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News, gossip and insight from PoliticsHome Editor Paul Waugh

Why Cable's no Tebbit

Reading this morning's headlines, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Vince Cable was a modern-day Chingford Skinhead.

But a closer reading of the Business Secretary's "warning" to unions over strikes (and the possibility of new employment laws) shows that he's a long way from the Tebbit approach.

If you look at what Cable is actually telling the GMB today, it's clear he's unhappy with both left-wing union leaders calling needless strikes and right-wing Conservatives calling for new thresholds for strike ballots.

The key paragraph is this: "The usual suspects will call for general strikes and widespread disruption. And another group of usual suspects will exploit the situation and call for the tightening of strike law".

The latter group of 'usual suspects' includes Boris Johnson and Tory MPs such as Dominic Raab, who have called for a minimum 50% threshold for turnout in strike ballots.

Indeed, Cable praises unions for their restraint during the recession, often negotiating short-time working and realistic pay deals in a bid to avoid job losses.

Cable does say that should strikes "impose serious damage to our economic and social fabric, the pressure on us to act would ratchet up". Yet I note that he also adds that "that is something which both you, and certainly I, would wish to avoid."

That sounds more like a candid friend rather than a Hammer of the Unions.

In fact, when it comes to the whole issue of thresholds for strike ballots, I understand that Cable is nowhere near the Johnson/Raab stance.

If left-wing unions fail to heed his call for calm, then the Business Secretary won't be reaching for the statute book to impose a threshold on turnout. Nick Clegg didn't want one for the AV referendum and knows it would look hypocritical to insist on one for strikes. Cable and employment relations minister Ed Davey also believe the issue is a distraction - and there is no closer Lib Dem ministerial partnership in any department.

Rather than looking at thresholds, Cable is more likely to look at the need for minimum service level rules for strikes.

The Spanish government has relied on such deals, which mean unions have to commit to providing a certain level of service even during a legal strike. (See this report for the kind of detail that operates even during a general strike in Spain).

There are currently some informal deals in place in the UK, where a fixed percentage or number of staff are allowed to keep things ticking along for health and safety reasons during an industrial dispute.

I understand that Cable thinks there is more potential in this, although this is far from the policy stage.

It's not a no-strike deal, far from it. It's an approach that recognises the right to strike, but also seeks to reassure the public that their lives won't be made a misery as a result.

Imagine if 40% of Tubes had to run during a strike? Imagine if teachers had to provide a skeleton staff so that parents didn't have to take the day off? Imagine if 30% of bins had to be cleared of rubbish, rather than zero?

It's not as sexy as outlawing flying pickets and is unlikely to satisfy the modern-day Tebbits in the Tory party. But 'minimum service levels' are utterly in tune with centrist, Coalition politics.

Heck, even a sensible, modernising Labour leader could find himself backing the idea....

 

 

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