Offering yourself up for half an hour of cross examination by your political opponents does not sound like most people's idea of a good time, but being the National Officer of unionstogether, that's exactly what I had to do last Thursday.
The Government is pushing a Trade Union Bill through parliament. It's a really nasty piece of legislation that has two aims - to give free reign to employers by rendering strike action ineffective, and to stifle political opposition by slashing trade union political funds. As my job is to look after the relationship between the trade unions and the Labour Party, I had to go before the Bill Committee and explain exactly what the Bill will do to democracy in our country.
The key political change in the Bill is that all members of the trade union movement will have to 'opt-in' to the political fund within three months of the Bill becoming law. Given that there are 4.9 million members paying the political levy in the UK this is a major bureaucratic task for the trade union movement to achieve in a very short timescale. To top it all off, this 'opt-in' has to be in writing. No email, no telephone, no text. Welcome to the nineteenth century!
To put this in context each year some 890,000 people fail to submit their electronic self-assessment to HMRC despite a clear annual return deadline, a government sponsored media campaign to remind people, and a £100 fine if you don't submit the return on time. It gives you an indication of the difficulties facing the trade unions in retaining a political fund.
It's quite intimidating to take the stand in front of a Bill Committee. I was on my own, I was there for half an hour, and the (hostile) majority of the Committee were Tories. There was only one thing for it - go on the offensive.
I called the Bill out for what it is - a partisan attack on Her Majesty's Opposition. I explained that the Bill will slash union funding of the Labour Party by about £35 million over the course of a parliamentary cycle, making it very difficult for the Labour Party to contest elections on an even footing with the Conservative Party.
I pointed out the existence of a parliamentary convention - set down by Sir Winston Churchill all the way back in 1948 - that matters affecting the interests of rival parties should not be settled by the imposition of the will of one side over the other, but through mutual agreement. I even pointed out that, back in 1984, Margaret Thatcher had considered similar legislation on union political funds but recoiled, noting that "legislation on this subject, which would affect the funding of the Labour Party, would create great unease and should not be entered into lightly."
I ended by pointing out that the state was interfering in the internal affairs of sovereign membership organisations - a clear violation of the Freedom of Association as set down in the 1953 European Convention of Human Rights to which this country is a signatory.
The Conservative members of the Committee clearly weren't sure what to do - their Whip passed along the line of their MPs and instructed them not to ask me any questions. The Labour members raised an objection, which the Conservatives rejected, but they mostly sat in silence as I gave evidence.
Their tactics were pretty clear; by sitting in silence they were attempting to limit my session and avoid my arguments going down in the parliamentary record where they could be used in later parliamentary sessions by both the Commons and the Lords. Thanks to both the Labour and the SNP MPs who kept tabling questions, I was able to make my arguments heard.
Whilst the Bill is spiteful and vindictive, it should be taken in context of what else the Government is doing. They are attempting to stifle charities, and are targeting the BBC. They are intent on stripping voters from the electoral rolls and changing the constituency boundaries to their benefit. Here in the UK we are witnessing the naked efforts of a Conservative Government determined to never again lose power, and simple matters like parliamentary conventions or human rights will not be allowed to get in their way. If you want to join our campaign against this legislation, visit the unionstogether campaign page - www.ourvoiceatwork.org.uk