A hundred years after the railway workers helped to establish the Labour Party, their hard-left leader, Bob Crow, wants to sabotage it. But any split with Labour would benefit the Tories, not his members.
In cutting funding to Labour, Crow (not even a member of the party) deliberately insulted John Prescott, a trade unionist for 47 years who was regularly sacked and disciplined for asserting rights that Crow’s members can now take for granted because of this government.
Fortunately, splitters such as Crow are rebutted by other new left-wing leaders such as Billy Hayes of the Communication Workers Union and Mick Rix of Aslef, as well as by more established figures like Unison’s Dave Prentis.
Nevertheless, if we are to avoid the split that both the hard left and the right want, we need a new understanding between trade unions and the government. It must be based on honesty and partnership, not slogans and confrontation.
Somehow trade unionists have become alienated about things we are not doing, rather than engaged in things we are. On railways, union slogans about “renationalisation” ignore Labour’s record of much better regulation and a £60bn investment programme to clear up the Tory shambles. In the NHS, a limited and practical use of the private sector has obscured both the real story – huge new government resources for health – and the reality that the public sector has always bought goods and services from the private sector.
How does spending hundreds of thousands on adverts attacking the government help anyone – except hostile newspaper proprietors? My own union contributions would have been better spent recruiting more members, and honestly asking why only 20 per cent of private sector workers are unionised, against 65 per cent in the public sector. Union members might ask for an audit on the actual impact of diverting party donations into “campaigns” that have nil influence.
That doesn’t mean blind loyalty or no criticism of government policies. Unions have a job to do in representing their members, as the Communication Workers Union (where I worked for 14 years) is doing on the future of the Post Office. Unions also have a responsibility not just to issue demands, but to be partners working for reform, as Unison has done in working with the government to get staff protected in PFI hospitals.
In their opposition to the last Budget’s tax rise, and their agenda to privatise and charge for the NHS, the Tories showed where the real threat is to trade unionists. The Budget established the terrain over which the future of British politics will be fought. Everyone on the left, including trade unionists, had better make their minds up about whose side they are on.
But as reaction to the Budget also showed, people back us on extra spending financed by extra taxation only with the crucial proviso that we reform public services which have not been delivering. This is the big ideological battle. Trade unionists and ministers have to find a way of winning it together, not losing it apart.
As every general secretary will confirm, Labour ministers, in contrast to the Tories, keep an open door to union representations. Nevertheless, union leaders often complain that they are not being listened to with as keen an ear as business, when, whatever the policy outcome, they are entitled to be. Ministers need to work harder at our friendships with John Monks and his colleagues on the TUC General Council and below. That is all the more important because Monks and several other big union leaders are due to go within the next couple of years. We need to build close working relationships with a new generation of leaders.
The government also has an obligation to take up real trade union concerns, such as the attack on occupational pensions. And we must be clearer on our support for a “social” dimension to Europe. Yes, Europe must be more competitive and this includes generating greater labour market flexibility so people can get into work more easily. Labour has delivered that – in contrast to the high unemployment elsewhere in Europe.
But this government has also increased rights at work – helping to reverse 20 years of union membership decline – signed up to Europe’s Social Chapter and backed European employee rights to consultation and information, as well as limitations on hours of work. We need to celebrate this record rather than be shy about it – and to be clear that a free market in Europe does not mean a free-for-all. Europe’s social values are what distinguish us from the US and competitors in the Far East. Economic reform to make Europe more competitive goes hand in hand with high social standards – at work, in welfare and in public services. This programme, along with Labour’s huge investment in public services (including £1bn more for London’s Underground, where many of Crow’s members work), is a formidable record.
Yes, much more needs to be done. Yes, we have made mistakes and some gratuitous statements have alienated union activists. But trade unionists also need to get real. We are in a tough political climate where our socialist values have to be fought for, not just indulged in. The right has made gains across Europe and in the US. Huge parts of the media are determined to defeat us.
If we are not very careful, we will all play into the hands of those whose agenda is to break the historic link between Labour and the unions, weakening both, and allowing only Tories and Trots to crow.
Peter Hain is minister for Europe, MP for Neath and a member of the GMB