When New Labour came to power in 1997, British trade unions were jubilant. Immediately upon entering office, the Labour government signed up to the Social Chapter of the European Union and introduced the minimum wage.
Nevertheless, the statutory union recognition legislation was watered down and social partnership was not institutionalised beyond the Low Pay Commission. European social legislation was implemented in a minimalist way and Britain continued to function as an obstacle to a further development of the Social Dimension in the EU. Most importantly, however, New Labour did not repeal the anti-trade union laws by the Thatcher governments of the 1980s. Trade unions still have to run a highly complex and rigorous ballot of their members before announcing a strike and must give an advance notice of seven days of any strike action to their employer. A complete ban on solidarity and secondary action has remained in place.
In the case of recent strikes by British Airways cabin crew, key figures in the Labour government even went on air criticising Unite, the trade union organising BA cabin crew. Prime Minister Gordon Brown called the strike “unjustified and deplorable” and the Transport Secretary Lord Adonis referred to the planned strike as “totally unjustified”.
Yet several British trade unions, including Unite, continue to support New Labour in the run-up to the current general elections. There is, for example, Unite 4 Labour; the endorsement by the General Secretary of the GMB union; and a poster campaign by Unison.
Such a trade union commitment to support labour parties is not uncommon in Europe. Historically, labour parties and trade unions emerged in tandem as the two arms of the increasingly organised working class at the end of the 19th, or the beginning of the 20th century.
This historical legacy continues to have a strong impact on trade unions. In Sweden, although the Social Democratic government implemented a whole range of neo-liberal policies between 1994 and 2006, the main trade union confederation LO regularly put its bureaucratic apparatus at the disposal of the Social Democrats during election campaigns. In Germany between 1998 and 2005, the Social Democratic-led coalition government under Gerhard Schröder introduced a whole range of restructuring measures within the so-called Agenda 2010, including drastic cuts in pension and unemployment benefits. Trade unions did not like it, they organised demonstrations, but they refrained from criticising the Social Democratic Party openly during election campaigns.
Norwegian trade unions are a noticeable exception here. They have shown how a more independent position can result in more influence on policy-making as well as a revival of the close relationship with the Social Democratic Party. In 2000 and 2001 the then Social Democratic led government implemented several measures of neo-liberal restructuring against the wishes of trade unions. When the party then experienced one of its worst defeats in the 2001 elections, trade unions did not simply turn round and renewed their pledge to the party. On the contrary, prior to the 2005 elections they put forward their own political agenda, submitted related questions to all political parties and then endorsed those parties to the electorate, which had responded favourably. It was this focus on policies, rather than unquestioning support of the Social Democratic Party, which made clear to the latter that it first needed trade union support, if it wanted to return to power and second, that it could not take this support for granted, but needed to earn it with pro-labour policies.
Importantly, the policy programme by the trade unions rejected any kind of ‘third way’ policies. They made clear that only parties, which opposed any further privatisations or the outsourcing of public services to private sector providers, would receive their endorsement. While accepting that reform of the public sector was needed, unions put forward the Quality Municipality Project as their alternative, which focuses on reform through changes within the public sector including the incorporation of the expertise of the workforce. Trade unions have clearly been able to move the Social Democratic Party to the left again. Since the return to power by the Norwegian Social Democratic Party at the head of a three party coalition in 2005, old ties with the trade unions have been strengthened, the Prime Minister meets the President of LO, the main trade union confederation, on a fortnightly basis to discuss policies and any neo-liberal restructuring measures such as privatisation of the public sector are off the table.
Perhaps a similar, more independent strategy would also be more fruitful for British trade unions?
Professor Andreas Bieler