As Peter Watt pointed out at the time of the TUC conference, its influence is declining for a number of reasons: the concentration of power in the hands of the leaders of three super-unions, declining membership in general and a political shift to the left. Together, this seems to have led to a focus on politicking, rather than fighting realistic battles to improve the lot of their members, and an ever-increasing difficulty to catch the attention of the general public sufficiently to convert them into members.
Neither, frustratingly for them, do unions carry much weight in government: a Tory-led coalition would hardly be conducive to Wilson-style “beer and sandwiches at Number 10” under normal circumstances, but much less so in the middle of a harsh austerity programme where there is clearly no money to fund their pay claims (and where a smarter idea might have been the Balls strategy of focusing on jobs).
There is, of course, one forum in which union power is increasing, which is visibly being milked for all it is worth: its influence in the Labour Party. For obvious reasons, such as the reliance of the party on unions to fill the donations gap left by departing “high-value” donors and lower (although increasing) levels of membership, and “because they can”, the party’s cage has been rattled more or less constantly since Ed Miliband’s election as leader. The shot across Labour’s bows at the beginning of this year on public sector pay; the usual TUC bravado scaled up a little this year; the Progress controversy, where several unions mounted a concerted attack on the centrist think-tank, a story which will not reach its climax until next year’s conference.
And, ironically, this is all towards a man who has arguably shown himself more of a friend to unions than any Labour leader for two decades; someone who actively courted them during his leadership campaign; who took the risk of speaking at their March 26th demo last year, and was gifted a media car-crash for his pains; who returned to tradition and spoke at the Miner’s Gala, dammit. Now, I don’t always agree with Ed Miliband, but I’d trust him to have a better idea of where the public is than the TUC does.
Why would one think that? Well, if you want an example of where it’s going wrong, take the general secretary-elect of the TUC, Frances O’Grady. She seems decent enough: the general opinion of her seems to be that she is a likeable, reasonably moderate type, rather than a half-bonkers, Serwotka-style firebrand, and yes, it is good to see a woman leading the TUC. So far, so good.
But where will she be found this week: out campaigning for jobs for her members, or helping Labour get elected so that we can get the Tories out of office and really protect their interests?
No. O’Grady last night spoke at the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign (VSC) rally, joining such luminaries as George Galloway, the Guardian’s Seumas Milne, Stop The War Coalition’s Lindsay German (unpleasant justifier of the Toulouse killings), and a rag-tag assortment of other stars of the far left. And, among the smaller and non-affiliated unions, there are three who are affiliated to Labour, led by Len McCluskey’s Unite, probably the most left-leaning of the big unions. (Oh, and as an aside, McCluskey’s chief of staff is Andrew Murray, until last year chair of the Stoppers and still a card-carrying Communist0. In short, to maintain that the labour movement is not swinging left in a fairly radical manner seems a rather tenuous argument, to say the least.
And all this in support of – and, we might reasonably presume, fundraising for – one of the most obnoxious, posturing, pseudo-democratic regimes on the planet? Not to mention a man who is widely thought to have not only done his best to undermine any unions opposed to his rule, but whose supporters are thought by many to be assassinating their leaders? Of which Amnesty International – hardly a bunch of slavish America-supporting stooges – says in its 2012 report“Human rights defenders were threatened and politically motivated charges continued to be used against government critics”?
No, apparently a few such problems do not bother O’Grady, like they do not bother Milne, German or Galloway, because Chávez is clearly on the side of the angels, against America. It’s not a great start for a new leader of the supposedly internationalist TUC.
Her predecessor, Brendan Barber, allowed TUC support for the VSC but did at least refrain from attending the previous rally. O’Grady, on the other hand, actively supports it. And they wonder why people seem to be losing faith in trade unions.
The question is: how must ordinary union members feel when, instead of spending their money and political focus on advocacy and support for members, their cash and the good name of the labour movement is used to support and fund a range of thoroughly dubious political causes? Probably a bit annoyed, I’d say; and expressed, perhaps, by simply not bothering to renew subscriptions.
Furthermore, the common defence is, “these causes are chosen democratically”. But that’s a sleight of hand, isn’t it? Because motion-based conferences, easily manipulated by a few well-organised activists, and poorly-attended branch meetings, tend to give away other people’s money without much thought or, indeed, genuine accountability.
Unions were made to help their members, to provide practical help, not just for making political statements, and certainly not for political posturing. It’s a shame, because most of us fundamentally believe in unions as a force for good. But not this way: not this way.
A force for good means fighting for rational, achievable goals, not pie-in-the-sky claims for breaking a public-sector pay freeze which would have been practically inevitable under any government (and which is being repeated across Europe). It means spending their members’ subs on making their lives better, not on fighting well-intentioned, but tragically ill-informed political battles on the other side of the world. And it means helping Labour get elected, rather than stirring up domestic trouble and trying to get a group of their comrades, many of whom are lifelong trade union members, banned.
We all need a labour movement engaged in grown-up politics, not at the fringes. In 2012, it seems that Britain’s unions don’t seem really to know what they stand for, only what they stand against. It’s sad, and it needs to change.
This post first published at LabourList