As the fallout from Ed Miliband’s speech about changing the relationship between his party and the unions continue, siren voices from the Tories and people clinging onto the New Labour lifeboat keep telling us that it’s time to curtail the influence of the trade unions in Labour.
I wonder if any of them would be so kind as to list the successes of that “influence” over the last twenty years or so.
To help, perhaps I can list some that were not too successful:
PFI – From 1992 NUPE and then Unison campaigned against this bonanza for private companies. In mid 90s opposition Labour moved from criticism to open arms as we were told “don’t worry – all the risks will be transferred from us to the companies”. And then another pig flew by. Anyone who doubts this should read the National Audit Office report of 20 years of systematic failure.
National Minimum Wage – This was the delivery of a century old promise to working people. But the level at which it was set, the huge bureaucracy on how it is improved and the complex process involved in challenging rogue employers who don’t pay it were all flagged up to the Labour Government by the unions. The failure to pay a real living wage meant that exploitative employers could deliver jobs on the cheap and taxpayers had to cough up to close the gap through welfare payments. As those payments are squeezed, the NMW will be even less of a help in the modern world
Restoring the pensions link – Despite huge opposition from the Blair government and direct, very personal pressure on the General Secretary of Unison, Rodney Bickerstaffe, the Labour Party Conference decided to reinstate the link. But the government studiously ignored the decision to the bitter end of its tenure in 2010. Apart from the fact that it was morally wrong not to reinstate the link that Thatcher took away it was also politically naive. The biggest group of voters in the country can now thank the ConDem coalition for restoring their pension rights.
Trade union legislation – There were real gains under Labour in power but can there be a claim of real influence when the PM boasts that we still have the most draconian industrial relations laws in the Western world? And was it a badge of honour to be listed every year by the International Labour Organisation for the failure to come up to the expected labour standards for a civilised nation?
Privatisation – From utilities to coal, foundation trusts to academies and rail to air traffic control, trade unions warned of the dire consequences of market-driven privatisation. They were dismissed as a producer interest. Indeed, Tony Blair was so frustrated that he spoke about the scars on his back. It’s just a shame that Labour didn’t listen and act, because the people making the case were dedicated – many of whom had committed their life’s work to making our country a decent, safe and secure place to live in. These were the people who were the delivery mechanism of Beveridge’s war on want. We see now the real cost of the failure to see the consequences and falling instead for the seduction of the Tell Sid brigades.
So, hardly a check list of a hugely influential presence by the trade unions. Indeed, if it were a job appraisal they would be heading for the dole queue. But, of course, such a reaction would ignore the intrinsic difference between the relationships in the Labour movement and those between other parties and their supporters. Trade unions are not just lobbyists, they were the foundation of the party and they cling to their belief that, despite everything, Labour is their best way to protect their members and build a better world.
It is that belief that should shape the debate. No doubt some in the party would like to see the unions back in their role as the incontinent, embarrassing, doddery elderly relative at a party, but I don’t think that that is likely to happen given the way in which the leader has raised the stakes.
The determination of the trade unions not to go off in a huff, as some of their ex-affiliated comrades have suggested, should give all on the left a boost. Stopping and fighting your corner is always better than throwing a hissy fit.
I suppose that some of those parachuted into New Labour will not have heard the slogan, “educate, agitate and organise” but that is exactly what the unions need to do to reassure their members and other working people in this country that the only real hope for them is a strong Labour government that has an adult relationship with organised labour. Failure to get to that point would be bad news for all parts of the party and for our nation.
Dave Anderson is the Labour MP for Blaydon