Workers are agents of economic change: so why isn't Labour listening to the unions?

Ed Miliband is following in New Labour's footsteps and keeping distance from the unions. But within the labour movement lie the skills, know-how and creativity needed to discover economic alternatives and make change happen
Hilary Wainwright
16 September 2011

Ed Miliband is letting the triangulating tactics of what should be a bygone era hold him back from grasping a strategic opportunity for Labour. 

According to the old Mandelsonian rule of spin, every attack by the party on the unions or the left pushes up Labour’s popularity with the public - or at least the swing sections of the public. Miliband duly toed the line and condemned the day of strikes and protest against pension cuts on June 30th. This week, he made sure that his speech to the TUC conference reiterated his refusal to support any strikes “so long as negotiations are taking place”.

This was interpreted as criticism of the announcement by all the major unions that they would organise ballots on further strike action on the pension reforms, planned for November 30th. Yet the decision to strike was made by the most cautious of trade union leaders in the face of what is perceived by the unions as a total impasse in the negotiations.

Miliband is wrong to fall back on the old tactics. The spin rule doesn’t apply in circumstances where workers, especially in the public sector, are desperate for protection (public sector unions are recruiting) and the public can understand the need for this. (A MORI poll this year found that 76 per cent believed unions to be essential for workers’ protection). Just as important, by taking a distance from the unions, the Labour leader is turning his back on an opportunity to seize the moral economic high ground and support practical alternatives for the economy.  

The opportunity lies in the fact that Labour is allied with representatives of those with the skills and the know-how upon which the real productive and service economy depends.

Companies pay consultants thousands of pounds to find out how "to tap the gold in the mind of the worker", as one Japanese management consultant put it. The Labour Party has this gold completely gratis – if only it would find the self-confidence to use it.

My argument is that the capacities of workers are also a political goldmine.

Britain is faced with the unprecedented failure not only of the capitalist market, but also of state institutions as guarantors of last resort. Organisations of labour, with their roots in the real economy, have practical knowledge of how the economy does and doesn't work, and ideas for the future. They have the potential to combine their traditionally protective role with strategies to become agents of economic and political change.

Miliband has beneath his nose therefore, a vital ally with which he could take a lead in moving our economy in a socially just and ecologically sustainable direction. In the public sector especially (and potentially in the private sector too) trade unions organise millions of knowledgeable and caring people who collectively carry the skill and organisational clout to develop a vision of a new economy. Moreover, they can explore it in a practical way, and pre-figure it in everyday campaigns and bargaining strategies that capture the popular imagination. 

This implies a combination of resistance and alternatives. It also implies building alliances with communities and other parts of the civil economy – the co-operative movement in particular – and connecting with local councils and local and regional businesses that share a common opposition to the government's austerity policies and to the destructive dynamic of the financial markets.

This view of organised labour – not as a subordinate 'industrial' partner but as a distinct source of positive economic alternatives – implies a radical redesign of Labour's relations with the unions. The refounding of Labour politics means digging up the old foundations, rather than further elaborating on structures that are now rotten, whatever good sense they made at the beginning of the 20th century. 

Clause 1: Re-unite the industrial and political

The foundation stone in most need of replacement is what has become an almost sacrosanct division between 'the industrial' (the sphere of the unions) and the 'political' (the sphere of the party).

The rules governing this relationship have had a significant flexibility – otherwise this 'contentious alliance' (to use the title of the must-read analysis by Lewis Minkin) would not have survived.

But by the 1950s the division of labour had produced a profoundly institutionalised abdication of politics by the trade unions to the Labour Party. “We became reactive; we lost a sense of the wider world beyond the workplace”, remembers Kevin Curran, a trade unionist and ex-general secretary of the GMB with extensive experience of creating community trade unionism. “As long as wages and conditions were improving and membership growing, we were happy to leave the wider social and political issues to the Labour Party.”

With the collapse of the boom in the early 1970s, this complacent division of labour became unsustainable. The following two decades saw the emergence, in many forms, of a more politicised trade unionism. This included many experiments and campaigns around the general theme of industrial and economic democracy, involving real innovations from which lessons could well be adapted for today's challenges.

Red Pepper (which I help to edit) has already argued for the relevance of the principles driving the Lucas Aerospace alternative corporate plan for strategies for green production as an alternative to factory closure. The creativity and credibility of this workers’ plan lay in the recognition by the unionist leaders of workers as knowledgeable, creative citizens, willing to contribute their skills for the good of the wider community.

Politics begins in the labour process

Labour itself is highly political. It contains the potential to be more than waged labour – more than workers selling, or rather alienating, their capacity to work for a wage while the employer controls the profit. In more theoretical terms, the Lucas Aerospace workers’ plan and others like it recognise the worker as a producer of what Marx termed 'use value', as well as a producer of 'exchange value' in the capitalist economy.

Labour has within its institutions potential alternative agents for economic and social reform far superior to the forces of the capitalist market now revealed to be so corrupt and short-sighted.

But this view of labour’s political potential was not built into the foundations of the trade unions' relationship with the Labour Party. Trade union struggles were seen as concerned with wages and conditions, not the nature and purpose of the work itself. The unions' role in the party was as a source of funds and electoral support, with some power over the election of the leader and very occasional influence on policy.

Only exceptionally, for example in the Greater London Council in the early 1980s, have trade unionists been valued as a unique source of inside knowledge and vision about how production could be better organized to greater social use.

But imagine if Ed Miliband was to recognize the postive potential of the unions. Imagine if he drew together the know-how and popular credibility of NHS workers with the insights of users and academics, to present an alternative direction of reform to the destructive path of marketisation? 

This kind of initiative could be emblematic of a wider approach to rebuilding and updating public services. It could lay the basis for a real re-founding of the labour movement. It would recognise the political significance of the past decades of expanding higher and with it of increased self-confidence, combined now with the possibility – through new technologies - of sharing knowledge and collaborating on its production. It would recognise that trade union members, operating as worker citizens with communities, have the capacity to help organise that knowledge.

This is not wishful thinking. The threat of public sector privatization has already led staff to become highly alert to the importance of their commitment and skills for the quality of the service they provide.

Beneath the surface of national trade union structures, there is a new angry and determined spirit in the workplace – across local government in particular, but also in health, education and the civil service, and often where women are in the majority.

Bristol home care

One example amongst hundreds, vividly documented by Lydia Hayes, ex UNITE official and now academic, is of the home care workers in Bristol. They were furious at a nonchalant announcement in 2007 of privatization as if it were somehow inevitable. Their anger arose from awareness that their work, in the words of one of the care workers that Lydia interviewed, requires getting older people to “open up to you” and having “a bond with a service user” – these personal bonds could never form part of a service delivery contract. They would be wiped out once the service became a commodity.

The Bristol workers reached out to the community, building up popular pressure using everything from petitions to family networks. In a matter of days, an angry crowd became an organisation, “campaigning methodically”, as Hayes puts it, to Keep Bristol Home Care. 

With 10,000 signing the petition, and a room booked for 40 overwhelmed by over 200 care assistants, the campaign spilled over the confines of traditional trade unionism. It became a political movement for public services, led by women who cared for their work and their relationship with the old people they cared for. A struggle over 'use value', if you like.

They won. And they made the issue of home care the main election issue of the 2007 elections. Labour who supported the homecare workers gained seats and the Lib Dems lost control to a Labour-led coalition. 

This was a case of a new kind of relationship between unions and the Labour Party giving results. The women, through the union, developed an autonomous politics and a public power built through all kinds of representation: the media, community campaigning, a physical presence on the streets. On this basis they expected and won the support of Labour as their elected representatives.

Newcastle alternatives to privatization

Newcastle is another case in point. There, the workers' and the community's commitment to the Council's IT systems and the related 'back office' and public 'one stop' information services has been the basis for successful struggles to keep the service public and improve it in the process. 

One of the trade unionists driving this process was Kenny Bell, who died this summer of cancer. His work as a highly effective and practical trade union leader with a radical strategic vision exemplifies how possible it is to bring together community and workplace organising, industrial militancy and workplace democracy.

In the process he created with others – and he would be the first to stress the 'with others' – a newly political trade unionism which Labour politicians came to respect and to support. This was not an 'industrial wing', but a form of politics beyond their reach and yet essential to improve the lives and build the power of working people.

The Newcastle experiment was then developed into a region-wide strategy. Kenny and the regional convenor Clare Williams turned the Northern Region of Unison into a means of involving shop stewards and branch secretaries from across the region. This became the basis of a bargaining strategy with the political parties running the local councils. Several backed it – indeed it could be argued that Newcastle Labour group's support for Unison's alternative strategy helped it to win back control of the council from the Lib Dems.

The 1,000 and more who crowded into Newcastle's Civic Centre to remember him gave testament to the way Kenny's work touched, and often changed, lives. There are few politicians who would get such a send off!

Politics beyond the reach of the party 

In both cases, Labour was willing to represent a kind of knowledge that was beyond its reach as a party. They showed that representative politics does not have a monopoly on labour movement politics.

A further implication is that electoral politics does not have a monopoly on political leadership. This is born out by the experience of the Northern TUC in leading a highly effective campaign against the BNP from 2003 onwards, through the founding of North East Unites Against the BNP

This work transformed the regional TUC into a kind of community trade unionism. “It was quite a shock for some of the male officers”, recalls Kevin Rowan, secretary of the NTUC, describing how regional officers were expected to leave their offices, not just for workplaces, but to door-to-door canvass in the most neglected communities in the North East.

“Labour was not prepared to talk about the threat of the BNP, but when they saw that our open campaigning was working, councillors and MPs came on board”, says Rowan recalling the day that the conference of the NTUC decided to break up and go on to the streets to counter a BNP demonstration in Newcastle, succeeding in completely overwhelming it. Here again, Labour representatives were supporting an autonomous trade union and community politics. 

A wider politics on which parties have no monopoly

There's no single model of how this wider politics might develop. But one thing is certain: for the Labour Party to win on a national level the kind of support that labour movements have won in the North East and in Bristol, party leaders have to draw closer to the unions, not distance themselves. They should inform themselves of the varied and uneven realities of these complex institutions and be willing systematically to learn from and support them.

A whole lot of new questions are raised for unions, community organisations and political representatives.

First, on the development of policy. Very often the most creative alternatives arise from practical experiments and struggles, like those described above. But how is that practical knowledge to be generalised? What new relationships need to be built between civil society – of which the unions are an important part - and the political process?

What can be learnt here from other movements? (Much can be learnt from the feminist movement, past and present, where practical, and often tacit knowledge and creativity are fundamental.)  And how do the collaborative and communicative tools of the new technologies facilitate bringing practical experiments to the centre of how we develop economic alternatives?

Secondly, what are the conditions for unions working with others in producing alternatives? How do they maintain their protective functions while at the same time being proactive in terms of alternatives? Here, questions of union autonomy from management arise, while time off for training and building a strong and participatory union organisation plays an important role in building the workplace democracy that is a necessary condition for genuine alternatives. So too do close links with researchers who respect the knowledge of the workers. How far do the national structures of union policy making need to change to support this emphasis on developing alternatives in the course of resistance?

Thirdly, what kinds of collaboration could develop between co-operatives, the social economy and the trade unions? They tend to have a common interest in achieving conditions under which workers gain the 'full fruits of their labour' and many in both spheres have a commitment to a political economy beyond capitalism. There are many tensions, which should be the subject of another article. But this relationship too must be part of redesigning of the nature of labour politics.

Finally, what would the realization of the unions’ potential as agents of economic change mean for the role of the state? My argument implies that unions can play a double role: as actors, democratising and improving public services, and as allies of governmental industrial strategies that pursue economic justice. And what would this mean for political parties on the left, the Labour party – and the Green Party too? How would their role change, if they no longer claimed a monopoly as political agents of social change?  

Miliband and his advisers are proposing a strategy based on the themes of decentralisation and mutuality. Unless they abandon the old tactical dance around the unions and address these kinds of questions, their thinking will be empty at the core.

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