In his search for a 'Clause 4 moment' or that imaginary middle ground, Ed Miliband has simultaneously alienated millions of trade unionists while making himself look weak as he wrestles with his left of centre instincts and his downright Blairite influences (or pragmatism as he would call it). During his speech today in London to party members, Ed made the classic mistake of reaching out to 'ordinary union members' in the national interest, implying that he wanted Labour to speak for them, not 'union bosses'.
His appeal to 'individual trade unionists' to actively join the Labour Party and for the union-link to change from an 'opt-out' to an 'opt-in' system for 'associate members' will have a number of serious consequences, both political and financial.
Financially Labour stands to lose millions of pounds and potentially create an even greater democratic deficit than already present within the Labour Party. Given the apathy toward voting in any kind of individualised process from the public right through to union members, Ed’s claims that his plan will actually lead to increasing Labour’s already poor membership level of 200,000 is fanciful at best.
Miliband plays into the Tory led mantra, ably abetted by right wing media commentators, that the Labour Party is perceived to be in the pockets of the unions and that this is somehow an obstacle to getting elected. Evidence is cited that union membership is historically low (although there has seen a small rise this year) particularly in the private sector where union membership stands at around 14 percent of the workforce.
Let’s be clear. The reason union membership has not shot up under austerity is because union power has been severely weakened whether by regressive laws or by constant misrepresentations of what unions are and what they do on a day to day basis. Workers who are suffering who are not politically engaged often say to me: 'What’s the point in joining? They can’t help me.' Although that is factually inaccurate this perception flows from the fact workers know individually they have no real power. The rolling back of collective bargaining agreements and rigid laws on balloting members for strike action remain the two biggest obstacles to trade union recruitment. Only 35% of workers are now covered by collective agreements.
If trade unions are not able to win better pay and conditions for their members, confidence declines and workers outside of the labour movement will not want to get involved. The Tory government understands this perfectly, which is why they have increased the time a worker has to have worked from one year to two years before they can claim unfair dismissal. Changes to the costs of tribunals will see unions having to fork out millions just to see workers get a fair hearing or claim unfair dismissal.
A campaign launched recently by Unite, the RMT and several other unions – the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom - seeks to form a broad alliance to change the law and simply allow trade unionists a more level playing field with the employer.
Despite these restrictions and an aggressive media, trade unions have been successful in mobilising thousands to attend demonstrations, raised wages and conditions for millions and have joined up with other social movements to fight the bedroom tax – something which Ed refuses to promise to reverse if he is elected. What other NGO can claim that record?
The presentation by the mainstream media that the unions are a 'special interest' group acting in the interests of some worker elite could not be further from the truth. Being a labour correspondent for over 4 years, it is clear to me that the union movement is a diverse place, containing both left wing and right wing opinions. But the common thread is the shared interested for a better deal at work.
Some of the most exciting and successful campaigns of trade unions with employers receive little to no media coverage. One of the biggest industrial campaigns led by the very people Ed claimed to be speaking to today was the Sparks dispute two years ago. The 25+ week dispute against construction employers who formed an unholy alliance to slash wages by 35 percent and enforce new contracts on to workers without consulting their unions would have got through if union activists hadn’t taken direct action – often in defiance of Britain’s labour laws on balloting and picketing. Many of these employers have been implicated in the current blacklisting scandal such as Balfour Beatty.
And the motivation for this dispute? A hard left faction trying to ruin industry as 'Labour MP' Simon Danczuk would no doubt label it? No. It was about survival, of both the workers themselves and their industry. It was about workers wanting to live like decent human beings and about knowing the value of their labour and fighting for it.
If Ed wants to reach out to these people, rather than alienating working class voters, he will need to enact some of his union affiliates’ basic social policies to kick-start the economy, to protect the vulnerable and to simply offer the electorate an alternative to 'more cuts' at the next general election. Failure to do so will give greater credence to RMT calls for a new workers party to be set up in Labour’s place.
John Millington is a freelance journalist specialising in industrial relations and social movements