Trade unions are misunderstood

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John Dee
© John Dee

This summer trade unions have come in for considerable criticism from across parliament. The Conservative party has often treated its leaders and its members with disdain since the 1980s, whether it’s Margaret Thatcher’s description that they were the ‘enemy within’, at the height of miners’ strike, or David Cameron’s accusation that they are a ‘threat to the economy’. Some in the Labour party appear to treat the unions as embarrassing cousins, a throwback to the age when Marxism was taken seriously and trade unions were barnacles the party should attempt to scrap off at the nearest possible opportunity. It doesn’t have to be like this and it shouldn’t; in fact it wasn’t always this way.

Conservative prime ministers in the post-war era were said to often entertain trade union leaders in Downing Street during their tenures. At the beginning of her premiership, Margaret Thatcher, former president of the Dartford branch of Conservative trade unionists, actively encouraged relations with moderate Tory unionist branches, of which there were around 250, holding a mass rally at Wembley before the 1979 General Election. For Conservatives who often deride trade unions, it is perhaps worth remembering that only 36% of union members vote for the Labour party.

The deterioration of relations between the Conservative party and unions was evident when it became headline news in December 2010 that David Cameron was just meeting with the then TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber at Downing Street. At their most popular the Conservative party has always appeared concerned with workers. However, this Thatcherite attitude of union contempt has weakened the party in many areas of the country, particular the north of England and Scotland, and can be seen as a reason why the party has not won a majority since 1992.

Inspired by Blair’s famous Clause IV moment, some in the Labour party seem to think merely repudiating and weakening ties with unions is a fast-track to popularity. They forget the embarrassment the Cash for Honours scandal caused, which to some appeared a drive to prevent reliance on union funding. This summer Shadow Defence secretary Jim Murphy hastily claimed that “one trade union in particular has well and truly overstepped the mark”, in an attack on the Unite union and the recent events in Falkirk, in what appeared to be a bid to put pressure on Ed Miliband to weaken Labour’s ties to Unite. Despite the recent announcement that everyone involved in the Falkirk affair has been cleared of any wrongdoing, by the party and the police, no public apology has been forthcoming from Murphy.

It would seem, however, that the demonization of trade unions may garner headlines but not public popularity. Ipsos Mori found that 41% of the country trust what union leaders say, compared to 34% trusting business leaders and 18% who trust politicians. Trade unions should not be taking lectures from any party in parliament; the combined membership of unions is 6.5 million in the UK which is 33 times bigger than direct Labour party membership and over 48 times the membership of the Conservative party.

Unions have shown themselves to be some of the most effective campaigners in modern society in the last one hundred years, fighting for increased workers’ rights and wages. The TUC also proved excellent at highlighting around 5.5 million people on exploitative zero-hour contracts in Britain at the moment. This has happened while unions appear to be neglected by mainstream political parties. When union membership was at its peak, between 1950 and 1979, with over 12 million members, there was a reduction in economic inequality in the UK as workers’ wages rose above inflation. This is in contrast to wages today, which have seen the longest squeeze since the 1870s, which was about the time trade unions were legalised in Britain.

Current TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady is right when she describes union money as “the cleanest in British politics” and all Labour members should be proud of this donation. Similarly it may benefit David Cameron to not be so scornful of the traditional link. Unions have enhanced their members’ standards of living despite being excluded from parliamentary proceedings in recent times. It might not be that the unions need political parties to be successful, but the parties certainly need them.

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