The House of Lords considered the Government’s Trade Union Bill yesterday. It briefly made the headlines because a report was released suggesting that the Labour Party would lose £6 million in annual funding as a result. Coverage was quickly buried by news of David Bowie’s death. At least we shouldn’t accuse the Conservatives of orchestrating that.
Because they didn’t need to. There has been little public interest in this legislation, which has been quietly making its way through the legislative process since last July. That is remarkable because it is politically tendentious, and could change the political balance profoundly. Instead of fighting this legislation tooth and nail, the Labour Party is focusing its energy on making up its mind about Britain’s nuclear deterrent. This is yet another example, if one was needed, of how Labour is now suffering from political insanity.
What does the Bill try to do? Those headlines were about changing how trade unions carry out political funding. At the moment the unions have political funds which its members can opt out of, but usually don’t. The government wants to change this to opting in, which it is thought that many fewer will do, given how few trade unionists actually vote Labour. The other main change is to make it harder for unions to take strike action by requiring a minimum turnout of 50% for a strike ballot, and the support of 40% of registered members in the public sector.
At first pass neither of these proposals looks unreasonable. The opt out rule on political funding creates a corporate influence by the unions on the Labour Party that undermines democracy. Labour gets the lion’s share of its funding this way, and the their influence on the party is growing – they gave decisive logistical and moral support to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign, for example. Unions play a vital role in our society in balancing the unhealthy inequality of power in employment relationships, not least in the public sector. But politically they are conservative. This is illustrated by their support for Britain’s nuclear deterrent. This not based on any arguments of high principle, but by the short term influence of any policy change on jobs. Just about any reform designed to make the economy or the public sector more efficient will be opposed by the union bosses for purely short-term reasons. The opt in principle would (probably) reduce the amount of money they deploy, as well as making union bosses more accountable for their political views. Politics should be about people, and not intermediated by corporate interests.
So what’s wrong? The reform is unbalanced. Trade unions are not the only malign corporate interest around – businesses also provide parties with funding, and especially the Conservatives. This is unhealthy too, though thankfully things are not as out of hand in Britain as they are in the United States. But it does help counter the malign political influence of the unions. This not just a question of allowing the Conservatives to oppose Labour. Labour itself was more politically balanced and electorally appealing when it took a higher proportion of corporate donations, under Tony Blair. Whacking union donations without some kind of equivalent reform of other corporate donations is simply a partisan attack on Labour that will probably do more harm than good. Labour certainly has a good case to make to the public on this.
There is something similar going on strike ballots. It is not unreasonable to ask for a substantial mandate for such action, rather than let a minority of activists decide things. If the union case for strike action is a strong one, they will get the support, as has been shown repeatedly. The problem is that the government refuses to modernise the way strike ballots are carried out. This has to be by post, which is not only expensive, but it gets swamped by junk mail, leading to low response rates. Most organisations that cary out mass ballots now do so electronically, or at least supplement the post with online. There are risks, of course, but they are manageable. Allowing unions to do this would be a completely reasonable quid-pro-quo; refusing to consider it is an attack on workers’ rights.
If I were a trade unionist, this shocking state of affairs would give me pause for thought. Because the unions themselves have helped bring this situation about. Firstly, their conservative influence on the Labour Party has helped make them less electable. In 2010 they were decisive in making sure that Ed Miliband got selected as leader. And their hysterical opposition to austerity prevented Labour from developing a coherent and electorally convincing economic policy. Secondly their tribal attack on the Liberal Democrats for having the temerity to form coalition with the Conservatives helped weaken a vital bulwark against Tory hegemony. If Labour voters had rallied to the Lib Dems in the South West, things might have turned out differently.
And the end result is that Labour, as it turns out, is more interested in other things than union rights. Meanwhile the unions have no other friends across the political spectrum. The SNP have shown more interest in the fate of English foxes than union rights. How hard should Lib Dems fight their corner when the unions done so little for them?
Of course no real trade union leader will come anywhere close to such reflections. They still think that the Tories are the spawn of Satan who must be excluded at all costs, and that austerity, understood to include any initiative to make the public sector efficient, is based on lies – and that the public will be convinced of both these things if only they were proclaimed loudly enough.
For liberals the attitude is clear – it is to welcome the government’s reforms, but to fight for others to curb the malign influence of big (and not so big) businesses on political funding, and to allow trade union democracy to be modernised. It is hard to shed tears for such political dinosaurs as Britain’s current union leaders.