Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Labour and the Trade Unions in the 21st Century

Politics in this country are changing. What worked in previous decades may not work in the future and despite the continuing economic crisis the left in particular has to adjust to the world as it is, rather than continuing to view it through the rose tinted glasses of the past is going to be essential. One of the issues that has been in the fore-front of the news recently is the continuing relationship between the Labour Party and the trade union movement.
The origins of the Labour Party owe much to the unions as they were instrumental in the establishment of the Labour Party and have been the backbone of Labour electoral support despite the obvious fact that a substantial number of "workers" to coin a phrase used often by the left, have always voted Conservative. In recent years despite the New Labour project, "Blairism" and the like, the unions remain the main "paymasters" of the Labour Party.
In itself this made some sense over most of the latter half of the 20th Century. The Tories were the party of business and the Liberals were just a small fringe party with no particular influence. The unions, representing at their height millions of members  therefore needed a political "outlet" and Labour was the obvious choice.
Today the membership of the unions has halved from their heyday, with the public sector trade unions making up the bulk of affiliates to the TUC. Society has changed, with private sector unions having gone through a sharp decline with the destruction of Britain's' manufacturing base through the Thatcher years. The growth of the mostly un-unionised service sector with shifting patterns of employment and the growth of home ownership has led the traditional working class, the proletariat as a Marxist would call them to become a minority in society. At the same time there has been the growth of a clear "underclass" dependent on welfare and alienated from the system itself.
As Britain becomes more "middle class" despite the continuing struggle of people in the current climate, there seems no sign of this process abetting, the role and influence of the unions has declined. Whilst the modernisers within Labour look for solutions, large swathes of traditional Labour and in particular, trade union activists still refuse to adjust to the reality of modern political life.
Trade unions still have a role to play in society, in part as one of the "checks and balances" that has kept Britain a democracy. But at the same time political loyalties are changing. The Liberal Democrats (and the SNP in Scotland) were the recipients of support from many voters due to their disillusionment of the two main parties. That support has collapsed and we have seen the rise of UKIP, viewed as a right wing by the labour movement but which has gained support from many voters that would be considered working class. The two main issues given for the rise of UKIP were Immigration, then Europe. These are issues that need to be tackled.
The left has always had a problem with immigration controls, but It's clear that many voters, including those from many ethnic minorities recognise that the UK's population is growing far too quickly and the finite (and constantly cut) services, let alone lack of housing etc. cannot cope. The main comment I hear from members of my union is more along the lines of "the country is full" rather than the more extreme stuff we used to hear in the seventies. The country has changed and this issue needs to be tackled with well thought out policies that do not pander to prejudice but also take into account peoples real concerns. Immigration has to be controlled. the demand for open borders that still exist amongst prehistoric sections of the left are no longer viable.
Oddly the question of Europe sees the left take sides with the more xenophobic elements of the right. The European Union is here to stay and we need to take part in shaping and influencing the future. Isolationism is not an option. Many of the "rights" we currently enjoy would be abolished by a right-wing and EU Government, so the left needs to think through the issues on a practical, rather than ideological level.
A Labour Party that is more than just the unions is the way forward, but it must and should retain the backing of the remains of the trade union movement. Neither can make gains isolated from each other, though an effort must be made by the TUC to rebuild the unions in the private sector as interests between the public and private sector workers must be taken into account Labour also needs to expand its base away from just the traditional layers of support and on the question of Europe seek to make a case for remaining in the EU which most businessmen believe and will be necessary for the economic recovery in the future.
To make this work a lot of union reps and party activists are going to have to dump some of the baggage of the past. The alternative will be to end up in a dead end project like the RMT & chunks of the PCS leadership with the Trade Union & Socialist Coalition. Those who hold to purist views will not put food on peoples tables, restore the NHS and get some social housing built. And that's just for starters.
In order  to obtain a better (even if imperfect) deal for our members there needs to be real change, and that needs to begin by dumping the tried and failed ideas of dead Russians and the like. The process of rebirth will not be easy for the Labour Movement but one that needs our urgent attention.

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