2014 09 – Editorial

The TUC and Social Partnership

As we approach the next general election in  2015, it is hard to feel optimistic that the Labour Party will be any bolder than New Labour. Timidity and caution appear to rule the day. Policymakers in the party are afraid of challenging major business interests that may disapprove of any mildly radical policy that could conceivably affect their interest  and cause them to locate to a more accommodating regulatory environment abroad. More generally, the ‘business friendly’ attitude and aversion to any kind of principled stance on issues affecting working people continues to saturate the attitudes of Labour MPs and policymakers. Yet the last five years have seen government by a coalition bent on dismantling key elements of the post-war welfare state. They have had considerable success in undermining universal education and health provision, and have kept in place ‘socialism for the rich’ in the form of massive subsidies for failing banks, low-paying employers and  rapacious landlords. It is, therefore, hard to see how there could be much opposition to halt the relentless march towards an American-style pluto-democracy with most services provided by profit-seeking private companies in a desolate public realm.

Nowadays the trades unions are hardly taken seriously as an economic, let alone a political force. Years of decline and an inability to leave behind a set of attitudes and strategies that made some limited sense in the 1960s and 1970s, but no longer do, sometimes make them look irrelevant to the modern political and economic landscape. However, some re-appraisal has been going on for a number of years, even if it has only taken place in small parts of the movement. It is quite likely, however, that the current TUC General Secretary, Frances O’Grady, is at least the third to hold that office who has realised that making  British trades unions once more a force for the working class interest needs to involve the unions taking some responsibility for the running of the firms in which their members work and more broadly assuming a role in the running of the country, in a way that has been part of the political and economic way of life in many European countries for many decades.  However, she is the first General Secretary in recent decades who has actually said so and she has made the aspiration a central part of her ambitions for her term of office. Her Attlee lecture, printed in ‘Labour Affairs’ last year made this clear and she and colleagues in the TUC have since continued the work of putting social partnership, and industrial democracy in particular, on the agenda of union business.

The leadership of the TUC have evidently concluded that there is a choice for the movement between continuing irrelevance and decline (which may not be gradual) and an approach that repositions trades unions as doughty defenders of workers’ rights but also as partners in the running of businesses and advocates over a range of other issues such as training and education which were not previously prominent in union campaigning and bargaining. This would no more make trades unions pushovers at the bargaining table than it does for European unions embedded in social partnership structures. It is evident in our published interview with Frances O’Grady, which is available in this issue of ‘Labour Affairs’, that this orientation is no flash in the pan or fad, but absolutely central to the direction which the TUC would like the labour movement to travel in. Research, scenario planning and advocacy is being quietly but persistently carried out in order to prepare the movement for a new orientation. On the most optimistic view, the trade union movement could provide a way of avoiding the fate of Britain becoming a poor man’s United States.

However, this is only a beginning and the initiative remains fragile. There are a number of issues to address. The first is within the trade union movement itself. The general secretary’s initiative has not provoked loud protests but at the moment widespread enthusiasm amongst union officials and leaderships is hard to detect. A lot more will need to be done to get them signed up, let alone work enthusiastically for it. It is very easy to nod in acquiescence and then to make sure that nothing gets done. This work is only just beginning and the outcome remains uncertain.

The second issue concerns the Labour Party, which has shown little enthusiasm for industrial democracy and which has shied away from a broader social partnership approach ever since the 1970s. However, it has recently committed itself to employees having a say on remuneration committees and this may well involve it taking on more commitments to industrial democracy than it currently realises. The Labour Party is also largely financed by the trade union movement. There is ample scope for pressurising the party to adopt a more robust social partnership approach as a condition for continuing support in a new and more benign version of performance related pay where the paymasters (the unions) get something worthwhile in return for keeping the Labour Party afloat. Miliband, like Blair, is apparently an opponent of those on welfare benefits doing nothing for what they receive. This should apply to the Labour Party as well and the unions should ensure that they get ‘something for something’.

The third issue concerns the opposition to social partnership on the part of the majority of businesses and the majority of the Tory party. This should be the least of Frances O’Grady’s worries. They can be tackled when the trades unions are committed to a change of orientation. If the trade unions once again become a force in the land with the backing of large sections of the population then they will have to listen and so will the Labour Party. At the moment they can point to the irrelevance of organised labour to the running of the economy because there is at least a grain of truth in their claim.

The Labour Party will not listen if the major trades unions do not support the approach adopted by the current general secretary. She has shown the courage of her convictions and has a clear view of the direction that British unionism has to take. She deserves the support of everyone interested in making sure that Britain remains a civilised place in which to live and work.

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