Big Ben is a symbol of democracy. Union-busting firms should have no role in restoring it

The Parliamentary authorities should strip anti-union firms from any involvement in restoring this national monument.

For years, construction companies worked together in a cartel with one aim: to undermine workers’ attempts to organise in the sector. The reputation of the firms involved lay in tatters. Except, it seems, within the Parliamentary estate.

In 2009, the Information Commissioner raided the offices of this cartel, the ‘Consulting Association’, and found they held a blacklist of over 3000 construction workers.

That blacklist denied people work based on their supposed involvement with trade unions such as then UCATT (it’s now part of Unite). Thousands of people were made effectively unemployable by the illegal scheme.

So when one of the companies which helped establish that cartel landed the contract to restore Big Ben earlier this year, there was anger, particularly from campaigners.

Now nearly 60 MPs are challenging it from within Parliament. 

Backed by Unite the Union, politicians have condemned the move to hand the renovation contract to Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd – one of the founders of the blacklisting body – as ‘inappropriate’ and ‘an insult to the victims of blacklisting’ in the construction sector. Two of the chairs of the Consulting Association came from none other than McAlpine.

Today a group of 60 Members of Parliament have signed a Parliamentary motion, tabled by Chuka Umunna MP, calling on the House of Commons and Lords Commissions to strip Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd of the contract for the restoration work of Big Ben – and instead award the contract to another construction company that does not have a history of involvement in blacklisting.

The motion points to a litany of problems with the decision to hand the firm the job: ‘Although Sir Robert McAlpine [Ltd] was subject to litigation over blacklisting and admitted its guilt in 2016, not one director has ever been held to account.’ 

The Parliamentary measure also ‘recognises the exceptional nature of the contract to restore Big Ben, one of the UK’s most iconic buildings and a national symbol of the Mother of Parliaments’ and points out that Commons Speaker John Bercow has said that the chosen contractor should observe both the letter and spirit of the law.

Jack Dromey MP, Shadow Minister for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, was blacklisted in the 1970s for his trade union activities. He said:

“To be denied work because you are a trade unionist or you have raised health and safety concerns is an affront to democracy. Blacklisting is not history; it is a scandal that has never gone away.

“Forty years ago I was blacklisted by the Economic League. I was lucky and only out of work for a matter of months, but tens of thousands of others paid a very heavy price, some of them for decades.

“Awarding Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd the contract for work on Big Ben – a symbol of our democracy – sends a message that firms can engage in unacceptable practices like blacklisting without serious consequences”

Chuka Umunna MP, who tabled the motion, added:

“People can lose faith in politics if injustices are left unchallenged and our public institutions do not lead by example.

“Awarding the contract for this symbolic work to a company that was at the heart of blacklisting construction workers both undermines our democracy and leaves us looking out of touch as an institution.”

Big Ben stands out across the world as a national symbol of Parliament and the UK’s democracy. Let’s not degrade that by giving the thumbs up to firms that tarnish that image.

Josiah Mortimer is Editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow him on Twitter

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.