Sunday, 28 March 2010

No, this isn't 1979, but it is close

I recently came across a left-wing Twitter post which criticised the deliberate association of today's strikes with those of the infamous 1978/79 'winter of discontent.' To be sure, it's an entirely fair point - there were some 29 million working days lost to industrial action in 1979, with only 760,000 in 2008. We can hardly complain.

Unpopular as the BA strike is, it's highly unlikely this election will be fought on the issue of the unions as it was before Margaret Thatcher's landmark victory. That said, while the scale of the issue is far smaller than it was 30 years ago, the old trends are still visible.

Again we are seeing militant unions conspiring to damage and defeat a democratically-elected government (does that include Gordon Brown?) it disagrees with. Friday's Financial Times speculated that the timing of the RMT and TSSA's Easter rail strikes (in which only a fifth of services will run) was calculated to 'maximise the political embarrassment to the government' by beginning on April 6 - the day the election is expected to be called. Hardly uncharacteristic for the openly-Communist general secretary of the RMT, Bob Crow.

One of the great themes of the 1979 election and indeed the 1984/85 miners' strike was the undemocratic nature of the unions. Five years earlier Edward Heath fought, and lost, the 1974 general election on the question of 'who governs?' - such was the union stranglehold on the workings of government.

Surely the most enduring legacy of Margaret Thatcher's premiership is this has not been an issue for almost a quarter of a century. The principles of Parliamentary supremacy, the 'open-shop' and democratic ballots for strikes have been firmly established.

But it would be foolish to think that these issues have gone away for good. The planned rail strikes threaten to leave only a fifth of services running up and down the country on the basis of a 54% vote for industrial action. Given the overtly political timing of the strike, it does call into question the authority of the unions to take such a measure.

I am sure I am not alone in saying that unions ought to be exclusively economic organisations - that their very existence as political bodies challenges the legitimacy of Parliament and the democracy we have worked so hard to develop and - uniquely in Europe - keep over the centuries.

So while party funding is still a hot topic in Westminster, it is worth asking whether it is desirable or even morally just to have one of the leading parties in British politics bankrolled to the tune of 92% by a handful of trade union bosses - whose representativeness and own coffers are highly dubious.

Francis Maude made the point two years ago that union members are generally not given a choice over whether they wish to pay the 'political levy' to the Labour party and while only half of their members tend to vote Labour, it is not unusual for the unions to claim that 100% had coughed up.

This is a highly undemocratic situation comparable to the 'pocket boroughs' of the eighteenth century. The political levy is essentially a life-support machine for Labour no matter how unpopular they become, made worse still because of the backhanded way in which it is collected.

It is conceivable that, were it not for union funding, the party would have been permanently annihilated as a political force in 1983 under a wave of Tory and Alliance votes. The SDP-Liberal Alliance did, after all, collect more than 25% of votes cast in that election.

While I doubt the Liberal Democrats are exactly popular with readers of this blog, I challenge anyone to argue that they could be less disastrous for this country than Labour have been in the last 70 years.

After all, Lord Harris did say in 1990 that Thatcherism was 'more or less common ground between Conservatives and Liberals in the nineteenth century.' And whatever else you may think of them, at least the Lib Dems take civil liberties seriously.

Back to 1979 though, there are further parallels. The recent collapse in the Tory lead over Labour has led to expectations that May will produce a hung parliament. Ignoring the fact that political betters seem to disagree, it is worth looking at the polls in the run up to the May 3, 1979.

In the BBC's 'Decision '79' election coverage, David Dimbleby opens with the following statement;

Tonight we might still be reporting a walkover for the Conservatives and Mrs Thatcher, but the polls narrowed a good deal as [the campaign] went on. It may be that we see a straight Tory victory but it is possible we could find the Tories not winning the 318 seats they need if they are automatically to form the next government. There's even an outside chance, depending on how the smaller parties do, perhaps of Mr Callaghan remaining in Downing Street, perhaps even as leader of a coalition ... There was a lead at the very beginning for the Tories of over 20%, then at one point a very slight Labour lead.

As it happened, Margaret Thatcher won the election comfortably with a majority of 43. The rest, as we know, is history. She went on to win every future election she fought, with  landslide majorities of 144 and 102.

The lesson is, don't be too disheartened (or encouraged - Kinnock) by pre-election polls. They quite often mean nothing.

While we're on the subject of elections though, David Cameron has himself admitted that the party requires a swing larger than any in any election since 1931 to win a workable majority in May.

Well, let's take a look at that election. Stanley Baldwin led the Conservatives to a blistering 324 seat majority, while a discredited and divided Labour lost no less than 255 of their MPs. This was, by the way, in the middle of the greatest financial crisis the world had ever seen - sound familiar?

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