From parliamentary representation to a government focus

Although there are clearly opportunities to be had in undertaking parliamentary activity, as a political strategy it too is very limited. Without a sympathetic government to advance the cause, parliamentarians have little power to initiate change. it is true that they may initiate private members’ legislation, as when John McDonnell MP introduced the Lawful industrial Action (Minor Errors) Bill 2010.47 But without government support, measures of this kind have no chance of success in a hostile parliamentary environment.48 An effective political voice needs a government focus, that is to say a focus designed to influence the policy and behaviour of government. Plainly, both electoral and parliamentary activity respectively contribute to such a focus, and plainly both overlap with a government focus. But they are not enough.

A government focus may take two forms, the first being to secure the election of a political party that is sustained by trade unions and which will be expected to represent the interests of trade unions and their members in government. This requires workers to identify heavily with workplace questions when exercising their rights as citizens, and to do so in large enough numbers. Given the nature of electoral politics in Westminster systems with single member constituencies, it is unlikely that any political party could secure government on its own, when the party in question is composed only of trade unions and trade union members. As a result it is generally necessary for a trade union government strategy of this kind to be exercised through a political party which is a coalition (sometimes a very uneasy coalition) of trade unions and other interests, as is typically the case of Labour parties in common law jurisdictions.

But although the trade union influence is diluted in such arrangements, they nevertheless provide opportunities for trade union representation at Cabinet and other senior levels within government. During the war-time coalition, Attlee was instrumental in bringing Ernest Bevin into government as Minister of Labour. it was only when Bevin was appointed Foreign Secretary in the post-war Labour government that he resigned as General Secretary of the TGWU. indeed, such was the significance of the TGWU that Bevin was not the only General Secretary to be appointed to Cabinet level, with Harold Wilson inviting Frank Cousins to join his Cabinet in 1964, a move that was the political equivalent of an appointment from the Bar to the Supreme Court. The significance of this appointment was not lost on a man who was later to succeed Cousins, with Jack Jones stressing ‘the importance of having an authentic trade union voice inside the Cabinet’49

MPs (among others) to oppose party funding reforms proposed by Sir Hayden Phillips in 2007. See Hayden Phillips, Strengthening Democracy: Fair and Sustainable Funding of Political Parties (HMSO, 2007). The story of that campaign has yet to be written.

  • 47 HC Debs, 22 October 2010, col 1211.
  • 48 Thus, although topping the private members’ ballot, the Bill was talked out by filibustering on the part of Tory backbenchers.
  • 49 Jack Jones, Union Man: An Autobiography, 2nd edn (Warren and Pell, 2008) 160. Jones also highlights the power senior trade unionists had to influence other appointments: for example Michael Foot as Secretary of State for Employment.

The other form that a government focus may take is one in which trade unions engage directly with the government of the day, regardless of its political composition. For trade unions to engage in political action of this kind, however, it is essential that they have power, which is usually power of an economic nature that governments need to manage. Thus it was a particular feature of western democracies in the post-war era that constitutional space was made for trade unions (and in some cases employers) communicating with government as social partners. To this end trade unions would be engaged on matters of economic management and while much of the dialogue was informal, formal structures were also put in place.[1] These include the National Economic Development council (established by a conservative government), a development of perhaps greater symbolic than political importance.[2]

Although by no means unprecedented (trade unions had been involved in economic management during the First World War), trade union involvement in economic management was thus institutionalized after 1945. one of the best examples of trade union engagement at this level was the Wage Restraint Bargain of 1948.[3] This is a measure celebrated by the Harvard historian samuel Beer. according to him the bargain was reached at a time of ‘intimate symbiosis between the unions and the Labour party’,[4] and was ‘remarkable as much for the way in which it was reached as for its contents and results’[5] This was a tripartite agreement (involving government, business, and the TUC); also according to Beer:

The bargain was not itself embodied in any legislative instrument such as a statute or statutory order. Yet it achieved a regulation of an important aspect of the British economy that no such legislative instrument by itself could have done. Indeed, one may think of it as a kind of extra-governmental regulation.[6]

The culmination of this particular government focus was the Social Contract of 1974, which was a bilateral agreement between the then Labour government and the TUC on economic policy.[7] In procedural terms (without any judgment as to substance), this was perhaps the apotheosis of a trade union government focus, and the apotheosis of trade union political influence. The bulk of the British trade union movement was formally affiliated to the Labour Party, in the sense that the largest trade unions were members of the party (and as such involved in the making of party policy). Their party was now in government and it was with the leadership of this party that they were now negotiating terms that would see concessions being given on pay restraint in return for legislation on trade union and workers’ rights, as well as beneficial policies on other matters.[8] As the

experience of the Social Contract perhaps reveals, the two approaches to a government focus for political activity described here are not mutually exclusive, with the impact of the second being strengthened by the effective deployment of the first.

Levels of Political Engagement—The European Union

The main focus of this chapter is with trade union political activity at national level. As well as national Parliaments and national governments, however, trade union political activity also requires parallel forms of engagement at sub-national levels of government, whether it be state or devolved governments and legislatures, or local government. All are important for a coherent trade union political strategy.

so too are forms of engagement with supra-national levels of government, most notably the EU. The evolution of the EU has provided opportunities for effective political engagement at electoral, legislative and governmental levels, both to expand workers’ rights and now—in a different economic and political climate—to defend them.

An interesting feature of the EU as it has evolved is the extent to which it has entrenched a legislative and governmental role in the TFEU for trade unions and employers by the process of social dialogue, as a means of creating labour standards on a pan-European basis, a procedure which has produced a number of important outcomes (such as parental leave) (TFEU, Arts 154, 155).

Perhaps inevitably, this procedure has been challenged, essentially on the ground of its lack of democratic legitimacy. In sharp contrast to the (extra-judicial) approach taken to such arguments in the United Kingdom, these concerns were rebuffed judicially in the context of the EU.58 The long slow death of this EU constitutional procedure will thus be for economic rather than constitutional reasons.

  • [1] Trade unions were not alone in securing such access, which gave rise to a number of sympatheticaccounts of pressure group politics in the US and the UK as being consistent with liberal democraticprinciples.
  • [2] See Jones 307 (n 49) (‘a useful talking shop’).
  • [3] For details, see Samuel H. Beer, Modern British Politics (Faber, 1965) 205-7. See also Victor L. Allen,Trade Union and Government (Longmans, 1960) 286.
  • [4] Kenneth O. Morgan, Labour in Power 1945-1951 (OUP, 1984) 79. 5 Beer 204 (n 52).
  • [5] 55 Beer 205 (n 52).
  • [6] 56 To the extent that it was tripartite, it was the Labour party and not the CBI that was the third party.
  • [7] 57 The legislative benefits—in the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act 1974 and the Employment
  • [8] Protection Act 1975—were at the time considerable, and would combine greatly to enhance worker voiceindustrially.
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