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!

* Lord Tyler is the Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson for Political and Constitutional Reform.

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6 Comments

  • Leekliberal 12th Jan '16 - 7:12pm

    This is all part of the Tory plot to stay in power forever. It is vital that those who reject their desire for plutocracy, start to work together to offer the electorate a more generous vision for Government. The deal must include a recognition by Labour that they need to work with other parties to provide that alternative which must include the offer of proportional representation to allow a plural left of centre alternative to win more often by replacing our savage and deeply unfair first-past-the -post system.

  • Short money, charities restricted in lobbying but Osbourne allowed to meet Murdoch shortly before placing a much greater spotlight on the BBC, AV being so badly misrepresented (not to mention that some claim it was PR that was rejected), Trade Unions reform not permitting use of technology…

    You don’t have to dig deep to see that this conservative government are eager to make democracy work for them only.

  • Chris Rennard 13th Jan '16 - 11:39am

    This Bill is part of the Conservatives’ attempt to move ‘to a one party state’ and is unfairly anti-Trade Union and anti-democratic.
    In the debate on Monday I said that,
    “It is not out of any love for the Labour Party that I oppose the measures effectively to disarm it by removing such a substantial portion of its income. It is because the Conservative Party wants to prevent democratic opposition so much so that it seeks to reduce the power of this House to challenge unfair and anti-democratic measures that have not been subject to proper scrutiny in the Commons. It wants fewer of its opponents to be registered to vote in elections while ensuring that there will be fewer constituencies that can be won by opposing parties. It is now trying to ensure that opposing parties suffer a reduction in the funding that enables them to scrutinise legislation in Parliament and to challenge the Conservative Party in elections.”
    We should, in my view, have used our position of influence after the 2010 General Election to introduce a cap on donations and reform party funding. Sadly the Coalition agreement did not spell out what was required to fulfil its promise of “taking the big money out of politics”. We also missed a great opportunity to level the playing field in politics when the coalition failed to fully support the proposals in the 2011 report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life which made fair and balanced proposals to limit private donations, and make a modest extension in state funding. By ruling out the state funding part of the package, we actually blocked the path to reform and left the Conservatives with an enormous financial advantage. This was one of the things that cost us very dearly in the 2015 General Election.
    My contribution from our benches to the debate is here: http://bit.ly/1RIMtrE
    You can also see it on Parliament Live TV (at 20:33) http://bit.ly/1l2wqIp

  • Chris Rennard 17th Jan '16 - 11:20pm

    The Financial Times reportes the issue here:
    http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/8de57d1c-bae7-11e5-bf7e-8a339b6f2164.html#ft-article-comments
    There will be an important vote about it on Wednesday this week.

  • Henry Oliver 18th Jan '16 - 12:11am

    Sadly, political party funding is suffering the hangover effects from the expenses scandal as the public are wary (to say the least) of state, or ‘taxpayer’, funds going towards those in the political class.

    Hopefully a clear and open message that these funds are vital to promoting a more transparent and fairer democracy in the UK will shine through. I do worry that this may be lost in the media trying to print the most attractive story though.

    Chris is completely correct in saying this is an important vote and I believe we can emphasis this as a party fighting against those with ulterior motives. The electorate can turn on those quickly that they perceive to be attempting to weaken the power of their vote.

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