Opinion: The Lib Dems should work with unions

One of the most egregious arguments put forward by the No2AV campaign has been that the adoption of the alternative vote will necessarily lead to more coalitions. This is to overlook the somewhat obvious fact that all three main political parties in the UK are already coalitions – the Tories representing an alliance of the remnants of the squirearchy and wealthy metropolitan property owners, Labour the remnants of the working class solidarity movement and the Fabian tendency, and the Lib Dems the alliance between the Liberal Party and the SDP. There are multiple factions I haven’t mentioned – sometimes it’s difficult to understand what the likes of Cameron could possibly have in common with some of the madder back-bench Tories, beyond ancestral funding.

Over the past few weeks, fault-lines have begun to develop in one of these grand coalitions, perhaps even more so than the tremors in the big-C Coalition caused by the AV referendum. The Labour Party has decided to engage in a period of navel-gazing, precipitated in large part by the advocacy of Lord Glasman for a return to more conservative version of the Labour movement founded on social solidarity in working-class communities.  This ‘Blue Labour’ movement would advocate the family, faith and the flag, restoring a pre-war sense of togetherness to Labour’s traditional core vote.

This solidarity has traditionally cashed out in the form of identity or class-based politics – i.e. as something that applies to ‘people like us’. Glasman understands this and has urged the Labour Party to reconsider its position on immigration.

Naturally, this has caused a certain amount of – how shall I put this – abject horror in the metropolitan Fabian elite of the party. The thought of actually listening to these working class people they purport to represent has clearly been too much for the likes of Lynsey Hanley, who is so terrified of what they might hear that she’s written:

Working-class people collude with the structure that limits their chances from “the outside”. This is not a cultural value that needs to be preserved, it’s a sign of a structure that warps people from the inside out.

That’s right, working-class people are trapped in a structure that prevents them from thinking for themselves until a right-thinking journalist comes along and tells them how to think better. Leaving aside the moral prescriptivism that will always be a feature of this wing of the Labour Party, this sort of visceral reaction is a feature of Labour’s inability to provide an answer to the main challenge of globalisation: that the opening up of Britain’s markets to international competition means that the market value of certain types of labour is now below that necessary to sustain an aspirational standard of living. This is the main cause behind the relative growth of inequality in the Anglo-Saxon world: low-skilled labour is cheaper overseas, while high-skilled labour, based on traditional social, economic and educational structures, continues to be in high demand.

The only real answer Blue Labour can provide is a return to protectionism and nationalised industry; anathema to the neo-Blairite Purple Labour project which understands that markets make everyone richer, on average. Here lies an opportunity for the Liberal Democrats, if we choose to take it.

It is a basic liberal insight that the person best placed to move someone upwards is that person themselves, and that the role of the State is provide them with the freedom to do so. The best way to secure higher wages for the less well-off is not a state-mandated minimum wage, but by giving people the freedom to negotiate for a higher wage themselves. This is the role of the unions, who by replacing multiple competing sellers in a labour market with a single seller naturally increase the cost of labour – i.e. wages. However, the previous Conservative administration increased the regulatory burden upon unions, making it harder for them to fulfil their proper function, and reducing their freedom.

I want to argue that the Lib Dems should look at working with private-sector unions to identify ways in which this burden can be lessened, and more freedom can be given to organisations representing workers employed privately. Unlike public sector workers, private sector workers share the possibility of losing their jobs with their employers if their business goes under, requiring them to exercise their freedoms responsibly and with no cost to the taxpayer. This would be a strong way of demonstrating our distinctiveness from the Conservatives, while remaining true to liberal principles.

One of the reasons behind the formation of the Labour Party was the inadequacy of the representation given by the old Liberal Party to the growing trade union movement. Going some way towards reversing this historic error might yet help revive our support.

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21 Comments

  • It would help if you gave some idea of the sort of unions you want to work with.

  • I’ve just left the NUJ because of changing jobs, but one of the very best things the union provided was reasonably priced training courses at a fraction of the price of outside providers. It also had courses on negiotating fees, finding work etc. With journalism undergoing so a major shift at the moment the chance to learn new skills is very important. The other useful thing the union offered was legal help if need, for example, if going through redundancy or redeployment.

    One thing to look at is whether unions such as the NUJ could partner to deliver training courses for young people, especially, who are out of jobs. Maybe this would be a more cost effective way of reaching out?

  • Andrew Suffield 2nd May '11 - 7:02pm

    The LDs can, should, and do work with unions – where the unions want to. You really need to campaign on the other end for this one. By and large it’s the unions who, already owning one political party, see no need to talk to the others.

  • What will be the aim of this linkage? Shouldn’t it be to create a more consensual industrial relations base where export and profit focussed targets were employed ie people sitting round the table hammering out deals that work for both the company and the workers as in Germany?

  • Ed Shepherd 3rd May '11 - 9:29am

    This is a commendable article and makes a change from the usual union-bashing article by LDV. There are some flaws though. For starters, I do not agree that markets make everyone wealthier and protectionism or state-ownership make everyone poorer. Rover versus Renault? One is gone due to privatisation, the other is one of the biggest car-makers in Europe thanks to state support and protectionism. Abolishing minimum wage (a goal of “The Big Society”) and leaving negotiations to unions will require unions to have the ability to take action that presurrises employers to meet wage demands. Decades of anti-worker legislation (supported by the LDs) has neutered this ability. How will you get employers to recognise unions? A further thorny questions is that there are very powerful unions that protect the wealthy (eg the Law Society and the BMA) that are allowed to operate closed-shops and restricitve practices. Why not bring these unions for “professionals” under the same requirements as unions for the working poor? Otherwise I like your article and it made a change.

  • ‘…neo-Blairite Purple Labour project which understands that markets make everyone richer, on average.’

    not everyone but it certainly makes a few very rich and left unregulated creates a huge under class – which of course we have now when Bliarite Labour deserted ordinary working people.

    by the way a minimum wage – fought against tooth and nail by the reactionary Right is a major bulwark against bosses who pay their workers starvation wages!

    ‘Yes the Liberal Democrats need to get the support of the Unions – all Unions and one way is to free them from Thatcherite constraints and for example to support a return to secondary picketting to support their weaker brethren and ensuring the right of all workers to strike for better conditions and pay.

    ‘I think this article misses an important point. People do not get paid what they deserve. They get paid in a market economy depending on supply and demand for the skills they have. A person can have a particular skill that is highly valued one day, and then the next it may be worth nothing for a variety of reasons. The problem that person then has is that he does not have the resources needed to train in a new skill set.
    Likewise with unions. How effective they are depends on their industrial muscle and how they use it. How much industrial muscle you have is not necessarily related to how much you deserve to have.
    At least the minimum wage ensures that even if you do not have industrial muscle, you will still get a wage that is worth having at the very least. The policy itself, although not perfect, has been a success and no one is proposing to repeal it, not even the Tories.’

    Exactly! Except that the more extreme Tories do want just that.

  • Saul – agree entirely. Part of the problem is that we still have some Unions where the leadership use the organisation as a vehicle for their political ambitions.

    To their credit many private sector workforces (and presumably their Union representatives) reacted positively to the extreme economic conditions, negotiating shorter hours, pay cuts and freezes etc . It would be great if that positive engagement were to spread over to the public sector.

  • ‘To their credit many private sector workforces (and presumably their Union representatives) reacted positively to the extreme economic conditions, negotiating shorter hours, pay cuts and freezes etc . It would be great if that positive engagement were to spread over to the public sector.’

    Can you tell me why the average working man should pay for the failure and greed of the bankers and the unregulated free market – whilst those same bankers still arrogantly roll off home with millions!

    It is morally wrong to expect workers to cut their pay especially when inflation continues to rise. Of course pay cuts are like manna from heaven for the bosses – any excuse for the bosses to reduce wages!

  • “It is morally wrong to expect workers to cut their pay especially when inflation continues to rise. Of course pay cuts are like manna from heaven for the bosses – any excuse for the bosses to reduce wages!”

    My name is Tabman. I had an accident, and I woke up in 1973. Am I mad, in a coma, or back in time? Whatever’s happened, it’s like I’ve landed on a different planet.

  • They get paid in a market economy depending on supply and demand for the skills they have.

    The problem with that is we have very distorted market. The market in labour is especially distorted, with the opportunities for labour restricted through regulation and collusion of government and business. This forces wages down. A persistent level of underemployment also helps force wages down.

    Unions should in theory help combat this, unfortunately they do little to do this, the leadership mostly fighting to maintain the status quo whilst giving an appearance of radicalism.

    The bargaining of unions for better pay and conditions is part of the market economy, a necessary balance to the other powers in the market. In a free market they would likely be a large feature (although I daresay somewhat different from today’s model), along with other community organisations like friendly societies and community insurance groups.

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