State of the unions

spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London).

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

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There has been considerable breast-beating over a survey which exposes how little we British know about our heritage, with many apparently unable to say where and for what purpose Hadrian’s Wall was built. But if you really want to reveal public ignorance about an historic ruin, try asking people who runs the TUC and what it is there for.

John Monks, the General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress, is an invisible man compared to his high-profile and powerful predecessors. Yet over the weekend Mr Monks made rare headlines, telling the Labour Government that ‘an explosive cocktail of issues’ – notably the increased involvement of the private sector in public services – could lead to a ‘haemorrhaging of trade union support, especially at the polling booths’.

Monks’s warning comes in the wake of anger among the public sector unions over Tony Blair’s ‘wreckers’ speech, and a series of little strikes on the railways and in the Civil Service. No doubt some are starting to imagine a repeat of the ‘winter of discontent’ and the conflicts that helped to pave the way for Margaret Thatcher’s election victory in 1979.

That seems about as likely as a renewal of hostilities between Hadrian’s legions and the Picts. New Labour may well prove incapable of sorting out public services to the satisfaction of trade union members or anybody else. But it is equally certain that the TUC is incapable of leading a campaign against the reforms.

The public sector is certainly the focus of discontent with Blair’s Government. Having abandoned ideology, Labour’s authority rests upon its claim to managerial efficiency. When a Labour MP asked the Prime Minister to outline his Government’s political philosophy, Blair could only waffle about appointing Sir Magdi Yacoub to go in search of foreign surgeons to work in the health service.

Yet Labour seems unable to deliver even its own artificial efficiency targets. And while ministers talk about the need for more investment, recent figures reveal billions of pounds lying around unspent in public-sector budgets. New Labour’s managers seem to lack the imagination even to waste money. The Government’s glossy but vacuous new pamphlet on the future of public services can only confirm the impression that nobody has any idea how to solve the problem.

It seems reasonable to assume that many trade union members are unhappy with the Government. But the notion that John Monks or the TUC speak on their behalf is as risible as any Government claim. Who exactly do the trade unions represent today? There has been much talk of a ‘revival’. Yet at around six and a half million, union membership is less than half its 1970s peak, and 1.5 million down on 1990, when the union-busting Mrs Thatcher departed.

Those statistics tell only part of the story. There is no ‘labour movement’ in any sense of a collective organisation campaigning for better pay and conditions. Instead, the unions have reinvented themselves as advocates for individuals in distress. They focus on personal issues such as stress and bullying in the workplace, and they do most of their ‘fighting’ in employment tribunals and compensation courts.

Today’s unions look like a cross between social workers, therapists, solicitors and insurance brokers. At best, members might see them as a professional convenience – somewhere to find a lawyer when you need one, much as you might go to a travel agent to arrange a holiday (and you can now buy travel insurance through your union too). There is no sense in which they feel part of a union; who would ever identify themselves as ‘a trade unionist’ today? Indeed, the unions’ key relationship is more often with employers. Even as Monks criticises the Government for its close links with business, the TUC boasts that many of the recognition deals it wins result from an initial approach by employers, who presumably see unions as a useful extension of human resources management.

Despite warnings about Labour losing union support, and suggestions that they will talk to the Liberal Democrats, the main concern of the union leaders is to maintain their place at the Government’s top table. It is a private argument between old friends. But just how far the Labour-union relationship has altered since the old days was made clear when the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, the most pro-union Cabinet member, told David Frost that the unions ‘operate as a vested interest group and they are entitled to put their point of view ‘ – hardly an invitation to comradely beer and sandwiches at No 10.

Where the Government is merely incompetent, the unions are impotent.

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