Perhaps to distract from the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s lacklustre spring statement, Dominic Raab has been making the rounds of the right-wing press with his proposal for a new Bill of Rights. Intended as a replacement for the Human Rights Act 1998, the Bill of Rights aims to put an end to the “wokery and political correctness” that have “whittled away” free speech in the United Kingdom.
One might be inclined to ask, however, why the government is so insistent on pushing through this Bill of Rights, which is currently out for consultation and expected to appear in the next Queen’s Speech. On 17th March, the Court of Appeals ruled that under the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, workers have no protection from punishment up to the termination of contract by their employers for participation in strikes. In its judgement, the court noted that this was despite the protections seemingly offered by the Human Rights Act, Article 11 of which states that, “Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of [their] interests.”
In the eyes of the Lord Chief Justice, striking is thus presumably not always a necessary element of trade unionism. If this is the case, then the essence of what legitimises industrial action lies not with affected workers, who do not – and cannot – simply walk out on strike, but with the courts, likely when the strike is already a fait accompli. What the Court of Appeals and the Business Secretary – who took the case to the court – expect trade unions to do now is unknown. The court argued that its ruling does not infringe on the right of workers to organise, but what is a trade union if it has no recourse to industrial action?
From the perspective of the government, the interest in this case is clear; it complements the infamous Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Bill. The Labour Party successfully challenged the government on the worst excesses of this Bill on its journey through Parliament. Similarly, Labour should speak out against the egregious ruling eroding the Human Rights Act.
Whilst there will always be an internal debate within Labour on the power – or lack thereof – held by the eleven remaining affiliated unions. Not all Labour members and MPs are dyed in the wool trade unionists, and nor should they be if the party is to remain a broad church. What must not be forgotten, however, is that the party was birthed by the trade union movement, and though diluted, the party remains the principal political voice of the movement. Furthermore, much of the funding in the party coffers comes from the affiliated unions. This cashflow is something that benefits us on both sides of the internal debate. The party faces an existential danger – both financial and ideological – if this link between trade unions and the party is lost.
In May, when the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (ASLEF) meets for its annual conference, we will learn of the outcome of the internal struggle at the heart of the train drivers’ union. The struggle is the same one that led to the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers’ Union (BFAWU) dramatically disaffiliating from Labour at the 2021 party conference. If, as is expected, ASLEF’s disaffiliation faction wins the day, Labour faces the loss of two affiliates in as many years. If the party and its leadership fail to stand up to the government affront on labour rights, including by questioning the obsoletion of Article 11 at the hands of the Court of Appeals, it is conceivable that more unions will follow the lead of BFAWU. At the very least, it will put off campaigning unions like the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) from ever re-affiliating with Labour.
Even if Labour does eventually find its trade unionist voice, it is unlikely that many trade unionists will warm to Keir Starmer’s leadership. Notwithstanding, there is now an opportunity for Sir Keir to act – and to try and protect the fundamental rights of trade unionists in this country. Labour must speak up and speak out if it is to maintain its raison d’être and defend workers’ rights.