London bus workers strike outside Waterloo Bus Garage in London. Photo: PA London bus workers strike outside Waterloo Bus Garage in London. Photo: PA

Richard Allday responds to the latest Tory attacks on democracy, from curtailing trade union rights to eroding the powers of local authorities

Over the last few weeks, there has been a touching concern for democracy shown by leading Tories. Whether it is empowering workers by outlawing strikes, breaking national wage bargaining through regional devolution, hiding behind minor parties to avoid public debate, or selling off the NHS to multinational asset strippers, the common mantra the Tories have decided to employ is “democracy”.

And this made me think about how easily the snake-oil salesmen of the Tory party manage to twist truth into lie, and lie into truth. Here are a couple of especially signiifcant examples picked from the last week.

Strike ballots: shifting the goalposts

London bus drivers in the Unite union are fed up with companies operating the same buses, on the same routes, charging the same ticket prices, for the same customer (TfL) but paying different wages according to how little they can get away with (the difference can be as high as 50%). The drivers’ (democratically elected) union reps got together and decided to campaign for the same rate for the job.

Going back to their garages, they discovered overwhelming support for the idea. Even the best-paid drivers could see their wages were held down by the ‘race to the bottom’ mentality of the bus companies.

They approached the companies, and got a raspberry. So they went back to the drivers they represent, and argued that there would be no concession from the employers without exerting pressure. They proposed, in the first instance, a one-day strike – and sought a democratic mandate for this.

Unfortunately, this is where the snake oil salesmen step in. The most democratic way of reaching a decision would be for bus drivers to meet together, thrash out the various alternatives, have a discussion, and then vote on the way forward. Active participation in discussion would mean drivers able to make informed choices. Democracy in action!

But Boris and his fellow ’democrats’ have made this unlawful. The only lawful way of taking a decision to strike is to allow the members to vote several days after any meeting, in the isolation of their own homes, allowing the employers and their friends in the press time to launch their propaganda machine. Oh, and the union has to present the employer with a complete list of the members being balloted – names and addresses. No danger of pressure being exerted there then!

And, tacked on to any strike ballot, the law insists the union warn members they may be in breach of their employment contract if they take industrial action.

Now the Tories propose that, even if union members jump through all these hoops, a strike will only be ‘lawful’ if more than 40% of the of the balloted membership vote.

So in the interest of ‘democracy’, the desire of workers to present a collective front to management (which is the fundamental point of trades unions) is undermined by ensuring the decision-making process is individualized; the employer is provided with a complete list of employees to target with soft or hard pressure; the members are warned of the consequences of taking action – and the union is not allowed to make any comment on this; and the union has to pay for all this!

Here’s a thought … if the Tories are that worried about unions being run by militants, intimidating honest workers into taking action they do not want, why don’t they insist that trades unions hold meetings at the workplace, in work-time, that members are able to attend on pay, and that a (secret) ballot of members is taken at the meeting?

Likewise, this could be how shop stewards are elected. This would ensure that unions genuinely represented their members’ wishes. What could be wrong with that?

Admittedly, there would be some extra cost to employers, but that would be more than offset by the industrial harmony that would prevail. And anyway Dave, democracy is too precious to be measured in pounds and pence. Isn’t it?

Weakening local authorities (again)

I was taught that ‘democracy’ comes from two Greek words: demos – the people; and  kratos – power. So ‘democracy’ can be most simply defined as ‘people power’. Unfortunately (for us) the Tories definition of ‘people’ means people like them. Decent people. Cultured people. Rich people. Not ‘plebs’.

For those that doubt it, I refer you to that doyen of democracy, Baron Michael Heseltine CH, PC. In an interview on Radio 4”s Thursday midday news, defending the government’s policies from the criticisms of those ‘troublesome priests’, he proudly proclaimed “The process to restore opportunity and power and discretion to those who can influence the local economies has never been so far advanced”.

So there you have it. The solution to greater equality in the country is not by increasing the ability of the majority to influence policy by strengthening the democratic process. Rather it lies in the exact opposite; reducing the power of elected authorities to regulate planning, stimulate industry, etc., and restoring power and influence to the rich and powerful.

As he put it, Conservatives don’t believe in equalizing income by making the rich poorer (through taxation) but in making the poor richer. I believe he liked his mother’s apple pie as well. Rarely have the phrases “Robber Baron” and “Taking the Michael out of democracy” seemed so apt.

If you are interested in the idea of ‘people power’, why it is loathed by the rich and powerful, and how best to achieve it, I invite you to attend Counterfire’s “Marx in a day” forum on Saturday, Feb 7th.

Richard Allday

Richard Allday is a member of Unite the Union’s National Executive, a branch secretary and shop steward in road haulage.  A member of Counterfire, his comrades know him better as 'the angry trucker'.