TRADE UNION RECOGNITION – 6 April 1998

Dr Julian Lewis: I wish to be brief, because I want to give my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr Collins) an opportunity to speak, as I know he is keen to do so.

During the debate, we have had a fair number of trips down memory lane, with repeated incantations about 18 years of Conservative rule. I wish that I had £5 for every time Labour Members referred to those 18 years. They think that it is some sort of insult to the Conservative party, but, by referring to that long period in which Conservative Governments were elected, re-elected and re-elected again, they are insulting the judgment of the British people who, time and again, saw fit to re-elect Conservative Governments and reject Labour, often because of its espousal of the very policies that the proposed Government measure would reintroduce into industrial relations.

We have heard derogatory references to "the enemy within", as an expression used by Margaret Thatcher. I remember when she used that expression and the circumstances in trade union affairs about which she used it. I remember the events in the Civil and Public Services Association, which was infiltrated by the same Militant Tendency – or Revolutionary Socialist League as it really was – that it took Labour so long to gear itself up to expel from its ranks. I remember when Kate Losinska, a genuine trade unionist, was attacked, beaten and tripped downstairs by the enemy within. Yes, the Militant Tendency was the enemy within the CPSA, and my right hon. and noble Friend Baroness Thatcher was right to use that expression. She was right to use it not only about the termites burrowing in from the Fourth International, but about the National Union of Mineworkers and Mr Scargill and his sponsors –

Mr Clapham: Does the hon. Gentleman realise the enormous contribution that those who worked in the mines made during the first and second world wars? Does he realise that before the first world war there were more than 1 million miners and that enormous sacrifices were made in mining communities? Is he slighting that contribution?

Dr Lewis: On the contrary, it was Mr Scargill who slighted those brave miners when, time and again, during those arguments he refused to give them a ballot on whether they should be conducting an industrial dispute. Mr Scargill would not give his members the right to a ballot while he used them to pursue his political objectives rather than look after their interests. His campaign was funded by foreign communist regimes, which openly collected huge sums of money – there was no voluntarism about contributing for Soviet trade union members, believe me – to help him undermine British industrial relations while the people of those regimes were being incarcerated for political offences.

I also remember how a change came about, so I shall move on to the more positive aspects. The introduction of compulsory secret postal ballots was the reason for that change. The measures were partly introduced in the Trade Union Act 1984 and completed in the Employment Act 1988. I pay particular tribute to the late Lord Wyatt of Weeford, whose memorial service I had the privilege to attend last week, for his outstanding work to expose communist manipulation in the Electrical Trade Union and to highlight the shortcomings in the Thatcher Government's plan – which did not include making secret postal ballots compulsory until he drew those shortcomings to their attention and the measures were drawn into the legislation. I hope that the Minister will reply to this point, even if it is the only point to which she replies, as even if the Government cannot –

Mr John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington): My hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen) referred to a dispute in which a number of my constituents are engaged. It is important that we use the House for constructive debate and, if we can, to give constructive assistance in that dispute, which concerns 80 per cent. of a work force who have joined the GMB and request that their employer assists them in organising a ballot to ensure that, as a result, the employer recognises the union.

Will the hon. Gentleman join me in uniting the House to call on the employer to recognise the trade union that now represents 80 per cent. of the work force and, in so doing, assist in the resolution of the dispute?

Dr Lewis: The issue relates to the point that I was making, so the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I will not pronounce on that dispute without more information; but we may reach agreement on the following point. Does he agree and, with due respect, more important, does the Minister agree, that whatever threshold the Government finally decide on for their legislation – whether it be 50 per cent. of those voting or of those entitled to vote, or some other percentage of either – they should undertake today that the votes will be in a tamper-proof, secret, postal ballot?

The 1984 and 1988 legislation, to which I alluded, greatly improved the trade union leadership's representativeness of its members because of the introduction of the secret postal ballot, which stopped ballot rigging and led, for example, in the Manufacturing Science and Finance Union to the replacement of a Stalinist such as Ken Gill on retirement by a moderate such as Roger Lyons.

Mr Harold Best (Leeds, North-West): I want to deal with the facts. The hon. Gentleman mentions the Electrical Trades Union, of which I was a member. The villainy inside the ranks of that union was exposed not by Lord Wyatt, but by people such as myself – rank and file shop stewards. In 1962, I was elected branch secretary in Leeds as an anti-communist. It is important that the distortions that Conservative Members continue to pour out are put straight. You need to be corrected on another element –

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. No one needs to correct me on the history of the electrical trade unions.

Mr Best: I wanted to say that the virtues of the postal ballot are not all that the hon. Gentleman claimed. Postal ballots can be manipulated, and I was a victim of such manipulation – 1,800 ballot papers ended up at the address of one employer, so that the members of the trade union could vote in the comfort of the employer's offices.

Dr Lewis: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. With all due respect to his no doubt heroic part in rescuing the ETU, I say that, if we are to give plaudits, we should do so to people such as the late Sir Leslie Cannon, who led that fight. There is no reason to deny the crucial role played by Woodrow Wyatt, whose investigations as a "Panorama" reporter made it possible for people such as, I trust, the hon. Gentleman and, certainly, the late Sir Les Cannon to bring their campaign into the open and eventually to win their court case.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that postal ballots can be rigged. Much of the ballot rigging in the ETU occurred despite the postal vote, which is why I said that postal ballots must be tamper-proof and independent.

Mr McDonnell: The hon. Gentleman asked about the Noon workers; they have requested an independent ballot, in whatever form is acceptable to the majority and to the employer, on recognition. The dispute is one of the most bitter in west London – it is souring the whole community, and affects the most vulnerable section of that community. I ask the hon. Gentleman and all hon. Members to urge the employer to resolve the dispute constructively, so that good community relations can be restored in the area.

Dr Lewis: I take those remarks in the spirit in which they were meant, and I am happy to join the hon. Gentleman in urging constructive moves by both sides in any bitter dispute.

Even if the Minister for Small Firms, Trade and Industry cannot tell us today the Government's intentions on percentages – whether the percentage will be of all the work force or of all those voting – will she at least guarantee that any voting mechanism that is established will be tamper-proof, secret and by postal ballot?