Lord Tebbit urges caution on strike laws

Lord Tebbit Image copyright bbc
Image caption Tebbit would prepare legislation to deal with strike 'mischief' instead of a minimum turnout requirement.

It's decision time on strikes. Should our local school, the train we take to work, even the local JobCentre, be closed by strikes which don't have the majority of workers backing them.

Only 40% of members of the NUT voted in the ballot which will see many schools closed down. London's tube network has been brought to a standstill after just a third of RMT members voted to strike.

So pressure is growing on the government - from the Mayor of London to business leaders - for a new law requiring at least half of members to vote yes or a minimum turnout before strikes can go ahead.

Intriguingly Lord Tebbit, the former Employment Secretary who was largely responsible for the current laws, urges caution on tonight's edition of Decision Time - the programme which examines how decisions are taken in Whitehall and Westminster.

I ask him what his reaction would be to the idea of a new law if he was back in his old job:

"My first reaction is caution. We've had an employment law structure which has worked for the last 30 years, which transformed industrial relations in this country. It was based on the idea that the baddies were not the guys on the shop floor; the baddies were the big trade union leaders, which was the complete reverse of conventional thinking at the time. And that has worked, so I would say hold hard just a little, make sure that we have got public support, that the public see there is a real problem and that they want something done about it, and so do some of the union members."

Is that, though, a wily old political fox inviting the unions to step into what Ed Balls calls "a trap" set for them by the Tories? Tebbit certainly suggests that ministers should be getting ready.

"If I was back as Secretary of State I would be getting my people to prepare legislation to deal with the mischief if the mischief arrives."

With union leaders warning of the biggest wave of strikes since the General Strike of 1926, Norman Tebbit expresses his concern that this government does not look as robust as the one led by the Lady who was "not for turning".

"Everybody had to be sure that the government was not going to run away from the conflict if conflict there came. Nobody thought Mrs Thatcher was going to run away. She didn't do u-turns, as you may famously remember, so we've got to establish that in everybody's mind."

I ask him if he thinks there's a doubt about whether the current Prime Minister might run away in the face of confrontation.

"I wouldn't dream of suggesting it, but of course there have been pauses and reflections, and he has the problem that he is saddled with Mr Clegg and the Liberals, and if the Liberals had another bad round of local election results next year, they would want to run away on something else."

Is he saying that the gentleman is for turning?

"I don't know. I wait to see."

Also on tonight's programme are the former GMB leader, John Edmonds, former civil servant who dealt with employment relations Helen Leizer and Dominic Raab, the Tory backbencher who has proposed a change in the law.

Decision Time is on BBC Radio 4 tonight at 2000 BST and can be heard after that time online.