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Trade Unions - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:03 pm on 18th July 2019.

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Photo of Lord Parekh Lord Parekh Labour 2:03 pm, 18th July 2019

My Lords, it is obvious that trade union membership has been steadily declining since the 1980s, for all kinds of reasons. There has been a decline in large-scale manufacturing industries, the privatisation of public services, the difficulty in recruiting young workers, a tendency to rely on the work of those who are already employed, and government legislation, which in many cases has been hostile. For all those reasons, trade union membership has been declining, and the question that I want to ask is: what are trade unions for?

Some might say that the fact that trade union membership is declining is good—it is what Mrs Thatcher and others would have said. What are we missing and what role do trade unions play in the life of a society? That is the theoretical question that I want to ask about British society and the role of trade unions. A lot of speakers have said a lot of interesting things about British society, in which I am simply a beginner.

If one asks oneself what the trade unions are for, there are three different answers, historically. First, they are there to mitigate the evil effects of capitalism and provide a safety net. Secondly, they are expected to humanise capitalism, enter its very structure and ensure equal rights and opportunities for everyone. The first is simply the law of capitalist society, and trade unions can simply play the capitalist game. The second is a liberal view, but there is a third view, which is that trade unions represent a new civilisation. They are based on the principle of co-operation, as opposed to competition, upon which capitalism is based. Trade unions are there as a harbinger of a new society structured on co-operative principles. I share that view, but not everybody does. Therefore, the question is: how can we ensure that we have a trade union movement which does not simply struggle to get workers higher wages—important though that is—or to guarantee an equal system of rights and humanised capitalism, but which has a genuine, serious, historical role in creating a new kind of society based on new principles?

The International Labour Organization is based on the second principle. The ILO and its literature make no reference to creating a new civilisation or society. It is largely about providing social justice, equal rights and equal opportunities. On its 101st anniversary, which we are celebrating today, I very much hope our efforts will be directed towards restructuring the ILO so that it does not forget the larger goal of a trade union movement, which no other movement can achieve.

Given this, there is a further question. As a harbinger of a new, co-operative society, trade unions are schools of citizenship and democracy. They are places where workers debate, deliberate on their affairs, make a significant input into how industry should be run, and help create a sensible, balanced economy. Trade unions are very important as schools of democracy. Therefore, the question is: how can trade unions play that democratic role of developing citizenship? Obviously, they can do this by extending democracy to the economic sphere rather than limiting it to the political one, so that democracy does not become merely a form of government but a form of collective living—a kind of society where we organise our affairs through deliberation and discussion.

As a democratic body, trade unions also provide a new kind of leadership. One of the regrettable features of modern society, in the absence of trade unions, is the way in which the pool of political talent and leadership which dominated this country 20, 30 or 40 years ago is no longer available. Political leaders move from university to PhDs and roles in research departments or helping Ministers—including my students. The kind of leadership previously provided by people who worked with workers and knew how to manage equals, resolve differences and propagate a common policy is no longer available, because trade unions are no longer available, or if they are, they do not play the role of democratic citizenship.

Lastly, by virtue of the role I have just described, trade unions cannot be simply economic organisations. They inevitably have a political orientation. They are not simply concerned with providing their members with work opportunities. They are also concerned with creating a society in which these opportunities come easily to everybody. In other words, as institutions which are concerned with not just the economy but the larger political framework within which the economy is embedded, they have an inevitable political orientation. Therefore, they come closer to political parties, especially the parties of the left, because these are the parties which are committed to transforming society.

That raises a tricky question which not many trade union movements have been able to face: as trade unions come closer to political parties by virtue of their own internal logic, how are the two related? Political parties would be tempted to use trade unions for their own purposes, but by contrast trade unions would like to use political parties for their own purposes. How can the alignment recognise the different points of orientation while at the same time recognising the points of co-operation? That is where, I am afraid, things in our own country have not always worked out well. Sometimes parties have forced trade unions to behave in a way that is not acceptable to them. Sometimes the unions have tried to lobby or bully the parties into doing certain things, whether it is anti-Semitism or whatever. Creating a space where the two can be aligned to mutual benefit without either being exploited by the other is a very important task which politically oriented trade unions will have to discharge.