10 September 2007

3 votes for Coffee, 1,435,210 votes for tea

Yes, folks, Conference season is upon us once again and as is traditional, we kick off with the TUC. (By the way, I'm hoping to be blogging from the SNP Conference in Aviemore next month, if I can get a good connection at the hotel)

Anyway, this is as good a time as any to think about Brown's relationship with the Unions. Many Trade Unionists have seen Brown as the antidote to Blair: Blair was a necessary evil, perhaps even a Trojan Horse, to make Labour acceptable to Middle England, and to secure a Labour Government; Brown was the one who would deliver real Labour policies. That was the expectation. What they got was a Prime Minister who has praised Margaret Thatcher (reviled by the Unions) for being a conviction politician, and brought in Tories as his advisors.

Remember that in 2005, UNISON launched a poster campaign, attacking the Tories and lampooning their own publicity ('Are you thinking what we're thinking?' was met with 'What are the Tories thinking?!'). If I were in UNISON, I know what I'd be asking: I'd be asking why so much time and effort was spent fighting the Tories and backing a third Labour term, only for a Labour PM to seek advice from Tories and pay homage to Thatcher.

So Brown does not (or at least, should not) start off with the best of relationships with the Unions. Where does he go from here?

Can he turn up the heat?

In the short term, yes. This will leave the Tories without a leg to stand on and generate positive headlines in the right-wing press. However, beyond that, it makes a full-on confrontation in the form of widespread industrial action very likely, and this will kill his Governmnet, just as the Winter of Discontent damaged Callaghan (though the devolution fiasco landed the fatal blow), and Heath's 'Who Governs Britain?' election to face down the miners generated the answer, "Not Edward Heath!" When the strikes bite, the press will turn, and the Tories will go on a very successful attack.

Can he pursue a niggly relationship with them, as now?

Possibly. It keeps his right flank solid, and in England, there is no credible left-wing alternative at the moment, with the exception of apathy. The LibDems are only leftist in some parts of the country (such as Manchester) and the total lack of impact by the Leadership rules them out of tempting people into their camp. Respect, meanwhile, requires large Muslim populations (and even then, they have to be completely disaffected with Labour, and completely unwilling to go in any other direction, neither of which is assured) and the person of George Galloway to thrive. Scotland is a different story: a LAbour that antagonises the Unions will lose leftist voters (though not key Union people themselves, who are too strongly associated with Labour to defect easily) hand over fist to the SNP. In a potential situation where every seat will matter, with the possibility of a Hung Parliament looming large, and with the West Lothian question hanging over politics like a cloud ready to unleash a torrential downpour, more SNP MPs would be Brown's worst nightmare. And with more SNP members in prominent local positions, it would be Wendy Alexander's worst nightmare as well.

Can he give the Unions everything they want?

Yes, but only if he wants to lose Middle England completely, hand over to David Cameron at the next election and see Labour reduced to a rump 'core vote', as the Tories have been in recent years.

Can he give them a little of what they want, but not everything?

Politically, this would be the worst option. If Brown gives an inch, the right will scream that he's kowtowing to the Unions. Only a handful will pick this up at first, but then, only a handful of Union members will be happy: they won't want to go part of the way towards their goals; they will want to reach them. Was the introduction of a minimum wage enough? Of course not: they want it to be higher. Is passing anti-discrimination law enough? Of course not: they (quite sensibly) want it to be enforced. Beyond employment law, did devolution kill the SNP stone dead, as George Robertson predicted? Definitely not!

With every demand that Brown agrees to, another one will come in its place. And with every demand Brown agrees to, the more people on the right of Labour's support will switch back to the Tories, and the more bitter the battle will become when the demands reach such a level that he has to dismiss them. He will face questions from the Right as to why he has drawn the line in the sand at that point and no sooner. He will face questions from the Left as to why he was willing to go as far as he had done, but no further. He will enter into a major row with the Unions, and perhaps the same industrial action as if he had gone into battle with them from Day One, but without the initial goodwill of the Right.

The bottom line

In short, Brown's options all carry risks: the 'niggle' option is possibly the safest for Brown, as he will be hit by the SNP, but strikes by the Unions would be impossible to justify, and he would cut off an obvious Tory line of attack that he is in thrall to the Unions who prop up Labour.

Brown likes to talk about being a 'British' politican. Here's his chance to prove it: can he battle the Tories, and win on their turf, at the expense of losing some ground to the SNP? If not, it shows that Scotland and Scottish politics is still his main focus, perhaps undermining a taunt that can be (and has been) levelled at him by the SNP (that he's sold out Scotland for his place in Downing Street), but giving fuel to the Tory taunt that he's a Scot running England, while the SNP run his own country.

And that opens up a whole new can of worms on the other kind of Union.


Anonymous said...

a full-on confrontation in the form of widespread industrial action very likely, and this will kill his Governmnet

So... the unions want the Tories to win and are willing to strike to achieve that? I know some of them are a bit mental, but this seems... unlikely.

Anonymous said...

The Lib Dems are only leftist in some parts of the country. My, who does that remind you of, the SNP are only leftist in some parts of their 'government'. I'm looking forward to the first time Enterprise Minister, Jim Mather, (slightly to the right of Atilla) sits down with the Scottish Unions. No TU representation on the 'Council of Economic Advisors'. Your post is riddled with inaccuracies and poor analysis of the wider labour movement on these islands. The SNP needs to decide which side it is on and in the meantime let the unions decide which party best delivers for their members.

Will said...

Anon 1... it has happened before, remember. Regardless of the strategy that Unions might want to employ, and the fact that Unions would obviously prefer Labour to the Tories notwithstanding, do the Unions really have a choice but to pursue action if the relationship deteriorates? Should the Unions waive one of the most important labour rights they have (the right to strike) just to keep Gordon Brown in a job?

And Anon 2... if you feel I'm missing bits out, and getting things wrong, perhaps you might like to put your money where your mouth is and explain what I am missing out and getting wrong.

Meanwhile, you might do well to remember that all the SNP's Government Ministers stood on the same manifesto as every other SNP candidate, which included, amongst other things, an end to PFI, the development of a progressive Local Income Tax, an increase in nursery provision, a reduction in student fees and student debt, and wider access to free prescriptions. Now regardless of what you think of Jim Mather, I think that makes for a pretty leftist Government. If by 2011, it hasn't made any effort in any of these directions, then I'll concede defeat on this point.

One wider point: you've inadvertantly highlighted a major problem when you say, "let the unions decide which party best delivers for their members". Why can't members decide which party best delivers for themselves? Is the wider labour movement in such a state that its leaders have to tell everyone in it what to think?

Drew said...

Well you can add Stewart Stevenson and Mike Russell to that list as well and abolishing the property tax and slashing corporation taxes, not exactly a leftist programme. This is the fundamental contradiction at the heart of an SNP administration. People join the Nats becuase they believe in Scottish independence from the rest of Britain, a worthy if not yet politically popular cause. But an SNP administration will inevitably become torn between the Sandra White's (the unacceptable face of your own loony left) and the low tax pro business tartan tories. Unfortunately, there just isn't a cheap populist solution to every debate in public policy and without an ideological compass the new executive will eventually flounder.

PS the unions do let their members decide which party their union support - its the law and its called the political ballot fund.

Will said...

Well, Drew, I'm sure that Alex Salmond (who was booted out of the Party for a while for his part in the '79 Group, remember) will be surprised to read (if he's reading this, that is - and if you are reading this, Alex, get back to work!!!) that he is not a leading a leftist party.

I agree that the SNP is a broad church and that independence is the key factor, though I would remind you that every single one of those MSPs was elected on the same manifesto, which was supposed to last for four years. It's not as though the SNP is going into Government with a blank sheet of paper. And it's worth remembering that the property tax would be replaced by one that is based on what people can afford to stump up in cash, unlike the Council Tax which is based on what their house was (or would have been) worth in the 90s. The former seems far more progressive, at least.

Also, the law is there, but when the endorsement - however it's reached - goes out to every Union member in circulars and leaflets, how can members make an informed choice at the ballot box when the Union that is supposed to support them only gives them one side of the story? Is there space for dissenting opinion? Is there a 'minority report'?

If not, then the law may be there, but Unions can still force-feed their members whatever political line agreed when the vote was taken. And a member who disagreed with the line before it was established now finds that their Union continually sends them literature which they disagree with, and claims to speak on behalf of them when its leaders utter something they oppose. And opting out of the political fund won't stop the newsletters supporting Party X coming through the door, it won't stop the Union's spokespeople repeating its endorsement to the press.

Under those circumstances, when a Union completely fails to represent that member's point of view, can that Union be considered to be representing that member effectively?

Mountjoy said...

Just why should a member of a trade union vote for Gordon Brown’s party when Brown is offering a pathetic half-of-inflation rise for public sector workers? This is an insult and betrayal to people without this country could not run. Their votes have often been taken for granted by Labour, but should that be the case any more.

It will be sad to see strikes again but public sector workers have been pushed too far. It is a drastic course of action to have to take, but I for one support their cause - a decent wage rise.