Perhaps I am worrying unnecessarily, but it seems to me as if asserting your rights to engage in dissent is becoming increasingly difficult these days.
Consider this. Freedom of association and the right to strike have, almost without exception, been a feature of western democracies. Wherever trade unions have thrived, working people have had a voice; and through collective bargaining, they have been able to establish agreed levels of pay and conditions.
But ever since the days of Thatcher Britain’s trade unions have been undermined, marginalised and over-regulated. Even under Labour, little changed. Trade unions may have been consulted more often, and there was some welcome progress on individual employment rights. But all the Tory anti-union laws remained in place. Whereas in the 1970’s, most British workers were covered by collective bargaining, by 2011 it had fallen to a low of just 23%.
Of course under the coalition government there was never going to be any support for trade unions. With the help of the media corporations, unions continue to be demonised. Now, after a million public sector workers took strike action the conservatives are promising even tighter restrictions on industrial action ballots. Their goal surely, is to make lawful strikes all but impossible, and cut off workers last resort form of protest.
But it is not just trade unions who are being attacked. The coalition has set about steadily eroding individual employment rights. Workers who seek justice through an employment tribunal now have to pay a fee, and the qualifying service needed to claim unfair dismissal has been raised to two years. Alongside an economic policy of continued austerity, the effect is a more insecure, more compliant, and cheaper workforce. Indeed, we have around a million workers on zero hours contracts and many more struggling on just the minimum wage.
Then we have the privatisation of the public sector. The effect of this is to remove whatever notion of public accountability we had, and instead concentrate control in the hands of a few very large corporations. The public are seen as consumers rather than stakeholders; and whole industries are run not for the common good but for the benefit of shareholders.
Not content with taking away workers rights, restricting trade unions, and removing public accountability through privatisation, the coalition have also chosen to attack our welfare state, making sure that the vulnerable are subjected to greater scrutiny and benefit cuts while the government’s friends in the media remain free to brand them as scroungers.
From where I stand, the overall effect of the coalition’s austerity measures, combined with their privatisation programme and erosion of employment rights, is to further transfer power away from where it is needed, and to concentrate it in the hands of rich corporations and presumably some wealthy individuals.
Whats more, other means of opposition are being stifled. We had the attack on government critics in the voluntary sector with the ill thought-out lobbying bill, (which is now law). Then when students protested last year, the police moved in. They weren’t alone: Occupy London, Caroline Lucas MP, benefit campaigners and others have all experienced robust policing when voicing their opposition to government policy. In a modern democracy, where disengagement with mainstream politics is fast becoming a reality, it is surely unwise to close doors to legitimate peaceful opposition in this way.
Surely by stamping out industrial action, preventing peaceful protest, and eroding democratic accountability we are walking into something sinister. Against this background, are we not sowing seeds for a future where one day we might find ourselves in a fascist nightmare?