UNISONActive is an unofficial blog produced by UNISON activists for UNISON activists. Bringing news, briefings and events from a progressive left perspective.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Trade Unions and the future

At yesterday's Compass Conference Professor Huw Benyon of Cardiff University made the following contribution to a seminar on 'How can trade unions be agents of the social change we need today?':

"Trade unions are often and increasingly being identified as special interest groups. - groups that have to be faced down by government in defence of the general good. Trade unions have in the past felt vulnerable to this change and reluctant to openly challenge a government elected by the people.

However there is another view and one that is gaining ground and will continue to do so in the next decade. It is a view that I hold and it is that the trade unions are now the only institutional capable of preserving a democratic civil society, constraining the unbridled powers and capacities of the rich.

This view is build on the past experiences of government, parties and members of parliament all of which are losing legitimacy being seen to act out of self interest of the country as a whole. A number of factors co contribute to this.

The breakdown of the two party system means that none of the single parties will again win an election backed by the majority of those who voted, let alone a majority of the electorate.

This is exacerbated by the ongoing formation of a new political classdominating Westminster politics. This class is drawn largely from business and professional families and educated in the major universities; mainly Oxbridge. Normally recruitment to the class requires no experience of employment beyond the political machine itself where work in research and public relations is obtained often through patronage.

More broad spatial demographic changes also have an effect. Danny Doring has identified the ways in which “mixed neighbourhoods” have become far less prevalent as the property market has worked in a way that people increasingly life close to people like themselves. As a consequence (and for example) almost all the members of the current cabinet represent constituencies with unemployment rates far below that national average.

This spatial effect is likely to continue and make it increasingly difficult for there to be the development of a coherent national strategy to deal with the complex of crises (economic, political, environmental) that will face the UK. One consequence of this will be an increasing centrifugal force seeing Scotland becoming independent in all but name and greater powers devolved to Wales and Ulster.

To this mix must be added the policies of the current government with regard to the public sector. The cutbacks planned by conservative and liberal ministers will, in the view of the IMF, see the UK have the lowest level of public expenditure of all the OECD countries by 2014. In three years time, with these plans, the UK will have achieved what the Tea Party in the US is demanding.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the upward trend in income inequality which began with the intervention by the IMF in 1987 – when the bankers in New York decided that the UK had “run out of rope” - and has gone on apace since then, seems likely to continue. It is currently at a level not seen since before the first world war with the top 1% receiving 20% of the national income. Life expectancy in some of these rich places is increasing year on year while opposite takes place in the poor places.

Who can speak out against all of this? Who and which organisations can attempt to affect changes in these powerful tendencies?

It is interesting to note that incomes were more equal in the UK in 1976. This was also the year when people declared themselves to be happiest. It was also the year when trade union membership peaked. These things are not unrelated. As Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett conclude in their book The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone, institutional changes associated with right wing politics have been at the root of rising inequalities and of these changes trade union membership is the most important single factor."