Friday, July 12, 2013

Ed Miliband and the union link - the good(?) reason and the real reason

I spent yesterday working for Labour's victory in the Hanover and Elm Grove by election for Brighton and Hove Council, along with something like 80 other Party members and staff from across the City and wider Region.

In the course of traipsing up and down some very steep roads (which readers who have only been to Brighton for Conferences will probably not have experienced) I had an interesting chat with a Labour MP close to the recently aborted Party funding negotiations who explained the Party leadership's thinking leading up to Ed Miliband's speech this week (which he supported).

An important factor in the timing was that the Party funding talks had been sabotaged by the Deputy Prime Minister, and the Labour Leader wanted to be in a position to go on the offensive against the Tories on this issue (as anyone who has seen this week's Prime Minister's Question Time would have to acknowledge that he did reasonably effectively).

The leadership's view was that they were hamstrung in launching such an attack by (in their view) the public perception that there was little difference between millionaires' making big donations for favours and Trade Union General Secretaries seeking policy changes in return for affiliation fees and donations (for example in the "Warwick" talks under the last Government).

When I countered that there had only been rows in the "Warwick" process because the Party leadership had moved so far away from the values of the movement of which it was supposed to be part, it was put to me that trade unions could no longer meaningfully claim to speak on behalf of a working class, the majority of whom were outside its ranks. Further, it was argued, most workers these days had no dealings with trade unions in their everyday lives, as we are largely restricted to the public sector and to parts of the private sector which were themselves formerly in the public sector.

I can see, how, on this basis, politicians who see their fundamental purpose as being to govern "in the national interest" can come to the conclusion that, as a result of the decline of trade union presence, our movement no longer has a claim to be any more than one (albeit important) "vested interest."

However, if you examine the empirical foundations upon which these conclusions are based, it turns out that the whole basis of this analysis is flawed.

First, it just isn't true that "most" workers no longer have dealings with trade unions in their everyday lives. Of course we are smaller, weaker and less relevant than we were a generation ago - but, according to the latest Workplace Employee Relations Survey (about which I blogged ad nauseam earlier in the year) 52% of employees work in workplaces where there is at least one union member and 46% work in a workplace with a recognised trade union.

Bearing in mind that there is a considerable degree of turnover in the labour market, even during a recession, many of the 54% of employees who currently work at a workplace where there is no trade union recognition, will have in the past worked in one of the 46% of workplaces with such recognition, or will do in the future.

It's not fanciful to assume therefore that a clear majority of employed adults of working age have experience of working in a workplace with trade union recognition - which means that unions will have played a role in bargaining over their pay, leave, sick pay, health and safety etc.

We don't have the presence, in workplaces and the wider society, that we had in (say) 1979 - but we are a long way from being as absent and irrelevant as the Leader of the "Opposition" appears to believe.

Taking a long view also puts declining trade union density (the proportion of employees who are members of a trade union) into some sort of perspective, particularly in terms of its meaning for the relationship between the trade unions and the Labour Party.

Again it is true that trade union density has slumped catastrophically since it peaked a generation ago, and now hovers around the 26% mark across the economy as a whole. However, that is precisely the level to which trade union density had fallen in 1929 (after the defeats of the 1920s) and from which it continued to fall until slowly clawing its way back to the 26% mark in 1936.

So, in 1931, when the trade unions stood by the Party after it was betrayed by its Leader, when no one thought to question a relationship which gave the unions far greater formal power than we have eighty years on, trade union density was lower than it is now.

Therefore, just as Ed Miliband is wrong to think that trade unions fail to touch the lives of most working people in 2013, he fails to see that we are now still more numerous than we were at vital moments in the Party's history.

What has changed about our movement since the 30s is not trade union density or presence, but the gender and sectoral composition of our movement. Our strength is not now in (predominantly male) manufacturing (which in any case employs far fewer than it did then) but in (far more feminised) public services (which employ more now precisely because of the past achievements of our movement).

On the one hand, this makes our policies and demands less (not more) sectional in nature, because the protection and improvement of public services is a shared interest of "producers" and "consumers" (or citizens).

On the other hand, in a period in which a capitalist crisis is being resolved through savage cuts and privatisation, the trade unions appear (to all those who refuse to see beyond the existing order of things) as a major obstacle to the "common sense of the age" (that budgets must balance and the private sector knows best).

It must be much easier for a Labour leader to sleep at night as he plans to implement Tory spending plans if elected if he can (in his own mind) dismiss the cries of the trade unions on behalf of all working people as no more than the "special pleading" of a "vested interest" contrary to the "national interest" - this is a problem which has confronted every Labour leader and which has generally been resolved by them in the same way. (Of course, socialists know - or ought to know - that there is not and never has been any such thing as a "national interest" and that this is always a political construct designed, in the final analysis, to deliver for the rulers against the ruled).

In fact, Ed Miliband has been captured by another small and pernicious "vested interest" of which he himself is an expression. It is clear that his game plan is to secure state funding for political parties. This is very much in the interests of lifelong career politicians, and of the employees of political parties - indeed (in the UK) of all those who live their lives within the "Westminster bubble".

Freed from the pesky business of accountability to the organised working class, "One Nation Labour" can get on with the business of fitting our economy and society to the needs of global capital (albeit softening the edges) unencumbered by anything that would interfere with the wisdom of those who live within the bubble.

Just as everyone always has two reasons for what they do - the "good reason" and the "real reason" - so Ed Miliband has a (more or less) high minded justification for seeking to break the union link which conceals (perhaps even from himself) the real reason.

Or, to paraphrase Marx "it is not a matter of what this or that Miliband brother pictures as his goal, it is a matter of what that Miliband brother is in actuality and what, as a result of this being, he will historically be compelled to do."

Unless we can stop him.


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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What Ed or any other leader must do to gain the support of the British people is simple, whatever policy the party puts forward in its manifesto must pass a critical test 'will that particular policy improve the living standards for our children and grandchildren' if it does not ditch it, if it does promote it, forget about individualism, and what's better for me, then the electorate will have a real choice. So no sound bites no double speak, simple.