The Labour Party was founded to provide Parliamentary representation for the trade union movement. Socialist societies, including our own [Fabians], provided the other foundational pillars. For as long as these core links to the labour movement remain intact, Labour remains a worker's party. Despite this, the contemporary Labour Party suffers a tendency of courting a liberal meta-narrative that seeks to de-legitimise the foundational remit of the labour struggle. Bombarded by the media and opposition parties with the message that trade-unionism is dead, out of touch and out of date, the public are often left without access to an alternative discourse. This in turn destroys the incentive of workers to rally behind the only party that institutionally represents their interests.
The truth is - there has been no economic shift that has left trade-unionism defunct. Collective bargaining provides the same opportunities for our generation that it provided previous generations, and attacks on our ability to organise are as vicious and damaging. The Tories continue to erode trade union powers, with recent policies including forcing union members to “opt in” to their unions' respective political levies, barring unions from automatically deducting membership fees from unionised Public Sector workers' pay packets, introducing industrial tribunal fees and the abolition of the agricultural wages board. While it might be tempting to buy into the “death of trade-unionism” discourse in a country where only 29% of the workforce have collective bargaining coverage, we need only look to Sweden's 88% coverage to understand that this was no organic decline and we have a great deal more to achieve.
Trade unions are often left doing the “dirty work” of the labour movement, such as providing international solidarity and supporting progressive initiatives, as well as organising workers and fighting the erosion of the labour rights. While trade unions necessarily take on a different role in a movement to that of a Parliamentary party, they should do so with the strategic support of the party and greater efforts should be made to ensure that trade-unions are not undermined in the public discourse.
In addition to cutting through Anti-Trade Union rhetoric, Labour should commit to a forward-thinking programme of progressive labour legislation. It should seek to facilitate easier strike balloting by modernising regulation to allow online voting. Crucially, worker representation should be ensured on boards of medium and larger companies; a policy that has a record of enabling employees to influence labour policies within companies, reducing the need for strike action, and has support from all sides of the Party.
The Party should support the incorporation of the ILO Conventions into UK law, with similar standing to the Human Rights Act. Furthermore, there should be moves to reintroduce wage councils, statutory bodies empowered to set minimum wages in industries, abolished 1994 after a long period of cross-party support. More should also be done to defend the concept of tripartite negotiations on labour legislation, and to support the growth of cooperatives.
The Labour Party must ensure in policy and public engagement that its ties to the trade union movement remain strong and that it represents those the party was founded to serve.
Adèle Cain is a Young Fabians member
This article was first featured in Volume 19, Issue 1 | Autumn 2015 of Anticipations