Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband attend a ceremony at Buckingham Palace to mark the Duke of Edinburgh's 90th birthday on June 30, 2011 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Whisper it, but there's almost nothing Labour and the Lib Dems disagree on

Compared to the New Labour years, the degree of policy overlap between the two parties is remarkable.

Yesterday's PMQs bout between Harriet Harman and Nick Clegg was one of the most quietly revealing for months. Berated by Harman over the Lib Dems' support for the NHS reforms, the bedroom tax and the abolition of the 50p tax rate, Clegg chose not to respond by defending his party's conduct or by dismissing Labour as a juvenile opposition unprepared for "grown up" government. Instead, he devoted almost all of his time to condemning the last Labour government: "the party of 40p [tax], sweetheart deals in the NHS, the party of Fred Goodwin, and the party against apprenticeships". 

Clegg's nostalgia for the pre-2010 era is understandable. Back then, the Lib Dems were able to draw a series of progressive and politically beneficial dividing lines with Labour: the Iraq war, civil liberties, tuition fees, electoral reform, tax, banking regulation and NHS privatisation. But owing to Ed Miliband, these differences have expired. In his first speech as Labour leader, which I described at the time as "a love letter to Lib Dem voters", Miliband condemned the Iraq war ("I do believe that we were wrong"), denounced New Labour's approach to civil liberties ("government can itself become a vested interest"), criticised the introduction of top-up fees ("stuck in old thinking about higher and higher levels of personal debt"), the refusal to tax the rich fairly and the "light touch" system of financial regulation ("responsibility in this country shouldn’t just be about what you can get away with.") Far from being the party of 40p, sweetheart deals in the NHS and Fred Goodwin, Labour has become the party of 50p, anti-privatisation deals in the NHS and Glass-Steagall.

Compared to the Blair-Brown years, the degree of policy consensus between Miliband and Clegg's parties is remarkable. The Labour leader's support for an in/out EU referendum following any new transfer of powers from Britain to Brussels (a stance identical to that of the Lib Dems) is the latest in a long list of areas where the reds and the yellows have converged. Both parties now support: 

- A referendum on EU membership the next time any powers are transferred (and support for an "in" vote)

- The introduction of a mansion tax on property values above £2m 

- The reduction of the voting age to 16 

- The removal of Winter Fuel Payments from wealthy pensioners 

- A 2030 decarbonisation target 

- An elected House of Lords

- Greater oversight of the intelligence services 

- Radical devolution from Westminster to local authorities and city regions

- Party funding reform

- An end to unqualified teachers in state schools 

- A ban on for-profit free schools 

- Tougher banking regulation and the potential separation of banks' retail and investment arms 

- A mass housebuilding programme, including new social housing 

- The Human Rights Act

After all of these, the remaining differences between the parties (with the possible exception of deficit reduction and electoral reform) are largely trivial. Labour, for instance, has pledged to reintroduce the 10p tax rate, while the Lib Dems are committed to a higher personal allowance of £12,500. The Lib Dems are resolutely opposed to Miliband's planned energy price freeze. But it is easy to imagine the parties coming to an agreement ("we'll give you your energy price freeze if you give us our £12,500 personal allowance") in the event of coalition negotiations.

While it suits both sides to play up their differences for political purposes (the retention of Lib Dem defectors is crucial to Labour's election chances), the reality is that, beyond the bluster, there is now very little they disagree on. As party president Tim Farron (and the party's likely next leader) told me last year: "I think he [Ed Miliband] is somebody who is genuinely of the Robin Cook wing of the Labour Party, from their perspective what you’d call the 'soft left'. Somebody who is not a Luddite on environmental issues, somebody who’s open minded about modernising our democracy, somebody who’s instinctively a bit more pluralistic than most Labour leaders and a bit more internationalist as well." Certainly it is impossible to imagine Clegg, or any other Lib Dem, ever delivering a Labour-facing version of his 2013 conference speech in which he listed 16 Conservatives policies he had blocked.

What is now clear is that it would be far easier for Labour and the Lib Dems to come to an agreement in 2015 than it would be for the Tories and the Lib Dems to do so. And if, as is possible, both of the main parties win enough seats to form a majority government with Lib Dem support that may prove very significant. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Trade unions must change or face permanent decline

Union membership will fall below one in five employees by 2030 unless current trends are reversed. 

The future should be full of potential for trade unions. Four in five people in Great Britain think that trade unions are “essential” to protect workers’ interests. Public concerns about low pay have soared to record levels over recent years. And, after almost disappearing from view, there is now a resurgent debate about the quality and dignity of work in today’s Britain.

Yet, as things stand, none of these currents are likely to reverse long-term decline. Membership has fallen by almost half since the late 1970s and at the same time the number of people in work has risen by a quarter. Unions are heavily skewed towards the public sector, older workers and middle-to-high earners. Overall, membership is now just under 25 per cent of all employees, however in the private sector it falls to 14 per cent nationally and 10 per cent in London. Less than 1 in 10 of the lowest paid are members. Across large swathes of our economy unions are near invisible.

The reasons are complex and deep-rooted — sweeping industrial change, anti-union legislation, shifts in social attitudes and the rise of precarious work to name a few — but the upshot is plain to see. Looking at the past 15 years, membership has fallen from 30 per cent in 2000 to 25 per cent in 2015. As the TUC have said, we are now into a 2nd generation of “never members”, millions of young people are entering the jobs market without even a passing thought about joining a union. Above all, demographics are taking their toll: baby boomers are retiring; millennials aren’t signing up.

This is a structural problem for the union movement because if fewer young workers join then it’s a rock-solid bet that fewer of their peers will sign-up in later life — setting in train a further wave of decline in membership figures in the decades ahead. As older workers, who came of age in the 1970s when trade unions were at their most dominant, retire and are replaced with fewer newcomers, union membership will fall. The question is: by how much?

The chart below sets out our analysis of trends in membership over the 20 years for which detailed membership data is available (the thick lines) and a fifteen year projection period (the dotted lines). The filled-in dots show where membership is today and the white-filled dots show our projection for 2030. Those born in the 1950s were the last cohort to see similar membership rates to their predecessors.

 

Our projections (the white-filled dots) are based on the assumption that changes in membership in the coming years simply track the path that previous cohorts took at the same age. For example, the cohort born in the late 1980s saw a 50 per cent increase in union membership as they moved from their early to late twenties. We have assumed that the same percentage increase in membership will occur over the coming decade among those born in the late 1990s.

This may turn out to be a highly optimistic assumption. Further fragmentation in the nature of work or prolonged austerity, for example, could curtail the familiar big rise in membership rates as people pass through their twenties. Against this, it could be argued that a greater proportion of young people spending longer in education might simply be delaying the age at which union membership rises, resulting in sharper growth among those in their late twenties in the future. However, to date this simply hasn’t happened. Membership rates for those in their late twenties have fallen steadily: they stand at 19 per cent among today’s 26–30 year olds compared to 23 per cent a decade ago, and 29 per cent two decades ago.

All told our overall projection is that just under 20 per cent of employees will be in a union by 2030. Think of this as a rough indication of where the union movement will be in 15 years’ time if history repeats itself. To be clear, this doesn’t signify union membership suddenly going over a cliff; it just points to steady, continual decline. If accurate, it would mean that by 2030 the share of trade unionists would have fallen by a third since the turn of the century.

Let’s hope that this outlook brings home the urgency of acting to address this generational challenge. It should spark far-reaching debate about what the next chapter of pro-worker organisation should look like. Some of this thinking is starting to happen inside our own union movement. But it needs to come from outside of the union world too: there is likely to be a need for a more diverse set of institutions experimenting with new ways of supporting those in exposed parts of the workforce. There’s no shortage of examples from the US — a country whose union movement faces an even more acute challenge than ours — of how to innovate on behalf of workers.

It’s not written in the stars that these gloomy projections will come to pass. They are there to be acted on. But if the voices of union conservatism prevail — and the offer to millennials is more of the same — no-one should be at all surprised about where this ends up.

This post originally appeared on Gavin Kelly's blog