There is something distasteful about the latest Tory assault on the Trade Union movement. I hold neither candle nor torch for Len McCluskey and am, generally speaking, opposed to the kinds of policies much-favoured by Union bosses (sorry “Barons”). But the Tory attack on organised labour still jars.
It may well be that the unions do a poor job of representing the interests of their members. It may also be that they have an outsized influence on the Labour party. These seem matters for union members and the Labour party to decide for themselves. It’s not really anyone else’s business.
And, to be frank, the distinction between attacking Union bosses (sorry “Barons”) without simultaneously seeming to attack union members (sorry, “hardworking, ordinary Britons”) is a tricky one to make. Lions led by donkeys is a fine rhetorical ploy but the suspicion persists that the Tories wouldn’t mind shooting the lions too. I mean, read Priti Patel for yourself.
The lobbying bill making its tortuous way through parliament is so transparently an attempt to dish the unions that it’s no surprise that it’s another fatheaded too clever-by-half piece of legislation that hasn’t been thought through properly.
Suppressing speech – and in political campaigning money is a form of speech – is suppressing speech. This remains a Bad Idea even when the people being suppressed are people with whom you disagree and whose ideas are, you think, pernicious or simply stupid.
Of course all this stems from that time a few months ago when the Tories seemed to be drowning (they’re still in choppy waters, by the way) and needed a juicy distraction to divert attention from their predicament and up-cheer the concerned foot soldiers. Union-bashing it is, then.
But who seriously thinks the Union movement is a threat to the body politic? To listen to some Tories – including many who couldn’t tell you where the hell Falkirk even is – these days you’d think the labour movement is more powerful than ever. This seems improbable.
And the Tories know it which also explains why they talk about union dinosaurs idly chewing their sandwiches as though it was still the 1970s. Why, these poor things don’t realise how anachronistic they are! So which is it: are unions a relic from a bygone age or a clear and present danger to civilised society? It seems odd that they could be both.
Of course union membership as a percentage of the working population has fallen. Their salience has declined too. But so what? That hardly means there’s no case for collective bargaining and worker representation. Unions may often be misguided; they’re also necessary.
Again, that doesn’t mean that strikes aren’t inconvenient (though, again, they’re hardly the problem they once were) or that they’re invariably justified. But it is equally silly to suppose that they must always be ludicrous or that workers, who as individuals may lack power, should not, subject to proper procedures being followed and all the rest of it, be able to make their case. There is nothing inherently sinister about this, nor anything necessarily illegitimate. Unions have a place and an important one and Tories should be capable of recognising that even if they also think Union leaders often make ill-advised decisions. Freedom of association matters even if those associations are sometimes poor ones.
Which brings us to Ed Miliband’s speech to the TUC today. Dan Hodges and Robert Colville each think he flunked the test. Perhaps he did but I’m not so sure about that. Or, to put it a different way, Tories should be hoping he did. This was the important part of Miliband’s speech:
[W]e are going have to build a new kind of Labour Party.A new relationship with individual trade union members. Some people ask: what’s wrong with the current system?
Let me tell them: we have three million working men and women affiliated to our party. But the vast majority play no role in our party. They are affiliated in name only.That wasn’t the vision of the founders of our party. I don’t think it’s your vision either. And it’s certainly not my vision.
That’s why I want to make each and every affiliated trade union member a real part of their local party. Making a real choice to be a part of our party. So they can have a real voice in it.
And why is that such an exciting idea? Because it means we could become a Labour party not of 200,000 people, but 500,000 or many more. A party rooted every kind of workplace in the country. A party rooted in every community in the country. A genuine living, breathing movement.
Of course, it is a massive challenge.
It will be a massive challenge for the Labour Party to reach out to your members in a way that we have not done for many years and persuade them to be part of what we do. And like anything that is hard it is a risk. But the bigger risk is just saying let’s do it as we have always done it.
It is you who have been telling me year after year about a politics that is detached from the lives of working people. That’s why we have to have the courage to change. I respect those who worry about change. I understand. But I disagree. It is the right thing to do. We can change. We must change. And I am absolutely determined this change will happen.
Perhaps this is just blah-blah-blah-blah of the usual sort. But it might also be something that, if it happens, has the potential to make a real and significant change to the way politics is organised in this country. Maybe, as his critics aver, Miliband will run away from this fight. But this passage – the only really important part of the speech – doesn’t read like a capitulation to Miliband’s union critics.
And the creation of – for the first time in decades – a real mass membership political party would transform Labour and, potentially, British politics. It’s the sort of thing that, on the Conservative side of the aisle, people like Douglas Carswell have been trying to do at a local level.
Isn’t it possible – not certain but merely possible – that Miliband is on to something here? And if he is and if he manages to push these reforms through and they actually amount to something wouldn’t there be some contrast between a Labour party largely funded by small donors and a Tory party disagreeably dependent upon large donations from millionaires? I think there might be and that contrast might not work to the Tories’ advantage.
Which is another way of saying that for all the energy the Tories spend attacking union bosses those bosses are, objectively speaking, the Tories’ allies. Unions aren’t a problem really but the Conservatives would like you to believe they are; mighty union bosses might not have Ed Miliband in their pocket but the Tory party would like you to think they do. It is in Conservative interests to up-big the Unions and they have ample reason to fear Miliband’s proposed reforms.
Meanwhile, it is certainly true that millions of union members voted Conservative at the last election. Which is something Tories might remember just as they might remember that government-paid public-sector workers also vote and writing – or seeming to write – those citizens off as the problem or the reason for Britain’s sub-optimal economic performance might not be the wisest electoral ploy in the world.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.