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

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Where are the unions in the independence debate?

As the Scottish TUC publishes its second 'A Just Scotland' report today, the Scotsman newspaper queries why both sides of the independence debate seem so far to have failed to woo the unions on their social justice agenda. http://www.scotsman.com/news/andrew-whitaker-the-referendum-and-the-union-vote-1-3312820
   While it is the case that public pronouncements from both camps have been thin on the ground, there is no doubt that there is behind the scenes nudging and winking about how each settlement would best serve workers' interests. Nevertheless, the article is right in its main thrust that most of the effort seems to be going into getting big business and celebrities on board.

This may not be surprising since the Better Together campaign is harnessed by the Tories presence. And despite the Yes campaign having Greens and Socialists in its ranks, it is effectively the SNP campaign. Both offer varying levels of some kind of 'socially responsible' neo-liberal agenda as if this was the 'settled will' of the electorate.

The social justice policies laid out in the STUC reports are far more radical than any of the campaigns wants to embrace. While some unions have nailed their colours to the mast, most STUC affiliates have taken the position of laying out the kind of Scotland they would like to see and trying to put that at the centre of the debate - challenging both campaigns to outline how their constitutional preferences would deliver.

In many ways this is an essential strategy. The debate is a major opportunity to get people thinking about the kind of society we want as opposed to mere flag waving. That opportunity must not be missed.

While the strategy has had some success, the issues are still not obviously at the centre of the debate. That may develop as the 'nuts and bolts' come more to the fore in the debate as the referendum date approaches. Real issues like currency, tax, services, benefits and workers' rights will steadily become more important as people start to think about what it means for them in real life.

The excerpt of 'A Just Scotland' released last week on the currency options is a welcome reasoned contribution to the debate. This does exactly what the STUC promised - putting the facts before people, giving the information  behind the sound-bites and promoting a debate on what will or could be different under all the options. http://www.stuc.org.uk/news/1049/stuc-to-publish-the-second-a-just-scotland-report-early-excerpts-on-currency-union.

As Whittaker says in the Scotsman, it is likely that most unions, including UNISON, lean towards an enhanced devolution settlement being the best way to deliver on the kind of social justice they would like to see.

But the hard political fact is that the independence debate, unlike the pre-1999 devolution debate, is not based on a widely and deeply felt consensus. It has the potential to be damagingly divisive. That, more than anything, lies behind the internal reticence to take a definitive position.

But it also lies behind the external tactics. There was an initial drive from both campaigns to drive unions and the STUC towards backing one camp or the other. Since then there has been a more circumspect approach. Frankly neither side is confident of winning in the major unions and neither wants to lose.

That may suggest that the trade union influence is a wee bit stronger than the article suggests.