If it wasn’t so serious you’d have to laugh.

The CBI has urged the coalition government, which as we know comprises Tories (supported by 36.1% of those voting) and LibDems (23%) to legislate so that unions will in future need support from more than 40% of members balloted, in addition to a simple majority in favour, to authorise an official strike.

CBI plans might have sailed through if the Tories had won the election; and a mere 40% share of those voting would probably have won it for them. With the coalition there may be problems.

After all, the coalition partners’ agreement on the alternative vote (AV) goes no further than a commitment to organise a referendum on the issue. The Tories are committed to oppose AV. We should stick to what we know, they will argue; it’s not necessary in order to take their place in the House of Commons, for politicians to have the support of the majority who vote in their constituency even by counting second preference votes.

So, insisting for trade unionists that having a majority favouring a strike is insufficient for anyone to take their place on a picket line might well seem ever so slightly inconsistent.

No legislation to raise the bar for strike ballots to 40% of those entitled to vote could get through parliament without significant backing; of MPs on Commons benches most of whom could only ever dream of having that level of popular support and, incidentally, totally unelected nobles and bishops in the Lords.

As Britain’s self-proclaimed ‘leading business group’ the CBI doesn’t just concern itself with trade union democracy, it worries too about problems of uncertainty for all workers.
Its press release recommends:-

“…the consultation period for collective redundancies should be shortened from 90 days to 30 days to reduce uncertainty for staff and allow employers to reshape their workforces swiftly to respond to significant falls in demand.”

John Cridland, CBI Deputy Director-General, elaborates –

“…when… redundancies are inevitable, dragging out the process over three months just prolongs the agony for employees.”

This is bullshit. Trade unions have long had a response to the shedding of management crocodile tears over uncertainty in redundancy consultation – “We’ll get by with the uncertainty thanks – it’s losing their jobs that people find harder.”

John Cridland knows full well of course, that if consultation on mass redundancies was limited to 30 days, no trade union members could ever take lawful strike action to resist them because 30 days is insufficient for their unions to conduct ballots in compliance with the law.

Cridland also knows that workers got rid of before the 90 day consultation period is up are entitled to be paid, in addition to redundancy pay, for the unexpired part of that period. Ending workers’ uncertainty by sacking them early costs employers money.

With UK workers amongst the cheapest in Europe to get rid of and a government committed to mass unemployment, he just wants it to be cheaper still.

These measures are put forward under the rubric of a “fairer approach to employment relations in the workplace”.

Before Cameron latched onto ‘fair’, just as Blair latched onto ‘modern’, it used to mean free from bias, dishonesty or injustice.

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Though I never got round to finishing his book The State We’re In, I’ve always admired Will Hutton. A former stockbroker, banker and economics editor before he took over at the Work Foundation his writing has always seemed equally independent-minded and well informed.

Yet I found his latest pre-budget piece in the Observer (20th June) both disappointing and unsatisfactory.

On Chancellor Osborne’s promised measures to implement an unprecedented cutback in public spending, Hutton has this to say:-

“If we are going to embark on such a course, there has to be a national consensus that it is right. What is proposed, if we are to believe the pre-budget speeches and leaks, is the closest to an economic scorched earth policy we will ever have lived through. If it is to work, we have to be prepared to accept not just enormous economic sacrifice, but to regard it as legitimate. There has to be complete honesty about why the measures are being taken. The reasons have to be unanswerable. The economics must be unimpeachable. The measures themselves have to be extremely skilfully implemented and seen to be fair.
This is not the case just now.”


I can agree to his last sentence, but the rest is plain dreaming. As an outline of how we might like politics to work, it’s a first-class wish list; as an analysis of how politics works at present it’s just unreal.

My guess is that George Osborne believes he’s got all his ducks in a row. The only disputes that have any traction just now are over the timing of the start of fiscal retrenchment and the timespan of its implementation.

Those disputes may prove critically important but opposition, in parliament at least, is hamstrung by Labour having sold a pre-election pass on reducing the deficit. Arguments about the ratio of spending cuts to tax rises have failed to catch light and there’s been an almost concerted softening-up of public expectations from ConDem cheerleaders in the media, think tanks and the Bank of England. Osborne’s latest stroke in recruiting former New Labour minister and arch-privatiser John Hutton to lead a review of public sector pensions is simply icing.

The direction of travel is set and will be stuck to; times of departure and overall journey time are secondary. As Osborne has no idea what obstacles he might meet, that’s inevitable. The advantage of exaggerated targets and timescales is to draw out the opposition he anticipates as early as possible and to allow himself room for tactical retreat where unavoidable.

Pressure on him to trim is as likely to come from his coalition partners as from public opposition. Where the material of his financial strategy rubs, expect more inquiries and commissions. Where a risk of deflection from his plotted course arises expect the confidence of financial markets to compel timely correction.

Neither national consensus, nor legitimacy, fairness, honesty, nor unimpeachable economics are necessary to impose enormous economic sacrifice; just power, resolve and tactical nous.

How far Osborne and Co. have these, we’ll see.