25 August 2020 | OPINION
This article was originally published on ConservativeHome on 22 August 2020, in abridged form. It is reproduced here by kind permission of that platform.
When The Sun revealed earlier this month that a Labour peer, Lord Hendy QC, had allegedly been advising the teaching unions – as well as several others – for a couple of months on how to avoid a return to work for their members while the pandemic continues, the story sparked uproar. Whispers suggest that it has since gone all the way up to Starmer’s own office.
But it would be a lazy conclusion to draw that it is the teachers themselves – or other unionised workers – who are somehow to blame for this, should it come to pass.
With a ten-year background working as ancillary staff in the education sector, I can state with complete confidence that teachers are some of the most dedicated and hard-working people you will ever meet. Their working day does not end, contrary to popular belief, when the final bell goes for the kids – there is often a lot more to be done. Next comes all the marking, lesson planning, classroom preparation, curriculum modelling (for the higher-ups), departmental meetings, after-school clubs… the list goes on. And what they can’t get done at school, they end up taking home with them. This is something that partners or spouses of teachers generally just have to get used to – to which many will attest.
Naturally, there will always be one or two who aim to be out of the door about 5 minutes after the kids – and I’ve known a couple of those as well – but they don’t tend to last very long.
Most former teaching colleagues I still speak to are adamant about their desire to return to work, born out of a deep commitment to their wards – although many do remain fearful for their safety. Then, of course, there are those who have continued to work throughout this pandemic, in schools with a high proportion of key workers’ children, and who – like the rest of us – are wondering just when all of this is going to end.
But if the Government does indeed fail in its objective of getting all schools fully reopened in a couple of weeks’ time, then what The Sun’s revelation actually tells us is that it is not this country’s hard-working teachers who will have masterminded that, but rather those they trust to advise them on workplace issues: their unions. And they, in turn, are embroiled in political games-playing of a most sordid nature.
The teaching (and other educational) unions are known for being militant, yes – this is true. But they are also a necessary force in a sector whose workforce stands at regular risk of, for example, baseless allegations made by young people who have discovered they have a lot more power to do so nowadays than their parents’ generation ever did. This is not in any way to detract from genuine safeguarding issues, which it is a school’s highest moral duty to investigate and deal with. But, as one former colleague once said to me when I was starting out: “if you work in education and you’re not in a union, you’re an idiot”. It did not take long for me to observe the wisdom of that statement myself.
And so the teachers and other school staff trust the unions – they have to! – to look after their interests in the workplace. But what they should not expect is that these people will have got into bed with others who have a rather different agenda – namely, those who are still stinging from a brutal election defeat and have every interest in embarrassing and undermining the incumbent Government.
For Lord Hendy and his ilk – he is by no means alone in this – know exactly what they are up to. His particularly idiosyncratic interpretation of the CoSHH Regulations betrays an ulterior motive.
While these Regulations do make mention of “biological agents” as a potential “substance hazardous to health”, even a cursory glance at the whole range of materials put out by the Health and Safety Executive regarding CoSHH makes it clear that they are really designed for things like asbestos – not a flu bug on steroids. To suggest that the spirit of this law was always intended to encompass global pandemics is, to put it mildly, simply disingenuous.
Then again, it is by no means uncommon in the legal profession to get around the spirit of a law precisely by the letter of it.
The reality is that the forces of the Socialist far-left have been smarting ever since last December. Reeling from their own inability to defeat Boris Johnson’s Conservatives, groups such as Momentum soon began plotting to retake control of the Labour Party in a “pincer movement”. They also rapidly reached the conclusion that they needed to rebuild their movement “from the bottom up”, instead of “from the top down” – or so I’m told. It was this to which they reportedly ascribed their main failings – after all, it certainly couldn’t be down to their policies…
Soon afterwards, the lockdown took hold, which gave them precisely what they needed. Ordinary citizens up and down the country began to create ‘mutual aid’ groups to support one another. Momentum and others on the far-left duly took note of this, and shamefully planned to exploit these groups to spread their own political philosophy during a time of national emergency. It was later revealed in the press that they had indeed followed through on these plans, as described by their own activists. In the meantime, actual strike action was being planned by people with a similar value system, with activists lauding the notion of “organis[ing] workers into conflict with employers”.
Rebecca Long-Bailey was wheeled out to tell union leaders – with rather Orwellian flair – that they needed to “politically educate” their members, in a move that I personally suspect had far more to do with her demise as Shadow Education Secretary the following week than the unwise sharing of a quite unsavoury article on social media.
Mark Serwotka, the General Secretary of the PCS, went so far as to pin the blame for tens of thousands of deaths squarely on the Conservative Party’s overwhelming General Election victory, and said there was now a need for a “combative” trade union movement to “fight the Government”. Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that only 1 in 5 civil servants are said to have returned to work thus far – or, as The Sun would have it, potentially as few as 1 in 20.
They managed it with the machinery of government first – now, they are coming for the schools. It is all part of the same agenda.
But perhaps there is one silver lining from this revelation: it should prompt the Government to make new law. If it is indeed so easy to ‘repurpose’ existing legislation to the detriment of our children’s education and our wider economic recovery at present, then the Government must make sure that this changes post-haste.
Assuming we are going to be living with this virus for some while yet, as many have claimed – or if it mutates – then something along the lines of a Control of National Epidemics Act would seem very apposite in these times. It would set out the test for when emergency measures for both closing down and reopening parts of society could be brought in and how often they should be reviewed, define these clearly based on the experiences of 2020, and – most crucially, in this regard – be unequivocal about its (temporary) capacity to override aspects of other legislation until the crisis is resolved. This, perhaps, could put paid to the machinations of Hendy et al.
The purpose of a trade union is to defend and promote its members’ interests. It is not to disrupt the wider functioning of society, nor to be “combative” towards the Government during a national crisis. People are just scared at the moment in this country. Teachers are scared, as are their pupils. So are the parents of those pupils. And so are the employers of those parents.
Those who do exploit that fear, along with the very noble notion of collective labour organisation itself (which is not a phrase you will often hear from a Tory), in order to further their own political agenda, should all be hanging their heads in shame. But – of course – you can bet your bottom dollar they won’t be!