When I was originally invited to present views on the strength of the ‘union brand’ by Unions21 as part of their Future for Union Image roundtable it was not in the shadow of the J30 strike or in the context of the debate about the future of public sector pensions which has since consumed debate. But the observations drawn then feel even more pertinent because of these issues, because they represent the fundamental tension that exists between serving the base of activists, and the need, uncomfortable for many in the movement to reach out and to serve a wider base of individuals.
While evaluating the union image, it is all too easy to blame the bias of the rightwing press, but to do so ignores the issues we need to face up to. Branding and unions might not seem a natural mix but behind the logos and the advertising, strong brands live and die off the strength of the emotion and the feeling they create. Creating that emotion lies in identifying two things – a ‘belief’ and an ‘action.’ In other words, brands need to be able to answer the question ‘why they are here?’ and ‘what are they doing about it?’
To be clear when we say feeling, we don’t mean how do you feel about the brand, but more something like imagine you are using, you have joined, have access to the brand how do you feel?
The mistake of the Labour movement at the moment is to focus too much on what we would do and not why we would do it? There’s science behind this but beliefs speak to directly to our decision making capacity, function does not. That’s why it’s the beliefs that need to be re-evaluated because if we get them right it will provide stronger foundations for progress.
To illustrate the point take the NHS brand. Nye Bevan seemed to understand branding better than the likes of Sir Martin Sorrell. When we talk about health services, we don’t talk about GPs, hospitals and nurses. We talk about the NHS, precisely because it stands for something more than the functional benefit of the service. On introducing the NHS Bill in 1948, Nye Bevan did so on the stated belief that ‘No society can legitimately call itself civilised if a sick person is denied medical aid because of a lack of means.’ Its why the action stated in the bill is the creation of ‘a National Health Service based on need rather than ability to pay’ And when this is challenged as it is by the current government and previously by Dan Hannan, it’s not just our own health experiences that drives our concerns, but its it the very civilised nature of our society which we wish to protect.
So what of the union brand? Well a brand is not what it says, it’s what it does. These actions create commercial value which can be measured – which in the case of Coca-Cola accounts for $70bn of its total $120bn market cap.
These valuations are a product of customer-based metrics and it is here that the alarm bells are ringing for us. Last year we lost as a movement 165,000 members/customers, and we are now half the size we were in 1979. The response of the union movement has been to seek synergies, engage in mergers and acquisitions to reduce overheads, and drive sustainability and efficiency, without facing into the real elephants on the table.
These elephants, for both brand and unions are globalisation and the digital age. For the Union movement it has led to the fragmentation of the workforce, with over 80% per cent now in harder to reach smaller businesses, many themselves pushed into self-employment. Today’s property-owning small businessman, could well be yesterday’s public sector worker with council house tenancy – and that is without changing job or even moving home.
These changes to their lives have undoubtedly change how they feel about themselves. The issue is particularly endemic among C2s, who are seeing their living standards squeezed, with no one fighting their corner other than a neocon coalition all too happy to point their fingers at the public sector and the union movement as the product of all ills.
If we both fail to answer this challenge, we fail the people we as a movement were formed to serve – working people. For the party this will mean being out of power, for the movement it will mean a horrible backslide on many of the terms, conditions and protections we have fought so hard over the last century to create.
So unions need to resist the temptation to preach to the choir and look at building the congregation. We need to show how we are not about protecting privileges, but creating and realizing a better vision of worklife in Britain. This will be hard when we are under attack, but if we respond in the wrong way we will only reinforce the feelings of ‘envy’ many of those in the unprotected private sector feel towards us.
Replacing that feeling of envy with one of solidarity and togetherness, will require some hard re-evaluation of our beliefs in a way that people recognise that we understand how they feel about the conditions forced on them by the structure of the current economy. We need to show them we believe things can be different and once we have done this I suspect we will find we need to radically evolve our offer to show them how we can make it different. This more than any image makeover, will help turn the fortunes of our movement.
Remember the NHS was created on a belief that our society could be more civilised. The union movement should restate its mission on exactly the same belief, and then rather than protecting a status quo – let us set about creating the conditions to realise it for all the workforce.
Joe Goldberg is a proud union member, brand consultant and Haringey councillor. Twitter: @joedgoldberg
This article is based on a fuller contribution to the recent Unions21 pamphlet: The Future for Union Image which can be found here and which was launched on 4 July ———————————————————————————
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