The Lib Dems are pitching to workers (but here’s what they aren’t saying)

'Lead by example' in relations with workers say Lib Dems, who have participated in a sustained five-year attack on trade unions


Possibly fearing the loss of their members to Labour, SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens, the Lib Dems have made a last-minute bid to reach out to workers.

The party’s Spring Conference agenda includes a motionon trade unions (p.58-60) aimed at supporting ‘a more collaborative model of industrial partnership between companies and their workforce’. Led by Danny Alexander MP, the motion is entitled ‘A Better Deal for Britain Workforce’, and calls for all party members to:

“Lead by example, ensuring that every infrastructure project provides opportunities for apprenticeships and support greater use of framework agreements with the TUC and individual unions learning from the success of the London Olympics.”

The motion goes out of its way to flatter the unions, described as playing ‘a vital role in the creation of a fairer, stronger economy by defending the rights of ordinary working people, making their voice heard, and striving for better pay, working conditions and equality’.

But it is late in the day. During their time in the coalition, the Lib Dems have voted for several measures that are hostile to unions; curtailing their rights, making them pay, and favouring employers. These include:

1.Capping employment tribunal awards

The coalition government changed the statutory unfair dismissal compensation provisions so the award was capped at £74,200 or the equivalent of 52 weeks’ pay for the claimant, whichever was the lower amount.

2.Introducing employment tribunal fees

After lobbying by businesses, the government imposed fees of up to £1,250 for employees to use the tribunal system. This has resulted in a 79 per cent reduction in the number of cases that reach tribunals, as people who may have been unfairly dismissed find themselves priced out of the justice system.

3.Introducing the Lobbying Act

Dubbed the ‘gagging law’ by charities, the Lobbying Act places restrictions on how much time and money charities can spend campaigning before an election.

It was aimed at increasing transparency in campaigns, but has been accused of taking political voices away from anybody not in the political sphere. Labour have pledged to repeal the Act if they are in government.

4.Reducing the minimum consultation period for collective redundancies

The consultation period required for large-scale collective redundancies has been reduced by the coalition from 90 days to 45. The TUC have accused the government of using the new law to make it easier for employers to sack people.

5.Increasing the qualifying period for unfair dismissal claims from one to two years 

6.Changing TUPE (Transfer of Undertakings Regulations)

TUPE law protects employees’ pay and conditions of work in the event of a business transferring to new ownership. It means staff retain the same terms of employment that they had under the previous employer. By weakening this law, the government have made it harder for workers to claim their rights, especially as now union collective agreements do not apply post transfer.

7.Pushing through a Deregulation Bill that could exempt self-employed workers from health and safety rules

8.Cutting facility time for trade union representatives

Facility time gives union reps the time that they need to take off to advise members, give members formal representation in disciplinary hearings and negotiate with employers over terms and conditions. The government has attacked the amount of paid facility time that reps can take, damaging the very ideology of trade unions.

Conference seems to have forgotten that any of this ever happened, instead praising the Lib Dems for insisting on ‘a balanced, fair and successful economic policy’ during their time in government.

It calls on Lib Dems to strengthen unions through a number of measures including allowing employees to meet union representatives at their place of work, encouraging wider participation in trade union ballots, and statutory rights for union equality representatives.

The conference agenda welcomes ‘the efforts of Liberal Democrats in parliament to oppose Conservative attempts to undermine the role of trade unions’, but clearly those efforts have not been enough.

After five years of sustained attack on trade unions, the Lib Dems must be hoping workers have very short memories. The real question now is whether any of the lip service paid in the agenda will make it to the manifesto.

Ruby Stockham is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter

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