Why trade unions are a good thing

It is about time that thinking people in the UK recognised that trade unions are a good thing, integral to democracy as representatives of working people who would otherwise be voiceless.

Ed Miliband's request to the NUJ at the BBC not to target the Conservative party conference and David Cameron's speech may very well assist him in seeking to demonstrate independence from the trade unions - and also even give him some kudos for showing a sense of fair play. But the notion that he will be "in hock to the unions" is a damaging canard that is liable to stick to him, whatever the evidence, as the Conservatives will certainly play the tune repeatedly and the media clearly enjoy playing with it as well.  And it is a tune that has resonance "out there" as the latest BBC Question Time showed.

It is absurdly inaccurate, true, but when did that deter either the Conservatives or media when they adopt a theme? Labour can repeat that Miliband junior obtained substantial votes among MPs and MEPs and party members; that it was levy-paying trade union members, not trade union "bosses", who cast the votes that swung it for him; and that he actually won many more individual votes across the three sections than his brother - but so what? They think they are onto a good thing and won't let go (even carelessly suggesting that Ed received no backing from MPs, MEPs and party members).
Plainly, it is not desirable for any party leader to be "in hock" to any interest group. But it would, for example, also be undesirable for the Conservatives to be "in hock" to big business, or say the food manufacturing industry; and more undesirable still for Labour to be "in hock" to the City of London and big business and thus to adopt a dogma of light-touch regulation of the banks and acceptance of a status quo that is unequal and often cruel.

In my view, it is about time that thinking people in the UK recognised that trade unions are a GOOD THING, integral to democracy as representatives of working people who would otherwise be voiceless; and that trade unions in the UK are responsible organisations, who have important welfare as well as representative roles, and do a great deal at local level to encourage solidarity and improve public services when they get the chance. Read Hilary Wainwright.  In a less biased polity, they would form a welcome part of any Big Society.

It is true that affiliated trade unions give the Labour Party most of its funding. But the idea that trade union leaders are able therefore to dictate terms to the party is groundless. They may sometimes try. But for the most part, historically, trade union leaders since 1945 have been remarkably supportive of the Labour Party leadership, even when policies have not been in the interests of their members. Read Lewis Minkin's scrupulous studies of the trade unions' relationship with the party.  

On the other hand, the involvement of trade unions and their members in the party, locally as well as nationally, does anchor the party in the reality of the working and everyday lives of ordinary people in this country.

But so what? The prevailing media narrative of wrecking trade union "bosses" and "bullies" has entered into the common sense of most people in the country.  It is true that certain well-publicised occasions in the past -  the conduct of some strikers during the "winter of discontent", the undemocratic extravagance of Arthur Scargill in driving through the miners' strike - has done much to encourage this view. It is also true that most strikes provoke far more anger than sympathy, as though corporate "bosses" never create the conditions that make strike action necessary.

And alas it is also true that most trade unions do not make a convincing case for the importance of what they do and the integrity with which they do it; and that the finger-pointing rhetoric of the few makes that task even more difficult.

About the author

Stuart Weir is founder of Democratic Audit at the Human Rights Centre, University of Essex, and co-founder of Charter 88. He is a consultant to the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust on the State of the Nation polls.