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Cable attacks 'brutal' strike plans

Conservative plans to make it harder for key public service workers to go on strike have been denounced as "brutal" and "ill-conceived" by Liberal Democrat Business Secretary Vince Cable and condemned by unions as a "democratic outrage".

Under the plans to be included in the Tory manifesto for this year's general election, industrial action in health, education, transport and fire services would require not only a majority of those taking part in strike ballots, but also the support of at least 40% of all those entitled to vote.

The proposal was welcomed by employers' organisation the CBI, but the TUC warned it would effectively end the right to strike in the public sector at a time when Conservatives are planning pay restraint and large-scale job cuts.

Unite leader Len McCluskey described the proposals as "chilling" while the leader of the RMT transport union, Mick Cash, predicted they would be "fought tooth and nail" by workers.

And Mr Cable said the Conservative proposals were " entirely ideologically-led and a brutal attempt to strangle the basic rights of working people in this country".

A 40% threshold would be "odd", when MPs do not have to overcome such a high hurdle to be elected, said Mr Cable.

"There's no doubt these ill-conceived Tory plans would have major implications for other democratic elections, from MEPs to police commissioners," he warned.

"If there is to be trade union reform it should be to allow electronic voting in ballots which would improve the turnout and legitimacy of polls."

Unveiling the Tory plans, Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said they would prevent "politicised union leaders" from "holding the country to ransom" with the backing of only a small proportion of their members.

Legislation to be passed within a year of a Conservative victory would also end a ban on the use of agency staff to cover for striking workers. And measures previously announced by Conservatives would impose a 50% minimum turnout threshold for all strike ballots, end "rolling mandates" so that strikes cannot be called on the basis of ballots conducted years before, and reform picketing rules to protect staff who want to go in to work.

Tory sources said that nearly three-quarters (86) of 119 significant ballots for industrial action conducted between August 2010 and December 2014 would have been invalid under the proposed thresholds, including last year's London Underground strike, which fewer than one third of eligible RMT members voted for.

And the Transport Secretary said next week's planned bus strikes in London would be banned under the proposed rules, as only 16% of those entitled to vote backed the January 13 action in a ballot which attracted a turnout of just 19%.

Mr McLoughlin said: "It is wrong that politicised union leaders can hold the country to ransom with demands that only a small percentage of their members voted for. That causes misery to millions of people; and it costs our economy too. As part of our long-term economic plan for our country, we want commuters, parents and families to be able to get on with their day with as minimal disruption as possible.

"These serious reforms will help increase the legitimacy of any strikes unions do hold. And they will put our labour laws back where they should be - on the side of hard-working people going about their daily lives."

Mr McLoughlin also promised a review on the possible introduction of minimum service levels to ensure that core services remain available during strikes.

TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady said: "The Conservatives know that this threshold will effectively end the right to strike in the public sector. No democracy elsewhere in the world has this kind of restriction on industrial action. It is a democratic outrage, especially as the Conservatives have opposed allowing secure and secret online balloting - the one measure guaranteed to increase turnouts."

Unison general secretary Dave Prentis said the measures would "make it virtually impossible for anyone in the public sector to go on strike - shifting the balance completely in favour of the Government and employers, and away from dedicated public servants".

Mr McCluskey said: "This latest threat will hit workers enacting their fundamental right to stand up for fair wages, to save our public services and defend their jobs and pensions.

"The way to resolve such disputes is through negotiations - not to intimidate and silence by legislation. The way to improve turnouts is to modernise balloting, something trade unions have repeatedly called for but been ignored by the Conservatives who are determined to roll back the rights of working people."

GMB general secretary Paul Kenny pointed out that only 15 Conservative MPs secured the support of 40% of those registered to vote in their parliamentary constituencies in 2010, while the Tories did not even manage to win the votes of 40% of those who turned out.

And Labour election campaign vice-chairwoman Lucy Powell said: "The Tories have run out of ideas for the country so are resorting to playing political games with the unions. They should be finding solutions to reach negotiated settlements to avoid industrial action."

CBI deputy director general Katja Hall welcomed the proposals: " Strikes should always be the result of a clear, positive decision by those balloted. The introduction of a threshold is an important - but fair - step to rebalance the interests of employers, employees, the public and the rights of trade unions."

John Longworth, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, said: " In the eyes of businesses large and small, these proposals have merit, as they would help ensure essential services and the freedom to work in the event of strike action."

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