Let the enemy in

The history of trade unions suggests they could be a valuable part of the “big society” – if only th

The Con-Lib coalition's ambition for a "big society" based on a reduction of central "big government" and support instead for local "people power" includes community organisers, social volunteers and even employee-owned co-operatives in the public sector - but not, it seems, trade unionists. Indeed, both the government parties have a deeply entrenched hostility towards the unions.

Following the collapse of Edward Heath's half-hearted anti-union drive in the face of the national coalminers' strikes of 1972 and 1974, the Conservative Party under Margaret Thatcher went so far as to brand the unions as "the enemy within", and made maximum electoral advantage out of the collapse in their working relationship with the Labour government during the Winter of Discontent in 1979.

The Liberal Party, meanwhile, had long supported various forms of industrial partnership. But even in the heyday of Jo Grimond's renewed emphasis on participatory democracy from the late 1950s, it focused on local government and eventually on "community politics", with the unions generally being regarded as an integral part of the socialist obstacle.

Leaving aside assumptions about their historic role, trade unions are still among Britain's most important voluntary associations, with a combined membership of over seven million people. Like most other large voluntary organisations, they are in a position to negotiate attractive discounts on financial services, but their specific expertise in recent years has been in providing their members with legal advice and representation over such issues as unfair dismissal, discrimination and harassment: in 2007 they won a record £330m in compensation. With consultation and social inclusion being widely accepted as important elements in sustainable economic efficiency, trade unions can also provide significant benefits for sympathetic employers by channelling the voice of employees in the workplace.

In this way, Britain's trade unions today could be seen to have moved back towards their earliest roots. The powerful craft unions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, such as in the shipyards, were able to provide an even wider range of financial benefits for their members - covering everything from unemployment to pensions - before the national welfare state came into existence. In periods of economic prosperity, they were also remarkably successful in imposing their preferred wages and working conditions on employers, who rarely engaged in head-on confrontations because they relied on the craft workers' skill and independence in the workplace.

On this basis, a wider radical politics was developed, revolving around a network of trade unions, friendly societies and co-operatives, supplemented where necessary by social services administered through democratically elected local bodies. This was at the core of the vision of "Original Labour" that emerged under the umbrella of Gladstonian Liberalism in the 1870s and 1880s. The Labour Party's own version of social and political progress based on the emancipation of the people and the empowerment of voluntary associations only began to fade as the long, deep interwar depression undermined the finances of even the strongest of the craft unions and laid the basis for an increasing dependence on the central state to provide economic stability.

The party's role in national government during the Second World War, which was widely considered to require highly centralised solutions to domestic emergencies, marked it as a centralising force for the next half-century - though there continued to be sporadic displays of
craft independence, most notably during the work-in at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders in 1971, in which Jimmy Reid, who died early last month, played a leading role.

The current government's ambitions therefore have a substantial affinity with the earlier history of the trade union movement, and indeed of the Labour Party. By omitting the unions from its vision of the "big society", the coalition leaves it rather thin and impoverished. A test of just how "big" the government is prepared to let society be, is whether it embraces the empowerment of groups which might want to discuss matters rather than passively carrying out tasks already determined at the centre, and which might have the experience and ability to do something about it if they end up disagreeing.

There is also a challenge here to the unions: to rethink not just their history, but also their current role in society. The government's rhetoric makes this a good time to revive discussions of the possibility of real industrial democracy. A recent meeting of the History & Policy Trade Union Forum, chaired by John Edmonds (former leader of the GMB), was addressed by Lord (David) Lea, who recalled discussions of this issue at the TUC in 1977. At that time, unions were unwilling to allow the emergence of works councils as a rival channel of representation, while the proposal to have union representatives on company boards was undermined by resistance to being drawn away from their traditional role as the permanent opposition in the workplace.

The subsequent debate at the forum suggested that the unions might have underestimated the influence they could have through works councils. Moreover, given the sectoral shifts in employment and union strength that have accompanied the decline in manufacturing, the obvious place to start again today would be in the public sector. A campaign there for representation on works councils might make an interesting parallel to the government's proposal for employee co-operatives. It might also provide that focus for the recruitment of younger members which British trade unions so badly need and which the government, if it is serious about the idea of a "big society", should be the first to welcome.

Alastair Reid is a fellow of Girton College, Cambridge and editor of "History and Policy" (historyandpolicy.org). His latest book is "The Tide of Democracy: Shipyard Workers and Social Relations in Britain, 1870-1950" (Manchester University Press)