NINE months after last May’s general election, the Conservative government is rapidly pressing changes in the law through Parliament, claiming whenever challenged in the Lords that these were included in its 2015 manifesto and that its Commons majority gives it “an electoral mandate” to carry them out.
One of those proposals is to limit the ability of trade unions to call strikes by requiring a clear majority – 50 per cent of those voting – to support the proposal, with the additional threshold that they must represent at least 40 per cent of those eligible to vote.
But the Conservatives’ own “mandate” rests on far shakier ground. Only 37 per cent of those who voted supported the Conservatives. On a low turnout, that represents less than a quarter of those eligible to vote. If the Government now sets a far higher barrier for other bodies, it will allow others to question how legitimate it is for a Government which three-quarters of the electorate failed to support to push through a radical free-market agenda.
Those of us old enough to remember the Conservative government of 1970-74 can recall trade union leaders arguing that they represented more people than those who voted Conservative in 1970.
There’s much public frustration with rules negotiated in distant Brussels by people who know little of the way we live. But from a Yorkshire perspective Westminster is almost as remote. The Lords debate on the Trade Union Bill last week was almost entirely preoccupied with preventing further strikes from London Underground drivers.
We now have a Cabinet which includes four senior members representing parts of Surrey, and none representing any part of England north of Cheshire. We are governed from the Home Counties. This is reflected in the cuts to local government funding, which have been much harsher towards northern cities. The “Northern Powerhouse” has so far turned out to have very little substance beyond Manchester.
From the opposition benches in the Lords, the emphasis placed on Parliamentary sovereignty in the debate on whether to stay in the EU looks hypocritical. The reality is that a Government with a majority in the Commons, even as small as this Government has, holds sovereign control over British policy. There are even areas where Ministers act by “prerogative” – that is using the powers of the Crown without Parliamentary scrutiny.
An increasing number of Government decisions are pushed through Parliament not as legislation but as Government regulations: often unexamined in the Commons, and not open to modification in the Lords. When the Lords voted against the Conservative attempt to cut tax credits a few months ago – a vote which represented the views of the majority of the public, according to opinion polls – the Government responded by threatening to cut the Lords’ limited powers even further. Yes, of course, the appointed Lords is in need of reform; but British politics needs some mechanism to examine new Government proposals carefully and sceptically.
British politics is becoming more American in the way campaigns are financed and run. Thirty years ago, the Conservative Party had some two million members, with local parties raising the money for local campaigns, and going door-to-door to canvass and leaflet.
Now its membership is around 150,000; the central party leadership controls campaigns, raising money from wealthy donors to pay for mass mailings and paid phone-canvassing for candidates chosen from the leadership’s “A” list. London’s wealthy elites, many of them from foreign countries, pay for political influence and for access to the prime minister.
The Conservatives outspent all other parties by a wide margin last May; the changes to union political contributions included in the Trade Union Bill will shrink Labour funding. American politics looks more and more like the rich fighting the rich, from Michael Bloomberg to Donald Trump. The “Anglosphere” that Eurosceptics dream of would move England further from Europe to become more like America; but American politics has become increasingly bitter, across a country divided by wealth, class and race.
Our current government has a weak popular mandate. It would do better to carry the country with it, to negotiate, to compromise – to govern for the whole of the United Kingdom, not for the rich and successful of England’s south-east.
Lord Wallace of Saltaire is a Lib Dem peer.