The 150th Anniversary Congress of the TUC was both a celebration of the past – and a chance to look to the future of trade unions in Britain.
Politics for the Many – the trade union campaign for political reform – was present for the first time, with a suite of events to put democratic change on the agenda.
Trade unions’ influence and power has waned since they organised huge workforces in the industrial 20th century. In that time, they radically shaped the power balance of society.
While a driving force behind 19thC suffrage struggles and – more recently – Scottish devolution, unions have not always been on the side of political reform. As Howard Beckett, Assistant General Secretary of Unite (speaking in a personal capacity) said at the Politics for the Many fringe, trade unions can be small-c conservative when it comes to some issues – including on our voting system –which is at odds with their history of leading change.
Howard went on to say a system that Westminster’s voting system has given us governments again and again that lack the support of a majority of voters – usually at the expense of the left. “It has created the most hostile legal environment for trade unions in any EU state.
It might seem strange that the trade unions have on the whole been reluctant to challenge the status quo structures of a Westminster system, ones which have allowed corporate interests to weigh much more in successive government policy making than the interests of workers.
But more and more trade unionists are taking notice of the democratic deficit caused by the Westminster system. The audience backed Lynn Henderson, National Political Officer of the PCS union, when she said: “Policy from all parties is targeted at the small number of swing voters in key marginal seats”. With these areas targeted for investment, the rest of the country loses out.
For some, worries about proportional voting ‘letting the far-right steal power’ trumps all the gains and benefits that a better system of elections would bring.
Sam Tarry, Political Officer for the TSSA union, and until recently a councillor in Barking and Dagenham for eight years, took on this worry – telling the meeting that years of neglect of working class voters in favour of swing voters in key marginals, led to a sense of disillusion and anger.
That was then able to be whipped up by the BNP, allowing them to make huge inroads in the area. It took concerted campaigning and listening to those previously-ignored voters to wipe out the BNP at the following election.
Sam made the point that if Labour and the trade union movement want to restructure the economy to share wealth and prosperity more fairly, they will have to redress the huge imbalances in our politics to ensure that workers’ gains aren’t immediately undone. For the labour movement, fairness and equality should be at the heart of political structures – a radical departure from where we are now.
Looking forward from this 150th anniversary, the future of work and society is one of constant change. New spaces are opening up for trade unions to shape the world again in workers’ interests.
That could mean shorter working weeks, and being paid enough for a good life in a strong community. But it should also mean thinking about how a state that was designed to serve the interests of the few can be reshaped to enhance and protect the lives of the many. This must be part of a new trade unionism.
As we look to Labour conference at the weekend, this is an issue for the labour movement as a whole.
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Politics for the Many will be at Labour conference – see here.