing further picketing (note the parallel with the authorised supervisors in the 2016 Act).  Breaking the injunction was a criminal offence, and the five men were duly convicted and imprisoned.  At this point, faced with growing industrial unrest, the situation descended into farce.  Civil servants were obliged to go to Pentonville jail in an attempt to negotiate an end to the strikes with the convicted men.  Meanwhile, the TUC called for an official general strike unless the five were released.

In the end, the Official Solicitor brought the case to an end on the grounds that the National Industrial Relations Court had wrongly convicted the five.  Their release brought that particular dispute to an end, but it left a bitter taste.  A chastened and more conciliatory Health government continued to be plagued by industrial unrest for the remainder of its time in office.  Finally, faced with a strike by the National Union of Mineworkers, Heath called an election and campaigned on the slogan, “Who governs Britain?”  To which the electorate replied, “Not you!”

While much has been made of the role of the trade unions in bringing down the Heath government – for which Margaret Thatcher and her supporters never forgave them – the final nail in Heath’s political coffin was hammered in by Campbell Adamson, then director of the Confederation of British Industry who, two days before election day said, “I should like to see the next government repeal the Act so that we can get proper agreement on what should replace it.”  Given that the election resulted in a minority Labour government, Adamson’s widely-reported views may indeed have tipped the balance.

One of the first acts of the incoming Labour government was to replace the IRA with the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act, which restored the pre-1971 situation, but did little to arrest the wave of trade union militancy that the IRA unleashed.  Indeed, it was widespread unrest in the ‘winter of discontent’ of 1978/9 that finally cleared the way for Margaret Thatcher’s victory and Labour’s ensuing 18 years on the opposition benches.

One final consideration is that even the Heath government during its early proto-Thatcherite phase in 1971 was not so deranged as to set a legal requirement for a 50 percent vote in favour of a strike.  For while setting the bar so high serves to make a lawful strike almost impossible to call, it also renders such a strike almost impossible to bring to an end.

As the government is learning over Brexit, negotiation is difficult and it requires a good deal of give and take.  In this, the absence of absolutes makes backtracking more acceptable.  We all understand that when a trade union asks for a 5 percent pay rise and the employer refuses to go any higher than 2 percent, the eventual outcome is going to be 3 percent linked to some increase in productivity.  The problem is that if, say, 60 percent of the union’s entire membership have demanded 5 percent, they are not going to settle for 3 percent plus strings.  And if the official union leadership tries to call off the strike, there is a far greater chance that it will continue on an unlawful basis.  At which point we are back to ministers and civil servants having to go to jail to negotiate with convicted shop stewards.

There are a raft of issues that might bring down Theresa May’s beleaguered minority government.  Perhaps the least anticipated would be a new ‘winter of discontent’ with consequences similar to those that followed the Industrial Relations Act 1971.  If so, then the Trade Union Act 2016 may prove to be David Cameron’s final revenge on the woman who replaced him.

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