Britain - Two years on - "New" Labour and the union machineries

Jul/Aug 1999

Over the past two years, trade union leaders have seldom voiced publicly any criticisms of Blair's policies in office - at least not of policies affecting working people and the jobless.

They said nothing when Blair began his wholesale drive against welfare benefits nor when, at the same time, budget after budget, the Labour government made gift upon gift to companies and rich shareholders. They found nothing to say either when it became clear that this government was out to take the Tories' past policy of forcing the jobless into casual jobs much further still. On the contrary, union leaders were unanimous in hailing the "New Deal" as a "revolution" in favour of the unemployed. And while 147,000 manufacturing jobs were being slashed across the country by affluent companies between June 1998 and May this year, they had nothing to say either about Blair's benevolent do-nothing attitude towards the job-slashers. Only over the appallingly low level of the minimum wage did some union leaders voice mild remonstrations, but mainly because their main target for recruitment was the low-paid and they needed to be seen to say at least something if they wanted to retain some credibility among that section of the working class.

In fact, the only "concerns" union leaders expressed vocally were over the high level of interest rates (blaming the "independent" governing body of the Bank of England) or the slow pace of Britain's entry into the Euro (blaming the Tories' opposition) - that is, issues which were largely irrelevant for most workers and unrelated to the on-going degradation of their conditions. But apart from that, the union machineries have been putting all their eggs in Blair's basket, acting as the mouthpieces and persuaders for the government's policies whenever this was required.

The union leaders' worries

In the past three months, however, some discordant noises have been heard coming from union headquarters.

In April, a tightly-worded statement challenging some aspects of Blair's policies began to circulate among the top spheres of the Labour and union machineries. This was to be published later in the "soft left" Labour magazine Tribune. It would then be the launching-pad for a conference entitled "Democratic socialism or 19th century liberalism", scheduled for July 17th. One of the high points of this conference was to be a session called "Keeping the party Labour".

This statement was signed by a large array of people, including traditional Labour Left MPs, representatives of the "soft left" and a number of disenchanted Blairites. More importantly, among the signatories were also a number of trade- union leaders like, predictably, the T&G general secretary Bill Morris and, much less predictably, the arch-Blairite general secretary of the engineering union, Ken Jackson (now "Sir", thanks to Blair's latest honour list).

Again, this declaration is not critical of Blair's wholesale attacks on the welfare system, nor even of the fact that his government has retained the Tories' anti-strike laws while taking much further their policy of forcing the jobless into casual low-paid jobs. It does say, however, that the Labour party should stick to its traditional stance for the "redistribution of power and wealth", but its main purpose is to stress that the party should not go down the road of "a reversion to 19th century liberalism out of whose failure Labour was born" and that it should retain its 100-year old "partnership with the trade-unions".

This declaration is primarily a reaction to the many hints given by Blair and his spin doctors that they are seeking some sort of permanent alliance, and even possibly a merger, with the Liberal- Democrats. In "The Blair Revolution", Peter Mandelson, Blair's favourite political adviser, stressed at length the increasing common ground between the two parties. Blair himself has stated repeatedly that the break between Liberalism and Labourism at the turn of the century had been a historical mistake. Labour's choice to set up a coalition government with the Liberal-Democrats in Scotland rather than rule as a minority government - all these elements point in the same direction.

In fact, these kind of ideas are not new. Polemics over the question of whether to set up a Lib-Lab alliance have been a feature of Labour party history, particularly since World War II. And time and again it was suggested that an electoral alliance or government coalition was not good enough - what was really needed was, as Blair implies today, to bring to an end the historical schism between the two parties.

More recently, after Blair's election to the party leadership, in the run-up to the 1997 general election, a section within the top spheres of the party argued very openly that the only future for the party as a party of government (in other words, for it to become "electable" again to use the jargon of the time), was to transform itself into a British version of the American Democratic party. The argument was that Labour had to win over the loyal electoral support of what Blair calls today the "middle ground" - i.e. a large part of the Liberal- Democrats' and at least some of the Tories' middle England constituency. But in order to achieve this, Labour had to be seen to break all links with its historical past as a party which was set up by the trade-unions at the turn of the century.

For the trade union machineries, this meant accepting the kind of relationship which exists between their American counterpart and the Democratic party - that is being relegated to the role of fund raisers and "party friendly" lobbyists, instead of presiding over the party's destiny and using it as a political vehicle to increase their influence and role in the corridors of the state.

In the run-up to the 1997 election, of course, union leaders chose to ignore these ideas, despite the fact that such views were strongly represented in Blair's team. Their only concern was to get the party into power and they did their best to ensure that working class voters would not feel completely left out by Blair's openly pro-business rhetoric - although, as the results showed, this was not enough to prevent abstention from increasing in working class areas, particularly in those hardest hit by unemployment.

But two years on, union leaders no longer have such constraints. And, in so far as the same threat against their role in the Labour party still hangs over their heads, they are now taking the risk of being seen opposing Blair and the ruling faction within the party leadership - a very limited risk, it must be said, as most workers, outside a small number of party activists, are unlikely to even hear about their respectful opposition.

After the Euro-election

Following Labour's disastrous result in last June's European election the union leaders' anxieties became a little more vocal. Or maybe they sought to use this disaster to pre-empt possible moves to push them to the sidelines. Whatever the case, for the first time since the 1997 general election, the Blairite TUC general secretary came up with a distinct criticism of the party course in a speech at the GMB annual conference in Blackpool in June.

As one might have expected, Monks' criticisms were not over Blair's attacks against the working class. Monks was just unhappy about Labour's failure to "sell" its "achievement" convincingly enough to its core working class base. Said Monks: "We all know that party machines are rusty in areas where most Westminster seats are safe [for Labour]. Turnouts are low in all elections, but no-one up to now has cared very much".

Indeed, it is not just in the Euro-election that the turnout has been low in the urban working class areas which provide the core of Labour's safe seats. This was already true in the 1997 General election itself, when the overall rise in abstention was much higher in these areas than in the Tory heartlands. But since this election was such a huge victory for Labour, this discomforting fact was simply ignored both by the party, the media and... Monks. The slide downwards carried on, however, in the local election the following year and was confirmed again this year. In the local elections, the turnout dropped to an abysmal 29%, with low points of as little as 12% in Sunderland, for instance. But these were not national ballots and Labour was quick to turn its huge loss of seats into a victory, by presenting them as "great successes" for mid-term elections.

The Euro-election, however, was a national ballot, in fact the first one since Blair came to power. Yet, leaving aside Northern Ireland, where the political landscape is very different and the election had been clearly focused on specific domestic issues, the turnout in England, Scotland and Wales dropped even further, down to 23%. It even came under the 20% barrier in three of the nine English Euro-constituencies - Yorks & Humberside, North East and North West, in other words the poorest. Figures from the media showed that the average turnout in safe Labour seats had been 15%! Was this due to Margaret Beckett taking a holiday at the wrong time, as some alleged? Or was this yet another step down the same ladder, whereby the working class electorate was voting with its feet in disgust in response to this government's policies?

However, this time, the Labour leadership could not just explain the disaster away by stating that it was only a "mid-term election". Partly, this was due to the extent of the disaster, which more than halved the party's seats, but there was another very simple reason, which for them was more important: in the previous Euro-election, in 1994, when the Tories were already on their way out of government, being largely discredited by their internal strife after 15 years in office, their score had been higher (28.8%) than Labour's score this year (26.8%). And this fact alone certainly required a bit of explaining. Blair, however, declared the case closed. And it is this case that a number of union leaders, including Monks, have decided to reopen publicly.

Of course, Monks is above all careful not to rock Labour's boat. He stopped short of exposing Blair's failure to meet the expectations of Labour's working class voters - let alone his current drive against their conditions. But his exposure of Labour's failure to convince working class voters of its "achievements" in government was designed to stress another idea: "The emphasis is always on the new. This is not what old Labour would have done, we are told. It sometimes seems as if those of us who voted Labour before the 1990s are being accused of poor judgment, or seen as embarrassing elderly relatives at a family get together". Such a complaint coming from Monks, the apostle of the so-called "new unionism" in the trade-union movement, who was elected to the head of the TUC precisely to implement Blair's agenda, is all the more ironical and significant. But it does mean, as Monks concluded in his speech, that this election result should be "a wake up call to the government. They must do more to enthuse and excite their core support", in other words the traditional working class base of "old Labour".

At the same conference, the GMB leader John Edmonds, who seemed to feel he could afford to be less cautious than Monks, did not mince his words to drive the point home. He exposed Blair's policy of relying too much on "spin and wooing Middle England" whereas Labour's traditional voters felt left out - for instance in the case of the minimum wage, where "young people were given such very low protection that no-one had anything to boast about. And activists need policies to boast about".

Unrewarded zealousness

Clearly Monks' and Edmonds' concerns are not the difficulties of Labour activists in getting the party's message across, let alone those of young workers to make ends meet on a paltry £3.20 or so per hour. Otherwise they would have done something about this long ago, both within the Labour party - both are heavyweights in the leadership of the party - and outside its ranks, by organising a serious campaign over such issues through the GMB or the TUC as a whole.

On the other hand, the Labour leadership's attitude to its core working class electorate is just another illustration of the party's drift away from its traditional position on the political chessboard. While at the same time, the rising level of abstention in the poorest areas could provide even more ammunition to those in the Labour leadership who are arguing in favour of focusing the party's sights permanently on the middle-class electorate. Just as in the argument over the Lib-Lab issue, Monks and Edmonds are merely reacting against this drift.

But Blair made no apology. A week after the GMB conference, these criticisms and those formulated by other union leaders were answered at a meeting of Labour MPs. To quote Clive Soley, the chair of the parliamentary party, the answer was unambiguous: "Our core vote is those who voted for us last time and delivered us a huge majority". And Blair added that New Labour was concerned with "both enterprise and fairness together. That is what we are delivering". Yes, both enterprise and fairness for the benefit of companies and shareholders, but neither "enterprise" for the millions of jobless nor fairness for those whose benefits have been cut or whose standard of living has dropped due to having to go from one casual job to another! For Blair, if working class voters feel disempowered as a result, what is there to worry about, since after all, they are not going to vote for another party, are they? Those who really matter are Labour's "new" voters, those who were poached from the Tories and the Liberal- Democrats, in other words middle England. These are the people that need to be taken care of and the official thinking is that they would only be antagonised should Labour adopt a more lenient and sympathetic attitude towards the poor - even if only in words.

Blair's electoral calculation may well be right in the absence of any serious political force which can threaten him on his left, that is outside the Labour party - and more importantly, in the absence of any upsurge of militancy which might politicise the working class and cause the emergence of such a political force.

But where does this leave the trade union machineries? They have been going out of their way to hail the implementation of Blair's "flexible labour market" policy as progress for workers. They have been doing their best to keep the lid on discontent - with some success, since according to official statistics, the number of stoppages in 1998 was the lowest since records began in 1891. And even if the present lack of confidence among workers is probably the main factor in this record low, the constant opposition of the union machineries to industrial action and their systematic sabotage of disputes when they take place must also account for some of it.

In most respects, union leaders are today in the position of so many union full-timers who, faced at the bargaining table with a lousy offer, turn to the company and complain: "How do you want me to sell that to my members?". And the managers answer: "We don't care. That's your problem not ours". The union full-timer then goes back to his members to argue for the offer as best as he can. But he knows that he is going to have a hard time and that, at the end of the day, his own credit will suffer more than that of the company. But he also knows that if he loses too much credit, the company will turn to him one day and will say: "We don't need you and your union any more".

Such is the dilemma of the union leaders today. Except that, in their case, the manager is Blair, the leader of their own party.

One-way partnerships

Of course, there should be some advantage on offer for the union machineries to compensate them for this uncomfortable situation. This is what the "partnership" between the unions and the government is meant to represent.

The actual content of this partnership was described unwittingly by Ken Jackson, the AEEU leader, at his union annual conference in June, when he said: "After a generation of attacks on trade unions, it's nice to have a government where the door is not permanently slammed in your face". Well if that is all that Jackson finds "nice" in this government - that the door is not always slammed in his face, which necessarily means that it is sometimes, but does not mean that ministers take any notice of what Jackson may say - this only shows how little ambition "Sir" Jackson has for his union!

Admittedly, this government is in the process of introducing a new Employment Relations Bill which is supposed to make life a little easier for the union machineries, in terms of recognition and bargaining arrangements. But will it?

The official position of the TUC has been to argue that, on the whole, there is a majority of "good" employers who, provided they are encouraged by the right signals from government, will make no difficulties against recognising trade unions and bargaining with them. Regulations and their enforcement are only needed for "rogue" bosses. This is more or less the line argued by the trade union journal "Labour Research" in an article published in its June issue under the title "climate warms to union deals". It includes a survey showing that in the 1989-1998 period, trade-unions have been derecognised in 494 workplaces while winning recognition in 644 others. But in fact, this survey shows a trend which does not at all bear out the title of the article. For instance it does not take into account at all the number of workplaces which have been closed down - the most drastic derecognition of all! - which would have probably made the figures a lot less optimistic. Nor does it compare like with like - the bulk of the latest new recognition agreements seem to have been in very small workplaces, whereas unions have been derecognised in a number of large companies over the past decade. Besides, although there were only four cases of derecognition in 1998, by far the lowest in the decade, the number of recognition deals (72 deals) was slightly lower than in 1991 (76 deals), in a period when the anti-union drive was at its highest. Moreover, judging from the examples given in the article, many of these recognition deals had to be fought for the hard way before the companies concerned agreed to give in.

In other words, British bosses, "good" or "rogue" to use the TUC's dubious classification, are still very far from being inclined to engage willingly in collective bargaining. And what will the new Bill do about it? This will partly depend on additional regulations which have still to be produced by ministers. But judging from the amendments which have already been made by the government to the original white paper "Fairness at Work" on which this Bill is based, these additional regulations will not be to workers' advantage.

Without going into the details and fine print of this Bill, let us outline a few of its features. It does not give automatic recognition, whatever the level of union membership (even if it is 100%), unless the employer agrees to it. If he does not, the Bill provides him with all sorts of mechanisms to delay recognition and an appeal procedure to prevent it altogether, for instance if he can prove that he cannot "afford" it (the case is explicitly mentioned). In case a trade-union applies for a ballot of the workforce to be organised, the application can always be turned down by the Central Arbitration Committee, the government- appointed body which is responsible for overseeing the process, without any possible appeal. Even a positive ballot can be overturned by this body, or by the government itself which has the final say in the matter. On the other hand, if recognition is won, the CAC can impose legally-binding bargaining procedures in case of disagreement between the union and the employer. Above all, the Bill provides the same mechanism to obtain the derecognition of a trade-union, through an application by the employer or by one or several of the workers concerned. It is not difficult to imagine how some companies will try to resort to divisive tactics in order to take advantage of this last provision.

As a whole, this Bill takes the issue of recognition completely out of the hands of workers, without putting employers under any real obligations. Officially, it was designed exactly for that purpose in the first place - to avoid the need for "unnecessary disputes" over union recognition. But as a result, if necessary - that is, in particular, if the local branch creates too much trouble - the relationship between the union and the employer may come under the control of an arbitration body with legal powers - something that even the Tories never dared to impose on the unions. Besides, the provisions on derecognition are a recipe for introducing unending legal wrangles in what was so far a simple matter of balance of forces. Whether it works to the advantage of workers is doubtful, not only because it was never designed with that purpose in mind, but also because the legal system is not usually known to be willing to listen to the workers' case.

These failings of the Bill may not be a problem for the union machineries, as they also provide them with a good argument to tell workers to "stay out of it" and just vote the right way when they are asked to do so. On the other hand, the Bill also submits the unions to the same employer-friendly arbitration. In the end of the day, the union machineries will have to prove their worth to the employers without the possibility of using the threat of industrial action - something which they can only be successful in by indulging even more systematically in the kind of "beauty contests" for sweetheart deals (usually with no-strike clauses) which they inaugurated in the late 1980s, under the Tories.

Today these sweetheart deals have a different name. They are also called "partnership" deals and are part of the official policy of the TUC and Labour leadership. The same John Monks who complains bitterly about the sidelining of Labour's core working class voters, explained what this "partnership" was about at a conference organised by the TUC in May. The title of his speech - "Partnership can beat militancy and macho- management" - was a good summary of its content. Among other things he explained to a mixed audience of politicians, union officials and employers: "The key question we have to answer is what is in it for employers. The answer is straightforward. It is about improving performance, enhancing competitiveness, enriching the quality of working life. That is the new unionism, but it is also what smart managers want to do (..). Today's successful union is ambitious and will challenge employers. Not through conflict, not by making crises out of problems, but by seeking greater influence over business strategy". Monks' enthusiasm was warmly supported by another participant in that conference, Sir Peter Middleton, the chairman of Barclays, who explained that his bank was "sharing business plans with the unions". Presumably these plans must have included the slashing of 6,000 jobs, or 10% of the workforce, which had just been announced by Barclays. The partnership in question is obviously one in which employers sit on top of the unions! But even that servile approach is not enough for the bosses, judging from the scathing attacks launched repeatedly against the systematic involvement of the unions in any kind of partnership with employers by the Confederation of British Industry's president, Sir Clive Thompson.

In fact, Blair himself left no doubt as to the limits he puts to this kind of partnership, when he addressed the same conference, saying to the union officials in the audience, "You are part of the solution in achieving business success, not an obstacle to it", while warning them that they should not use this partnership "as a disguise either to get your foot in the door and start rowing about recruitment or to go back to your old behaviour in the bad old days of the 1960s and 1970s". In other words, Blair read the riot act to the unions: partnership, yes, but only to increase profit, not to blackmail the bosses into helping them to increase union membership.

A rebellion in the unions?

Union leaders are therefore facing a dilemma. On the one hand they are confronted with arrogant bosses, who see no necessity to make any concessions to them in the absence of a significant level of militancy which might dent their profits. On the other hand they are lock, stock and barrel on the bandwagon of a government which is determined not to make concessions to the working class, nor even gestures which might be construed as such by its political rivals, like granting privileges to the union machineries. Any advantage the unions machineries might gain from the bosses will be in exchange for helping them to impose more sacrifices on workers, at the risk of losing part of their membership. While their support to Blair's anti-working class policies can only alienate more of their members and push them out of the unions.

Paradoxically, it is the low level of militancy - militancy which Monks is so keen to "beat" - which makes the union leaders' situation difficult today, both inside and outside the Labour party. Under the governments of the late 60s and the 70s, when the level of militancy was much higher, the trade union leadership was in a much better bargaining position. Recognition was extended to all sections of public services, local and central government, and not just under Labour governments. For instance, it was under Heath's Tory government that recognition was extended to the NHS. Check-off and closed shop systems were introduced at the same time, first in the public sector, then in the private sector. All these were primarily privileges for the union machineries, which guaranteed them a stable membership and a steady income. Not to mention the thousands of positions that the union machineries were offered in all sorts of national and local bodies in the 1970s. Few of these privileges were of any particular benefit to the membership, even though the fact that they were granted at all, was the result of the membership militancy.

But already in that period, the unprecedented growth in union membership was less due to the level of militancy, as such, than to the recognition of trade unions across the public sector and the generalisation of the check-off and closed shop systems. Already the union machineries relied primarily on the state and the bosses to help them increase, or simply maintain their membership.

Today, without this level of militancy and the balance of forces it creates in society, the union machineries are even more dependent on the state and the employers to retain their membership than they were in the 70s, except that they are not in a position to bargain. And this is true even with Labour politicians who see more gains to be made by attempting a conversion into a traditional bourgeois party, in the sense that the American Democratic is such a party, than in offering union leaders even a small stool in the government's backyard.

So the Monks' and the Edmonds' of this world have this double language. They try on the one hand to do their job, as "responsible" union leaders, who are keen to show their support for the profit system and their willingness to do what is expected from them in order to increase profits. On the other hand they try to fight attempts at pushing them to the sidelines of the party, and therefore out of the government machinery - which would deprive them of a vital lifeline.

Lessons of the 70s

Some in the revolutionary Left have argued for a long time, and staked their policies on the fact that, at some point, a section of the trade union machineries would eventually rebel against Blair's anti-working class policies and turn to more radical policies. As a result, said these comrades, the role of revolutionaries was to prepare for that time by orientating their efforts towards middle-ranking union officials.

Clearly, if a rebellion takes place in the union machineries, it will not come from the likes of Monks and Edmonds, who were selected at each stage of their long career as union officials for their loyalty to the interests of the union machineries themselves. But if such a rebellion actually took place among the lower strata of the union machineries, would the rebels necessarily be more prepared to turn to the policies put forward by revolutionaries than they are today?

There is at least one counter-example to this. In the first part of the 70s, by the end of Heath's Tory government in 1974, a layer of shop stewards rebelled against the passivity of the union leadership. This rebellion grew under Wilson and the wage restraint agreed by the TUC. The level of unofficial action increased dramatically. Many of these militant shop stewards were courted by Left groups and even joined them for a while. But this did not last. Nor did any group on the revolutionary Left play a visible role in any of the many large strikes that took place during that period. Yet they had many members in unions, such as the engineering union, for instance. But their members intervened in these disputes as militant shop stewards who did not have more (or less) to offer than other militant shop stewards. They remained trade-union activists who had joined a revolutionary group rather than revolutionaries who, through their activity as shop steward, proposed their ideas for the working class to use in the class struggle. Whether it was possible for these Left organisations to transform such militant union activists into conscious revolutionaries in the few years during which they were organised in their ranks, is an open question. It was certainly a difficult task, but maybe not an impossible one. In any case if they tried, they did not succeed. And after these few years, when the wave of militancy began to recede, these militant shop stewards dropped out and returned to their trade-union duties, having hung up their revolutionary cap forever.

Of course, had revolutionary groups already been present in the factories and industries which were at the centre of the wave of militancy during that period, things might have been different. Even a small number of well-known activists, enjoying the trust of the workers around them (not just as hard-working trade-unionists but also as political activists with a record of standing up to the bosses and the union leaders), could have become the focus around which to organise those who were looking for action - but to organise them around aims which would have really challenged the policy of the union and Labour leaderships - that is aims designed to strengthen the working class as a whole, across sectional and industrial boundaries, not just to fight their own local corner.

History does not repeat itself, but the 70s should be a lesson to today's revolutionaries. It is possible, although far from certain, that a rebellion will occur in the lower ranks of the union machineries. But unless revolutionaries have already built a militant political presence in the large workplaces that count and a certain credit for their ideas and their activists, they will take the risk of missing another opportunity, more than a quarter of a century after the last one!

3 July 1999