Starting the Sunday procession at Tolpuddle with Tony Benn. Photo https://www.facebook.com/simon.wells.146/media_set?set=a.595686157130387.1073742046.100000670254697&type=1 Simon Wells
Anti-Tolpuddle spirit lives on in the Lobbying Bill
After speaking at the annual Tolpuddle festival yesterday, I can confirm that the spirit of the Tolpuddle Martyrs is alive and well, 179 years on. But the publication of the government’s new Lobbying Bill proves that the spirit of Squire Frampton is doing pretty well too.
Squire James Frampton was a landowner who feared that trade unionism threatened the power base of the wealthy classes, and wanted to use the full power of the law to quash it. By 1834 forming a union was no longer illegal. But Frampton used an obscure law to arrest, prosecute and transport to Australia six agricultural workers from Dorset – the Tolpuddle Martyrs. The real reason for their victimisation, of course, was that these brave land workers had dared to organise against pay cuts.
The Squire would no doubt have approved of the government’s new Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trades Union Administration Bill, published last week. A more honest title for it would surely be the Protection of Rich Conservative Party Donors and Gratuitous Attack on Trade Unions Bill. It offers a master class in protecting the wealthy and punishing organised labour.
The Bill contains so many loopholes it reads like a cheats’ charter. It will require third-party lobbyist firms to publish client lists but not if they ‘only’ hold meetings with government special advisers and middle-ranking civil servants, and not if lobbying is deemed to make up a small part of the business.
But more importantly, the new Bill won’t touch wealthy corporations as long as they directly employ lobbyists. Despite his links with the tobacco industry and the current controversy over the government’s handling of cigarette packaging, the Conservative Party strategist, Lynton Crosby, will suffer few sleepless nights.
The biggest source of public concern, the growing grip that rich and powerful individuals and corporations hold over policy making and politicians, has been ignored entirely in the Bill. Conservative Party donors Adrian Beecroft, John Nash and Circle Health shareholders can all sleep easy too.
Instead, the government has cynically turned its fire on the largest democratic membership movement in the country – trade unions. Unions will be required to ‘visibly demonstrate’ that they ‘know who their members are and can communicate with them’.
Unions already have to produce annual audits of membership. But despite being the most heavily regulated voluntary organisations in the country, we can expect yet more regulation to come our way.
The Bill will be debated on the floor of the House during Congress week when the unions are away in Bournemouth. As some on the Conservative backbenches bay for more red blood, watch out for how calls for tougher membership record requirements turn into demands for more stringent requirements on industrial action balloting.
Labour leader Ed Miliband dubbed David Cameron the minister for ‘Benson and Hedge funds’ – a reminder of where the real dirt in politics lies. And from the bedroom tax to the refusal to cap bankers’ bonuses, the ascendency of the Conservative Party’s Thatcherite tendency may yet prove to be its ultimate downfall.
This latest attack on shop workers, teachers, nurses, postal staff and factory workers, and their unions, offends the British people’s sense of fair play. If history offers a guide to the future then the government’s Bill is a major political blunder. In the battle for the public’s hearts and minds, the Tolpuddle trade unionists won the day with massive meetings, petitions and demonstrations forcing the Martyrs’ return after their deportation overseas.
Every year in Tolpuddle, unions celebrate the six courageous workers who stood together against the Squire. Let’s also send a strong message to the government that this generation of working people are just as determined to oppose such blatant targeting of unions and the ordinary people they represent.