When David Davis unexpectedly resigned his Haltemprice and Howden seat in June 2008, he was cast as an icon of the civil liberties movement. This most bizarre of by-elections was called in protest at Labour’s introduction of 42-days detention, and even Labour left hero Tony Benn went on the stump for him. Such was Davis’ close relationship with pressure group Liberty that Andy Burnham mocked him for having “late-night, hand-wringing, heart-melting phone calls” with its director, Shami Chakrabarti.
But you’d have to have a pretty narrow concept of civil liberties to think of Davis as any sort of libertarian standard-bearer. He wants to bring back the death penalty. He supports a 28-day limit on holding terror suspects – itself longer than anywhere else in the Western world. He has voted consistently against gay rights in Parliament. Oh – and he wants to destroy some of the few remaining rights that working people have in the workplace.
In an article in today’s Daily Mail, Davis calls for the right to strike to be banned in certain public services. As justification, he points to the strike by London’s firefighters, who have been threatened with mass sacking by fire authority chief Brian Coleman unless they accept punitive (and unsafe) new terms and conditions. Rather than express sympathy for an attack on our firefighters who, after all, risk their lives to protect us on a daily basis, he wants their basic right to defend themselves taken away.
To be fair, the Confederation for British Industry has already beaten him to it. It’s a classic illustration of British playwright George Bernard Shaw’s point that one side “is preaching a Class War, and the other [is] vigorously practising it.” Millions of working people are about to be punished for an economic crisis caused by the greed of a tiny elite. Those who are prosecuting and benefiting from this offensive want to pre-emptively smash any attempt by working people to defend their jobs, wages, pensions and conditions.
Let’s put this in context. As Tony Blair once boasted, our current laws are “the most restrictive on trade unions in the Western world”. Trade unions had stronger powers a century ago – and that was before the Labour Party had even been in government. So severe are the anti-union laws introduced by Thatcher and Major that they actually place us in violation of International Labour Organisation conventions that we are signatory to.
David Davis is just a modern exponent of the sort of liberty the Tories have always stood for: to give big business as much freedom as possible to make money, while stripping labour of as many of its rights as is politically feasible. This tradition long predates Thatcherism, with its deregulation of financial services combined with aggressive anti-union laws.
In the late 18th century, the Anti-Combination Laws banned working people from organising to defend their basic rights. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Tory governments of Lord Salisbury and Arthur Balfour stood enthusiastically by the infamous Taff Vale legal judgement of 1901, which attacked unions by making them liable for profits lost in strikes. Looking back at the episode, future Tory Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin later confessed: “The Conservatives can’t talk of class war. They started it.”
When trade unions launched a General Strike in 1926, the Tory government warned of Bolshevik revolution and mobilised the armed forces. After the strike was broken, the former Tory Prime Minister and irreconcilable class warrior Arthur Balfour boasted: “The General Strike has taught the working-class more in four days than years of talking could have done.” As part of this lesson, mass picketing and any strikes launched in support of other workers were banned, and their links with Labour were weakened. Working people were put back in their box.
Today, the fact that power has been so tilted in favour of capital against labour has had dramatic consequences. It means the huge wealth that has been created over the last three decades has been increasingly concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite, because there is no countervailing pressure to stop an economic ‘trickle-up’ effect. Back in 1973, nearly two-thirds of the nation’s wealth went on wages. Today, it’s only a little over half. Even before the recession hit, wages had been stagnating for the bottom half since 2004; for the bottom third, meanwhile, they had actually declined. This was at the same time as corporate profits were booming as never before.
In the last year, thousands of jobs have been lost, and wages have been effectively cut in real terms for millions of workers. But it is boomtime in the boardroom, where salaries have gone up by 55%. Thatcher’s battering of the trade union movement – which has been virtually purged from the private sector – is, in large part, to blame. With nothing to defend the corner of millions of workers, bosses can get away with attacking wages and conditions while shuffling millions into their own bank accounts.
David Davis may be, to put it mildly, inconsistent, but his essential point is correct: the civil liberties record of the last Labour government was poor. Its refusal to strengthen the rights of workers in the workplace was one glaring example of this. Ed Miliband has agreed that Labour must reclaim the mantle of civil liberties cynically stolen by the Tories. One way we can do this is by challenging them over workers’ rights. Let’s have a Charter of Civil Liberties for Working People to stop employers pocketing huge profits while riding roughshod over the rights of their workforce.
But, above all, we need to take what David Davis has said as a very real warning. Make no mistake: the Tories are looking to finish Thatcher’s war against the labour movement. Labour must take a stand: not just for the principle of civil liberties, but for the millions of working people it exists to represent.
Owen Jones’ book Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, is out next year.