If Miliband is serious about tackling low pay, he needs to embrace the unions

The one thing proven to improve the conditions and pay of workers across the board is trade unionism. Labour should do more to champion it.

Much of the coverage of Ed Miliband’s recent welfare speech focused on his promise to cap social security spending. This was perhaps understandable considering welfare is the pet subject of the tabloids. The speech also attracted attention because it was widely believed to mark a turning point for Labour. The party had 'seen the light' and was now dancing to George Osborne’s tune on spending, or so it was claimed.

Also contained in the speech, however, was a great deal of content which should have warmed the cockles of any socialist heart. Miliband pledged to look at the underlying structural factors which have contributed to increased social security spending, including the abuse by employers of zero hour contracts and what the trade unions have called "low pay UK". He also said Labour would do "everything in its power" to promote a living wage.

Not bad for a party that is regularly dismissed by some on the left as being beyond redemption. Miliband has publicly recognised that it is structural, rather than individual failings, that are busting our benefits system - a world away from the cheap and nasty murmurings about the meaning of Mick Philpott emanating from George Osborne’s office just a few months back.

But something has so far been missing from Labour’s narrative on workplace justice, the one thing proven to improve the conditions and pay of workers across the board: trade unionism. 

Given the predilection in the right-wing press for depicting Ed as the unions’ man (in the Labour leadership election the only group he won was the unions), it's perhaps understandable that Labour should be seeking to portray Ed as beholden to nobody but the electorate. But if Miliband is serious about dealing with the causes of Britain’s bloated social security bill then at some point he is going to have to recognise that in order to be decently treated (and by that I also mean decently paid), workers often have to take their destiny into their own hands – and that requires a trade union.

At the very least, Labour needs to look at reversing the trend of declining union membership, which is at its lowest level since the 1940s. Although there was a slight jump in membership recently, just two million private sector employees are now members of a union, which gives them a much weaker hand when it comes to asking for a pay rise.

The benefits to the workforce of unionisation are numerous. Studies have shown that unionised workers receive a higher premium for the work they do than non-unionised workers in both the private and public sectors. They also receive better sickness and pension benefits, more holiday and more flexible working hours than non-union members.

For many, the workplace remains one of the few areas of life completely untouched by democratic accountability. A recent survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) found that only a third of British workers were engaged in any form of dialogue with their bosses at their place of work, another third were largely "disengaged", while the remaining third were indifferent.

The fear of being labelled "Red Ed" because of his link with the unions may also be based on a misreading of public opinion. According to Ipsos MORI, three quarters of adults believe trade unions are "essential" for protecting workers' interests, while only 15 per cent disagree. Only 35 per cent believe unions have too much power, against 53 per cent who don’t.

Instead of running scared of those in the press who have always viewed workers’ rights with something approaching contempt, Labour should be asking how it can make unions relevant to a new generation of workers who are often unaware of the benefits collective bargaining can bring.

After all, improving the pay and conditions of Britain’s workforce - and in the process cutting the benefits bill - will not come about by compromise alone. While it may provide comfort to imagine that all will be well if only employers are sufficiently paternal, improved pay and conditions will only become a reality for the many through unglamorous collective struggle.

Demonstrators take part in a TUC march in protest against the government's austerity measures on October 20, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

Photo: Getty Images
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What do Labour's lost voters make of the Labour leadership candidates?

What does Newsnight's focus group make of the Labour leadership candidates?

Tonight on Newsnight, an IpsosMori focus group of former Labour voters talks about the four Labour leadership candidates. What did they make of the four candidates?

On Andy Burnham:

“He’s the old guard, with Yvette Cooper”

“It’s the same message they were trying to portray right up to the election”​

“I thought that he acknowledged the fact that they didn’t say sorry during the time of the election, and how can you expect people to vote for you when you’re not actually acknowledging that you were part of the problem”​

“Strongish leader, and at least he’s acknowledging and saying let’s move on from here as opposed to wishy washy”

“I was surprised how long he’d been in politics if he was talking about Tony Blair years – he doesn’t look old enough”

On Jeremy Corbyn:

"“He’s the older guy with the grey hair who’s got all the policies straight out of the sixties and is a bit of a hippy as well is what he comes across as” 

“I agree with most of what he said, I must admit, but I don’t think as a country we can afford his principles”

“He was just going to be the opposite of Conservatives, but there might be policies on the Conservative side that, y’know, might be good policies”

“I’ve heard in the paper he’s the favourite to win the Labour leadership. Well, if that was him, then I won’t be voting for Labour, put it that way”

“I think he’s a very good politician but he’s unelectable as a Prime Minister”

On Yvette Cooper

“She sounds quite positive doesn’t she – for families and their everyday issues”

“Bedroom tax, working tax credits, mainly mum things as well”

“We had Margaret Thatcher obviously years ago, and then I’ve always thought about it being a man, I wanted a man, thinking they were stronger…  she was very strong and decisive as well”

“She was very clear – more so than the other guy [Burnham]”

“I think she’s trying to play down her economics background to sort of distance herself from her husband… I think she’s dumbing herself down”

On Liz Kendall

“None of it came from the heart”

“She just sounds like someone’s told her to say something, it’s not coming from the heart, she needs passion”

“Rather than saying what she’s going to do, she’s attacking”

“She reminded me of a headteacher when she was standing there, and she was quite boring. She just didn’t seem to have any sort of personality, and you can’t imagine her being a leader of a party”

“With Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham there’s a lot of rhetoric but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of direction behind what they’re saying. There seems to be a lot of words but no action.”

And, finally, a piece of advice for all four candidates, should they win the leadership election:

“Get down on your hands and knees and start praying”

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.