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Trade Unions - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:46 pm on 18th July 2019.

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Photo of Lord Lea of Crondall Lord Lea of Crondall Labour 1:46 pm, 18th July 2019

My Lords, I am greatly indebted to my noble friend Lord Jordan for introducing this debate and to the contributions of other colleagues, including my noble friends Lord Morris and Lord Monks, and many other distinguished former colleagues in the TUC. The more the contributions have gone on, the more it has become apparent that we do not have a model of a company, in the private sector in this country, that accommodates where society needs to go. I will come back to that and ask the Minister some questions for consideration, but, in my first few minutes, I will first point out the nature of tripartism.

The ILO was invented 100 years ago. Anyone would think it was at the time of Ted Heath and then dumped at the time of Tony Blair or somebody else, but it was not; the ILO began in 1919 and is going strong in 2019. There is a microcosm of this and the dilemmas it faces in international and smaller companies, and the arrangements described by the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, in her interesting contribution. How does the representation of the workforce fit in to these different models? Otherwise, we will see a continuing decline in labour’s share of national outcome and the atomisation of society, rather than a collective consciousness—what some socialists have called “false consciousness”—and a bitter, xenophobic society based on the appeal of nationalism. I do not need to say more about how far that fits in with the present state of public discourse in this country.

I was very interested when I listened to my noble friend Lord Murphy of Torfaen, giving his accolade to Ernest Bevin. I vividly remember an afternoon in 1976 in Bonn, when Helmut Schmidt met Jim Callaghan with, it so happens, Jack Jones, Alan Bullock and me. The Bullock committee was visiting Germany to study both the origins and workings of the codetermination system. He said, “Look, Helmut Schmidt, I want to show you something”. There was a note initialled by Ernest Bevin giving authority to Field Marshal Montgomery and Marshal Rokossovsky to set up the first coal and steel tripartite codetermination system. Of course, it was not done in the Soviet zone, but that was the nature of how different zones were run at that time.

German society has benefited. It is not without difficulties now, but it did benefit—and the world benefited—from that initiative. Ernest Bevin was, above all, the great innovator. Alan Bullock identified three periods of his life in his three volumes: first, the trade unions—the creation of the Transport and General Workers’ Union—then his vital role as Minister of Labour during the war and then as Foreign Secretary from 1945 to 1951.

That is perhaps a good place to go from, because in his bones Bevin believed that socialism was not just to do with the state—and I would say to my noble friend Lord Adonis that this is a debate about the role of the trade unions. It is important that the state gets its role right, but we are looking at the dilemma of how we do the jigsaw between voluntary action in the trade union or workers’ organisation, the role of the employers, who are in some respects part of great multinationals, as well as small clusters organised in collectives—I think the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, expressed something along those lines; she will correct me if I am wrong. This is the cultural range that we are now trying to get our thinking around.

Back in 1995, when my noble friend Lord Morris was chairman of a group in the TUC, of which I was a secretary, we were looking to produce a report called I think Your Voice at Work. We were starting to present three tiers of representation—I am moving on to what we do about this, because we have been light on that in this debate, with respect to all noble Lords. First, think in tiers. Three tiers are an oversimplification, but give us something to think about. One is the individual right of representation. The second is an intermediate right of collective representation in various spheres. If you look at any classic text on trade unionism, you will find that its methods are varied; they are not just collective bargaining. The third has to link with the first, individual representation, and the second, information and consultation—or works councils, if you like. How do you fit this within the third one—collective bargaining—or even a fourth one such as board representation and so on?

Lower establishment size, with small bargaining units of 100, has produced a situation in which our model of 20 years ago is broken. You cannot make progress on trade union recognition with the Central Arbitration Committee, of which I was a member at one stage, looking at bargaining units of 100. It just does not go anywhere. So we need to think about a universal system of some sort of consultation body which can underpin the structure of board representation, because I have no doubt at all that we need a multistakeholder company.

None of this has been flavour of the month in Victoria Street for about 30 years—but Victoria Street has some contribution to make in putting a bit of intellectual firepower behind the rethink of where we are going. One immediate thing to think about is how the new 2% threshold on information and consultation bodies, replacing the 10% requirement, can lead to our being able in the next 12 months to have a big campaign so that we can succeed, with government support, in going in that particular direction, and then see how it fits in with a new structure of company law and organisation for stakeholder involvement.