Trade union and Labour party politics are ever more intertwined – David Coats
—Sidney and Beatrice Webb literally wrote the book on trade unionism in the 1890s and identified three elements of what they called the trade union method: collective bargaining, mutual insurance and legal enactment. Founding the Labour Representation Committee, and subsequently the Labour party, was important to the unions because it created an effective instrument to execute the third element in the triad. Having direct Labour representation in parliament would ensure that the voices of working people were heard, without having to rely exclusively on the support of sympathetic Liberals.
Reviewing the scene today shows us just how far the unions have fallen in industrial influence and the extent to which the politics of the unions is now intertwined with the politics of the Labour party. Collective bargaining is conspicuous by its absence in most of the private sector – barely 15 per cent of private sector workers are members of trade unions and only 17 per cent are covered by collective bargaining. The welfare state has replaced the insurance role of unions. And legal enactment depends on the election of a Labour government – at best something to which we can look forward by 2025 at the earliest.
Progress readers will have noticed that some trade unions are enthusiastic supporters of Jeremy Corbyn, which looks rather odd when one considers the pragmatism that unions have historically displayed when confronted by electoral realities. Most evidence suggests that the current leader is a drag on Labour’s poll rating, is not seen by the majority of the country as a potential prime minister and is pursuing a policy agenda that is out of step with many – whether it is his lack of enthusiasm for European Union membership or his desire for the party to adopt an anti-nuclear defence policy.
Trade unions have more to fear than almost anyone from a prolonged period of Conservative government. The recent Trade Union Act may be followed by further punitive legislation. Brexit will almost certainly lead to a weakening of the legal protections available to workers and their representatives. And the economic consequences of leaving the EU may include slower growth, higher unemployment and continued wage stagnation. Union members have a lot to lose. One might reasonably ask, therefore, why some unions are so committed to a leader and a policy prospectus that looks doomed to fail. Have the unions simply lost their bearings?
It is essential to understand that the unions are not monolithic. A range of opinions can be found among union leaders from Labour moderate to the hardest of hard left. Usdaw and Community are firmly in the Owen Smith camp, making the case for a change of leadership as essential to Labour’s electoral success. Tim Roache, recently elected general secretary of the GMB, is another Smith supporter who seems to have brought his members with him over the last year. This may be an important development, influencing the course of events inside the party, most notably by ensuring that the GMB’s representatives on the National Executive Committee offer a sceptical response to the Corbyn‑McDonnell leadership.
That still leaves the big battalions, Unite and Unison, both of which have nominated Corbyn for a second time. Last year, neither Dave Prentis from Unison nor Len McCluskey from Unite were obvious Corbynistas. The former would have preferred their union to nominate Yvette Cooper, while the latter wanted Andy Burnham as leader. Both accepted the decisions of their unions to support Corbyn.
In the current leadership election Unison balloted its members and by a margin of 60-40 threw its support behind Corbyn. Nonetheless, Prentis made it clear that a substantial minority of members supported Smith and that, ‘there was no place in the party for witch-hunts against MPs, councillors and party staff’. A very clear signal was being given both about the conduct of the election and the dim view that will be taken of aggressive reselections in the aftermath. Unison made it plain that it is not in the market for a purge once the dust has settled.
Other changes are of note. The Musicians’ Union, which had aligned itself with Class, the hard-left thinktank, broke with the crowd for Smith. Corbyn has sought to balance this out by reaffiliating the Fire Brigades Union and is trying to do the same with the Public and Commercial Services Union – although this would be a major break with the past, because civil service unions have always sought to remain politically unaffiliated. At the other end, Bectu – which rarely nominates and whose membership in 2010 voted for David Miliband – is set to leave Labour to complete its merger with Prospect. While this will be frustrating to moderates, a strong and vibrant Prospect will be an important player in the wider labour movement.
General secretaries, just like the leader of the Labour party, have their own mandates and, by law, have to be elected every five years. It is an unfortunate consequence of the Thatcher trade union reforms that turnouts in these elections are invariably low – just under 10 per cent in the Unison election in 2016, 4.4 per cent in the GMB election in 2015 and 15.2 per cent in the Unite election in 2013. Whether this is a sufficiently strong base from which to take a decisive political stance must be an open question. Both employers and government ministers will be aware of these results and may wonder whether trade union leaders are quite as robust as they sometimes seem.
Readers with longer memories or those familiar with Dianne Hayter’s excellent book Fightback! will recall that the process of restoring the Labour party to electability was begun by a group of moderate trade union leaders in 1981. It was the unions that enabled Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock to take the fight to Militant and win. Moderate unions endorsed Kinnock’s policy review and gave him unflagging support on the NEC. It is too soon to say whether we are about to witness a similar phenomenon today. There are fewer individual unions around the table (thanks to the process of merger) and therefore fewer deals to be done. Nonetheless, the commitment to legal enactment as a central feature of the trade union method, the pragmatic approach that has characterised union attitudes in the past and recent shifts in trade union opinion all suggest that Corbyn and his allies cannot be confident of unqualified trade union support in the future.
David Coats is a research fellow at the Smith Institute
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