Twelve per cent—that was the dismal turnout in the recent contest to elect the general secretary of Unite. Hence Len McCluskey claimed victory having persuaded fewer than one in 18 members to vote for him. It’s yet another symptom of apathy and malaise in a trade union movement afflicted by a long-standing decline in membership.
Why should we care? Deepening insecurity and sluggish wage growth are affecting the post-crash labour market. Precarious low-paid work—unreliable self-employment, agency working and zero-hours contracts—affects one in ten workers. Employers often face few consequences: enforcement of minimum wage and employment legislation has been under-resourced; workers have been expected to enforce their own rights through employment tribunals where new fees apply.
Unions aren’t doing enough about all this. There are exceptions, such as the efforts of the GMB’s professional drivers’ branch to get Uber drivers classified as workers rather than as self-employed. But there is no sense of a wider mobilisation where it is needed most: membership rates are four times higher in the public than the private sector, and 70 per cent higher among graduates than those with no qualifications at all. Unions represent fewer than one in 10 of the lowest paid.
These statistics shame a movement founded to fight labour exploitation. Unions would argue it’s harder to organise in today’s increasingly fragmented private sector workplaces, especially in a hostile political environment. There’s some truth in that.
There’s been more innovation in the US, where political conditions have also been hard. And yet the Service Employees International Union in Nevada increased coverage across several private hospital chains in a matter of months. US unions have set up online platforms to encourage the hiring of employees rather than self-employed contractors. Why have UK unions been so slow off the mark? The Unite election offers a clue. It was regarded by too much of the union world as a proxy battle over Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership: a symptom of a movement that has become first an arena for Labour Party struggles, and, only second, a movement to represent Britain’s workers.
To question this is to question one of the shibboleths of the labour movement. The relationship has been symbiotic since the early 20th century, when the unions founded Labour. But that doesn’t mean it’s right for the future. It sets up all the wrong incentives. Why should leaders try to broaden their base, when their preferred method of influencing the political sphere doesn’t require it—because it amounts to holding the balance of power on Labour Party committees and striking intra-party deals to get union-backed candidates selected in safe parliamentary seats? Low turnout among a narrow base suits entrenched incumbents just fine.
This creates a vicious cycle: affiliated unions’ strong Labour brand makes it harder to recruit employees of other political persuasions. It matters. Support for the Conservatives has steadily grown among the skilled working class since 1997. They lead Labour comfortably. Theresa May’s flirtation with the idea of putting workers on boards is suggestive of a Conservative Party looking to attract working class support: an opportunity for influence for the unions.
Many in the union movement would find this naive, insisting the Tories can’t be trusted with workers’ rights. But when Labour is failing to maintain its core vote, this has the patronising ring of “false consciousness” about it. The elephant in the room is the role of union funding as a counter to the funding the Tories attract from business and the rich. A modern, pragmatic union movement would offer to break its formal links with the Labour Party, in exchange for modest state funding of political parties and a ban on any large donations from all other sources. Discuss.