Fabian Perspectives on Trade Unions and Labour from 1989: Natural Allies: Labour and the Unions

The connection between the trade unions and the Labour was again under attack last week, when Cameron stood up in parliament denouncing it. Concerned about the attempts to manipulate elections to the Labour party in Falkirk, Daivd Miliband apparently agreed, announcing plans to reduce still further the influence of the unions in the Party. This runs in face of the fact that the Labour Party was founded by a mixture of trade unions and Socialist societies. In fact, the representation of organised labour in parliament predates the formation of the Labour party. It began in the late 19th century with the election of the ‘Liblabs’. These were working class trade unionists, who entered parliament as members of the Liberal Party.

Debates over the Connection between Labour and the Unions in the 1980s

The deep connection between Labour and the unions has been under attack by the Tories since Thatcher’s administration. In the ten years up to 1989, the government had passed ten acts designed to curb the unions’ power. The result was a debate within the Labour party over the proportion of the trade union vote in the Labour Party. In 1988 the Party launched a consultation suggesting that the proportion of trade union votes at the Labour Conference from 90 per cent to 75 per cent. This followed the ‘Kitson formula’ proposed by the Transport and General Workers Union. The GMB union went even further, and suggested reducing the Union vote to under 50 per cent. This prompted the publication of the Fabian pamphlet, Natural Allies: Labour and the Unions, by Martin Upham and Tom Wilson. They argued that despite appearances, trade union membership was not declining, nor was it a liability to the Labour party. Instead, they argued that the trade unions were vital for working class and left-wing activism, and that despite concerns over their power in the Labour Party, most British people still wanted the unions to continue protecting and campaigning for the working class. In the quarter century since the pamphlet was published, much has doubtless changed. But as the debate returns, much of it also has retained its relevance.

Little Change in Union Membership in the 1980s When It Was Attacked by Maggie

The authors began by arguing that the decline in trade union membership had more or less bottomed out by 1988. In 1985 the UK was eighth in a table of 17 developed nations in the percentage of its workforce that belonged to a trade union. This was 52 per cent. The most unionised workforce was in Denmark, where 98 per cent of workers were members of a union. The lowest was America, with just 18 per cent. Moreover, trade union membership was largely unchanged between 1980 and 1984. The closed shop had declined from 23 to 18 per cent, the percentage of workplaces with manual shop stewards had fallen from 70 to 65. On the other hand, the number of non-manual shop stewards had increased from 63 to 67 per cent. In fact there was a slight overall increase in shop stewards from 317,000 to 335,000. They also gave the comparative membership figures of a range of non-political organisations, such as the British Red Cross, NSPCC, National Trust and RSPCA from 1981 and 1986. These showed that despite the 1980’s being dubbed the ‘me generation’, the British were still keen on joining charities and other worthy causes. They also attacked the argument that trade union membership would fall as employers switched from full-time to part-time employees and those on temporary contracts. In fact the statistics demonstrated that the number of part-time workers, and those from agencies or on short-term contracts had actually fallen. Moreover, the arguments that these workers could not be unionised was similar to those from the forties and sixties that argued that changed patterns of employment in those decades would mean that the workforce could not be unionised.

Fewer Strikes Does Not Mean Weaker Unions

The authors also pointed out that fewer strikes did not necessarily mean weak union membership. There were practically no national disputes in the 1950s, yet this was a time when union membership in Britain grew. They also argued that one reason for the lack of strikes, despite some notable exceptions, in the early 1980s was because wages were largely rising in real terms. They argued that these increases must have been negotiated by someone, despite the lack of industrial action. The authors went on to argue that if the unions had not collapsed during the 1980s, then it was extremely unlikely that they would so in the 1990s. In fact they believed that the unions could enter the 1990s reinvigorated. Union leaders were consulting their membership more, and pioneering new, and successful ways of recruiting members. They concluded that the trade unions were not in decline, and Labour did not necessarily have to suffer from their connection with them. They did, however, recognise that as unions changed, so should their relationship with the Labour Party.

Union Contribution to Broader Political Campaigns Beyond Labour Party

They then considered the issue of the unions’ affiliation to the Labour party. They noted changes in the number of unions affiliated to the Labour party, members paying the affiliation levy and the rise in the amount levied by the Labour party from the trade unions’ members. Despite a fall in the number of unions affiliated to the Labour Party and members paying the affiliation fee, the income of the trade unions affiliated to the Labour party had risen by 61 per cent. Furthermore, the proportion of the trade unions income destined for the Labour Party had remained stable at 40 per cent. The funds raised for non-party political purposes also were not wasted. The Tory administration’s attack on the unions, public section and their abandonment of a prices and incomes policy had resulted in increased battles on a variety of general left-wing and working class issues. There was also increased trade union activity and support for other left-wing organisations, such as CND, Amnesty International, Anti-Apartheid, War on Want, the NCCL, and the solidarity campaigns for Chile and Nicaragua. In fact the number of members paying the political levy actually rose slightly from 1979 to 1987, despite this being a decade when the unions were increasingly viewed as weak.

Union Power Actually Strengthened by 1984 Trade Union Act

Far from weakening the unions, the authors found that the 1984 Trade Union Act, which forced the unions to canvas their members when establishing fund for political purposes, actually led many to set one up for the first time. All of the unions that set up a political fund for the first time were public sector unions under attack from the Conservatives. These set them up simply for the purposes of ‘business as usual’, rather than to give them a voice in parliament, as had been the case with the older unions. They authors proceeded to argue that the perennial debate whether parties should receive state funding had declined due to the power of the unions to continue raising money for the Labour Party. They also argued that it would be a mistake for the Labour Party to demand such funds to escape having to use contributions from the unions.

Trade Unions Need a Voice in Labour Party; Have Voted to Reduce their Influence in It

The authors then considered the highly confusing situation regarding the rules governing union affiliation to the Labour Party at the local level. There was also the problems of unions not affiliating to the local parties, and those that did not send delegates to the local party. Those that did were not always punctilious in attending meetings. The result was that less than one in forty trade union activists was a Labour Party activist. The authors believed that the new mass membership proposals then being introduced would actually lead to a rise in trade union members at the local level, but would not affect the union block vote at Conference. They noted that workplace branches of the Labour Party had been a failure, and so stated that for trade union members to continue to play their parts in the party, they needed rights to a voice and a vote. The authors also discuss the complex and confusing rules governing the number of delegates from trade unions to which they were entitled. They then examined national ties. The votes of local trade union affiliates and socialist societies for the local selection of parliamentary candidates had a ceiling of 40 per cent. The amount of votes from trade unions and other affiliated organisations for the election of leader and deputy leader of the Labour party was also limited to forty per cent. Far from being an increase in union power, this was the result of the trade unions voting to reduce their influence.

Block Vote Example of Devolved Democracy; Needs To Be Reformed, Not Abandoned

The pamphlet also discussed the union block vote. They considered the way a series of mergers and alliances had left the vote concentrated in a small number of large unions. This would result in greater agreements between the large unions, who held the vote, than had previously been the case when the number of unions had been greater. They note that there was a greater need for individual votes in the party, rather than treating branches, regions, districts and unions as whole units. These include official government policy regarding the holding of ballots, as well as the party’s own rule for them. These required them to be held for union officials and strike action. The result was that union turn out for the elections had increased from ten to twenty per cent for the election of national figures in the forties and fifties to about 75 to 85 per cent for strike action. This democratisation raised further questions about the legitimacy of the block vote. This was shown in the 1981 deputy leadership contest between Denis Healey and Tony Benn. Although the membership of NUPE and the TGWU were divided between the two candidates, each union as a whole voted for one single candidate. This raised the question of whether the Labour Party was a federation of completely autonomous constituent bodies, or a mass party of individuals in which trade unions and other bodies are only the channels through which they entered the Party. They argued that the Labour Party existed to represented the interests of the working class, and this went far beyond membership of a party. The trade unions also needed to be represented. The federal structure of the Labour Party was an example of devolved democracy and collectivity. The block vote therefore needed to be reformed, but not abandoned.

Criticism and Reforms of the Block Vote

The authors criticise suggestions for reforming the block vote, such as the TGWU/Kitson proposal, and Nye Bevan’s suggestion that unions should only be allowed to affiliate at the constituency level. They reject these as unrealistic when much of the Party’s income comes from the unions, and consider it unreasonable to deny the national unions the right to speak with a national voice. Another suggestion, which is criticised, is the view that the block vote should be reduced over time as individual members join their constituency Labour parties. They reject this proposal due to the immense amount of time it would take for individual unions members to join the Labour party so that the latter had the voting strength the unions have today. It would, for example, take half a century for one million trade unionists to join the Labour Party. They therefore argue that the block vote will not wither away, but it did require reforming. These should improve democratic representation, while retaining union influence. They welcome the Kitson proposal for financial parity, but make further suggestions. These are the NEC should issues guidelines on union decision making, just as the do for Constituency Labour Parties. Where there is a large minority of union members, perhaps over 20 per cent, the union should split its vote proportionately. Unions may also be monitored to ensure that they did not affiliate over their number of levy payers, while being absolutely free to affiliate under that number. They would also be asked to submit an annual report to the Labour Party Conference on their political activity, at least as it applied to the Party.

Importance of Unions in Campaigning for the Labour Party; Future Course of Joint Action

They then consider the immense role the unions have played in campaigning for the Labour Party, especially since the 1979 election. Trade union involvement in campaigning for Labour had actually grown, despite attempts by the Party at the national level to dissociate itself from the unions, especially in the 1987 election campaign. They discuss the formation of Trade Unions for a Labour Victory in the 1980s, and their innovations and development of greater levels of organisation in campaigning for Labour. The TULV moved to the sidelines after the failure of the 1983 election. The Trade Union Act of 1984 produced another trade Union group, the Trade Union Coordination Campaign (TUCC). This was successful in providing a central bank of argument and resources. The TUCC was dissolved in 1986 having served its purpose. Both TULV and the TUCC were then succeeded by Trade Unionists for Labour (TUFL). The Labour Party on its part established a Trade Union Liaison Office. These efforts helped reverse the slump in support for the Labour Party among trade unionists, but made only a very modest increase in the amount of support for the Party amongst trade union members. They note that there are other issues that show the need for trade union activity, beyond the issue of ballots for political funds. These are local authority election, green issues, privatisation and health and safety for employees and the public. They believed that there is a danger that unless campaigns were developed around these issues, the TUFL would be left with no clear role. It would have no idea what to do beyond its activities for the Labour Party in 1987, there would be an absence of any issue that would refresh and revive the spirits of union campaigners, and a perceived desire to distance the party from the unions. They suggest that the best was to revitalise union and TUFL activity would be to use the Charter of Rights for Employees contained in the People at Work Policy Review Group report. They believe that this would also have the effect of preventing the Tories from exploiting the ‘winter of discontent’ propaganda.

Union Sponsorship of MPs

They then consider the problems of union-sponsored MPs. The drawbacks to them included unclear or hostile perception by the public of the MPs’ links with their sponsoring unions; out of date financial limits, and the lack of incentives for unions to sponsor candidates standing in marginal constituencies. They consider that what is needed is a clear rationale for the sponsorship system to avoid charges of tame MPs, or constituencies that belong to a particular union. They state, however, that

It remains reasonable for a Labour candidate to seek support from a union or group of unions as a means of demonstrating commitment to the rights of employees in general. Far better that the interest-group lobbying of MPs (not only inevitable, but essential in a pluralist democracy) should be carried out openly and with financial support going to the CLP (Constituency Labour Party), rather than, as with some many Conservative MPs, discreetly, and by personal reward.

They also suggest a number of other reforms, including joint union sponsorship of MPs, and extension of sponsorship to cover European and local authority elections.

Reasons Why Only Minority of Trade Unionists Vote Labour

The authors then discuss the reasons why less than half of all union members actually vote Labour. They suggest that part of the reason is that union members are more likely to own their home than the rest of the population. 73 per cent of trade unionists had their own house, compared to 66 per cent of the rest of the population. Only 20 per cent lived in council houses, while nationally the figure was 27 per cent. People in rented accommodation, and particularly council houses, were more likely to vote Labour than those owning their own home.

Question of Whether Voters and Trade Unionists Really Put Off by Connection to Labour Party

They then consider the results from the 1985 MORI poll showing that people would not vote Labour because the unions would dominate a future Labour government, as well as other factors such as disunity, defence, the leader and fears of damage to the economy. They consider the wording of such statements to be misleading. The statement that a Labour government would be dominated by the unions is contradictory, as the unions are integral part of the Labour party. A party cannot dominate itself. They note that most people want their MPs to be independent. A 1985 MORI noted that only 30-40 per cent of trade unionists wanted their political funds to be used primarily to sponsor Labour MPs. A 1988 Harris poll found that 27 per cent of non-Tory voters cited their obstacle to voting Conservative was that the party was ‘too controlled by big business’. They concluded that there is as much hostility to company links to MPs as there is to unions.

Other polls, however, suggest that the links between the party and trade unions are not a big problem for voters. In a MORI survey after the 1987 general election, only five per cent of 1,300 people, who had not voted Labour, stated that the party would have to reduce the power of the unions before they voted for it. This is way behind unemployment, health, education, defence and the economy.

People Still Want Trade Unions; Labour Party still Expected by Trade Unionists to Back Union Campaigns

Similarly, polls suggest that people still value the trade unions even when they don’t want them to be involved in party politics. A 1977 MORI poll found that 67 per cent of people believed that they party should not be so closely linked to the trade unions. 76 per cent of people in the same poll, however, declared that trade unions were essential to protecting the interests of workers. The authors believed that in fact Labour had also managed to alienate is own natural supporters by not backing trade union campaigns, such as in the miners’, printers and seamens’ strikes. This did not stop the general public from identifying Labour with the unions, but it did increase hostility to the Party from the unions involved in the disputes. They concluded that on this issue attempts by the party to distance themselves from the unions would fail, because of the identification of many Party and Union members with the link, and the very name and nature of the Labour Party itself. They also noted Labour’s apparent inability to challenge Tory propaganda about the Winter of Discontent in the closing weeks of the 1987 campaign because up to that point, the Unions simply hadn’t been an issue. They argued that if union links with Labour really are only a minority issue, then Labour were free to develop an alternative view of the unions.

Labour Should Concentrate on Work-Related Issues

The authors recommended that the Labour party should concentrate on work and employment issues. They note that, despite the perception to the contrary, free time had not overtaken time devoted to work and essential activities, like cooking. They note that overtime is rising, and more women were working the ‘double shift’, and there was a growth in travel to work areas. They note that a few opinion polls underlined the importance of work-related issues. The 1986 British Social Attitudes Survey found that trade union members were particularly concerned about low pay. Among ex-Labour voters and those, whose commitment to the Party was not firm, the most appealing policies were protection against unfair dismissal, training, women’s rights and the statutory minimum wage. The general employed public were also interested in job security, wages, hours, pensions, health and safety and physical conditions at work. They also note the vast differences amongst employees on these issues, for example between male and female employees and blue and white collar workers. Yet employment issues were not prominent in the 1987 general elections. Speeches on employment rights did not get the same media attention as those on defence. The Labour Party itself chose not to highlight its policies on rights at work and pay. The authors considered that the low importance most voters gave to work issues was partly due the fact that very few politicians actually mentioned such issues.

Labour’s low profile on industrial issues is due to the existence of trade unions and the TUC, which independently represent these issues for the working class. There was also the British ‘voluntarist’ tradition, which wishes to keep industrial relations as unregulated as possible. This tradition has, however, disappeared. The majority of unions now believes that the legislative framework governing them is permanent. Labour and the unions had also produced broad range of items that should apply to all workers. These would become increasingly important in 1989 with inflations, earnings expectations and strikes all rising. Most industrial dispute are about management practices and conditions as about pay, and voters will want Labour to address them with clear, well-presented policies.

Employment Issues Potential Vote Winner for Labour; Need Not Necessary Impede Productivity and Competiveness

The authors recommend that Labour should use employment issues both as a potential vote winner and also to show that the real purpose of trade unionism is to advance its members interests. In order to avoid the accusation that the Party was only looking after the interests of its paymasters, it would have to pay particular attention to issues affecting those groups that are not in trade unions – the young, the low paid, ethnic minorities, part-time workers and women. They would also have to show these policies actually aid competiveness and efficiency. This would mean showing that better health and safety would mean less sickness and absenteeism, and disasters like the Zeebrugge ferry and King’s Cross rail disasters. Ending discrimination would give employers a larger pool of talent on which to draw. Some policies would have the opposite effect. Industrial democracy would probably slow down decisions and decrease profits. The minimum wage would cost money in the short term, while proving cost effective in the long term. The authors also recommend that Labour should show that it is adopting such policies because they are fair. They consider that the Charter of Rights for Employees would make an excellent starting point. They note that its demands for flexible hours, holiday rights, minimum wage, and that workers should not be penalised by loss of employment rights for working part-time or for less than five years, would be particularly appealing to women. This is important as female voters may be particularly repealed by the masculine, apparently undemocratic nature of the unions connection to the Labour party.

Pamphlet’s Conclusions for Reform of Relationship and Cooperation between Labour and Unions

The pamphlet concludes that far from seeking power, the unions have actually given up large areas of it. They note that greater union organisation means greater visibility, and the party should not be afraid of this. ‘It is impossible and wrong for the party to loosen its association with the unions’. Evidence that union links harm Labour’s electoral prospects is actually mixed, regardless of what the journalists say. They note that work issues are crucial for Labour, and are of particular concern to women, who are the main victims of society’s tendency to undervalue and underpay it. They therefore recommended the following policies:

1) The Charter of Rights for Employees should be made the focus of a major campaign to publicise Labour policies on work. This would also act to promote Labours positive attitude to the unions.

2) The campaign should also stress the great importance to the direction of the economy of the involvement of employees.

3) The campaign should highlight particular issues of concern to women, paid worker and potential voters.

4) The campaign should act to allow TUFL and the unions to persuade more union members to join the Labour party and build up links between the unions and labour at the regional and local level.

5) The Labour party and its affiliates should show that the unions have a place as autonomous bodies within the overall structure of the Labour party.

6) A code of conduct for the unions should be drawn up, setting out a broad framework of democratic principles involved in union activity and management.

7) The block vote should remain as the legitimate expression of the unions’ collective decision making. Where the NEC felt the issue was sufficiently important, they should call for ‘recorded votes’ among the affiliated unions. These would be proportionate to the number of people voting for or against over a particular threshold, such as twenty per cent.

8) The Hastings agreement should be revised, so that it meets the unions’ desire for parliamentary representation in regions where they have an interest, and allow the Labour Party to direct scarce resources to areas where they are most needed.

My Conclusion: Connection between Labour and Unions Should Remain, both to Cooperate to Defend Workers and those not in Unions

Now I don’t whether or how far these proposals were ever implemented, or what the current situation between the Labour Party and the Unions actually is. The decision by two of the unions to support Miliband’s proposals is actually in line with the unions giving up large sections of their influence in the Party for its greater good. My own view is that, whatever the nature of the individual, specific proposals, certain principles advanced in the pamphlet still stand. These are:

Most people want the unions to remain and defend the rights of employees.

Despite the propaganda, most people aren’t actually that worried about Labour’s connections to the unions.

Labour should show greater commitment to defending the working class and employees, and particularly those, who are not covered by the unions, regardless what Dacre, Murdoch and the pornographer Richard Desmond say or do.

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One Response to “Fabian Perspectives on Trade Unions and Labour from 1989: Natural Allies: Labour and the Unions”

  1. Mike Sivier Says:

    Reblogged this on Vox Political.

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