London tube strike
Commuters make their way towards Waterloo Bridge during the 9 July Tube strikeGetty Images

Make no mistake: the Conservative's new Trade Union Bill represents the most severe assault on UK employment rights since the 1980s and hits at the heart of a fundamental right of workers to withdraw their labour. This is a right enshrined in international conventions that the UK is a signatory of, and will be in breach of when the proposals become law.

The new law is part of a dangerous strategy designed to recalibrate human rights firmly in favour of the Conservative government's ideological stance rather than universally accepted rights. This debate is not restricted to trade unions: government ministers have openly pushed for the UK to leave the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

Justice Secretary Michael Gove recently said he "hopes" that the UK will remain a signatory to the ECHR but that he "can't give a 100% guarantee". This is a convention is ratified by every country in Europe except Belarus, the continent's last dictatorship.

The government's industrial strategy should be viewed through this wider lens.

Tony Blair once said that British labour law is "the most restrictive on trade unions in the western world". The laws cover how ballots must be conducted, what must be included on the ballot paper and specifying that the method of voting must be by post. Workers and trade unions in the UK have fewer rights in relation to industrial action than elsewhere in Europe. In fact they have less protection than they had 100 years ago at the time of the Trade Disputes Act 1906.

The proposed reforms are being pitched at enhancing democracy to protect the public from a so-called wrecking minority, but these are myths being peddled by the government and their allies. The Trade Union Bill would impose a minimum 50% turnout with public sector strikes requiring the backing of at least 40% of those eligible to vote. This on top of the fact that postal voting, which is mandatory in industrial disputes, undermines work place turnouts.

If the government was serious about increasing democratic participation in ballots then secure online balloting or secret workplace ballots would be a better system. Predictably the new law says nothing on these matters, therefore one can only conclude it is about continuing to undermine the role of trade unions in UK society.

The bill deliberately starts from the false premise that we have a problem with industrial disputes when we clearly do not.

Let's start with the facts. In 2011 and 2012 combined, 91 per cent of days lost were in disputes in the public sector where pay was the principal cause – this is hardly surprising as central government has in fact induced these disputes by imposing continuous pay freezes.

Workers are experiencing the greatest fall in living standards since the 1970s. Last year there were only 151 strikes and less than 2% of workers participated in a strike. The days lost due to strikes were less than 3% of the 28.2 million days lost due to work related accidents and ill-health. Strikes are at historically low levels with more working days lost to labour disputes in 1926 alone than the total figure for the period of 1974-2011 as the House of Commons library points out.

If the Conservatives believed in reducing the incidence of days lost in work then they wouldn't be diluting health and safety laws or attacking the role of workplace union representatives, who play a vital role in ensuring that workers are not killed or injured at work.

How critical is this role? Well in 2007 the government itself conducted a review of the facilities and facility time available to workplace representatives. It revealed that up to £977m ($1.5bn) per annum in savings were accrued in large measure as a result of the presence and work of union representatives. But let's not allow facts to get in the way of this ideological debate.

TUC
'Workers are experiencing the greatest fall in living standards since the 1970s'TUC

The proposals include further restrictions on trade unions by including a clause on opt-ins to political funds. This is designed to strategically attack the ability of trade unions to campaign against government decisions irrespective of whether they are affiliated to the Labour Party.

The legislation on political funds is more than 100 years old and was tightened substantially by the Conservatives in the 1980s. Unions are already required to ballot their members every ten years to establish or keep a separate political fund. In another irony the former coalition government legislated that every employer must automatically enrol workers into a workplace pension scheme yet trade unions are now being told they can't do the same with political funds.

There's also a more fundamental point about who determines what constitutes 'democratic'. Trade unions will now be the only organisations having ballot thresholds imposed on them. If political parties had to secure a majority of those voting to win an election then governments wouldn't be elected.

The Conservatives were elected on less than 24 per cent of those eligible to vote therefore based on their own logic they are undemocratic and illegitimate.

The previous government also looked at the rules for shareholder voting on the pay of top bosses leaving the decision to be taken by a simple majority of those voting – no thresholds on turnout, no thresholds on the proportion of eligible voters. Top executive pay can be determined by a simple majority yet workers contesting a greater share of the economic pie face a harder task in ensuring fairer income distribution in the economy, embedding poverty and greater inequality.

So if you think this bill is just about trade unions then perhaps you should think again – it's about a fundamental attack on democracy.

Andrew Brady currently works in research and policy for a UK trade union and is writing up a PhD in industrial relations at the University of Strathclyde.