The election of a majority Tory government will create huge challenges for the unions across Britain. Supporting an effective political opposition and building a credible Labour alternative is at least part of the solution. While we can debate the causes, the outcome of the 2015 general election is a Tory government committed to cutting public services and attacks on unions, far more extreme than even Thatcher’s legislation. Let’s start with the challenges. There are many, but the key issues are likely to be public spending, welfare and employment rights.
The key issue for any devolved administration is funding. The emergency budget is likely to at least confirm Osborne’s plans to slash £30bn from public spending with the deepest cuts in 2016-2017 and 2017-2018. It’s difficult to be precise about the impact on Scotland because we don’t know exactly where the cuts will be made in England and, therefore, affect the Barnett consequentials. However, £2bn seems a reasonable estimate and that means a further 30,000 job cuts – and mostly in local government if the Scottish Government continues to largely dump austerity on councils.
In this financial climate pay restraint is likely to continue and next April there will be National Insurance contribution increases that will take a further 1.4% out of the pay packets of workers in contracted out pension schemes. It will also hit public sector budgets as employer contributions will rise by a massive 3.4%. None of this will do much for spending power in the economy – continuing the low wage, low productivity problem that underpins much of our economic woes.
These won’t be the only attacks on take home pay as the working poor will be the focus of the next round of welfare cuts in a callous act of abandoning the ‘strivers’. Some 250,000 in-work families who currently receive Child Tax Credits (CTC) and Working Tax Credits (WTC) face a potential threat of £40 per week on average being cut from their weekly incomes.
There will be a further attack on employment rights that are already some of the weakest in Europe. Industrial action thresholds are designed to undermine the right to strike and employers will be allowed to bring agency staff to scab. Talk of deregulation from the new Business Secretary is code for further attacks on workers’ rights and undermining basic protections such as health and safety. The assault on the Human Rights Act is part of this attack and has only temporarily been kicked into the long grass.
The above demonstrates that the next few years will be pretty grim for everyone in Scotland and the rest of the UK, with the obvious exception of the rich, who will be pampered as per usual. Devolution brings some opportunities to mitigate the damage in Scotland and so we all need to work together constructively to exploit that potential. We will certainly continue the campaign against austerity, but we also need to take every practical step we can to mitigate its impact.
Politically, the election of a Tory UK government is a stark reminder for union members in Scotland of why we need a Labour Party that listens to working people. One way union members can strengthen their political voice is by signing up to be an Affiliated Supporter of the Labour Party. It costs nothing extra for members who already pay an affiliated political levy. It will give union members a direct voice in elections for both the forthcoming UK and Scottish Labour Party leadership elections. If your union is not affiliated to Labour, you can get a vote by becoming a full individual member or a Registered Supporter by paying a £3 fee. Details are on the Trade Unions for Scottish Labour website (www.unionsforscottishlabour.org).
This is a different system to the electoral college used in the past with parliamentarians, affiliates and members each getting a third of the vote. Unions voted for this change primarily because the electoral college gave parliamentarians a stranglehold over the election. Contrary to some of the rubbish written in the mainstream media, there has never been a ‘block vote’ in leadership elections. Now an MSP or MP gets the same single vote as an affiliated or registered supporter.
That’s important because we need leaders that reflect the views of working people, rather than the political bubble. We understand this all too well in Scotland, when the Scottish Labour leadership ignored union warnings over issues like austerity, the second referendum question and campaigning with the Tories in ‘Better Together’.
Electing the right leaders is important, but it’s not the whole picture. Affiliated unions have many opportunities to influence Labour policy and it’s the job of our political structures to take union policies into the Labour policy structures. Our collective affiliation and place in that structure remains unchanged. Affiliated unions will use that influence to press for radical policies through our Workplace Manifesto.
Unions will, of course, maintain a constructive relationship with the Scottish Government and make common cause on issues we agree on, including opposing austerity. However, the SNP is a broad coalition and that constrains it from taking bold action on big issues like inequality. Its limited commitments on zero-hours contracts during the election, illustrates the influence of the business lobby in their party.
Union members in Scotland need a Scottish Labour Party that speaks up for working people – it’s a party that needs to make radical changes and it needs union members to be part of that new direction. By signing up as an Affiliated or Registered Supporter, you can be a bigger part of that process.
Dave Watson is Secretary, Unions for Scottish Labour