Wednesday 30 November 2011

Labour’s Business and the Unions

One of a very limited run of Labour’s Business will be given to every delegate who attends our annual conference entitled The Economic Alternative on January 14th. Full details and how to buy your tickets can be found here. Please purchase your tickets early to avoid disappointment.

Mark Rowney has worked for several years as a senior finance lawyer specialising in transport, energy and infrastructure at Clifford Chance LLP.

On Monday, two well known Labour party activists (Luke Bozier and Alex Smith) launched a pamphlet entitled “Labour’s business: Why Enterprise must be at the heart of Labour politics in the 21st century”. It aims to be not “a Labour manifesto for business”. Instead recognising that “in twenty-first century Britain, business must be at the very core of what it means to be Labour”, it aims to “inform future work on how Labour can become the party of enterprise”. When so far to date, Labour’s business policy is the incomprehensible distinction between so called predators and producers, and with yesterday’s budget statement offering little hope for the future, “Labour’s business” is a very welcome development.

Chapter Two of the pamphlet acknowledges the extremely important and valuable relationship that Labour has with business through the unions. Mark Glover is to be commended for giving thoughts on how Labour should embrace this relationship rather than give the tired and dated argument that comes from the right of the party for distancing Labour from the unions (not so say that many of Rob Marchant’s points in Chapter Three, such as weakening the hold unions have over candidate selection aren’t valid).

It’s understandable that many in Labour want to distance themselves from the unions. The unions, on the whole, have failed to modernise their public perception and relationship with the public. As a result, public discontent with the unions tars the image of Labour. However, Labour should help the unions to come up to date, not distance itself from its founding associations.
With polls showing that only 38% of the public back today’s strikes, it is clear that despite the simplicity and eloquence of the unions’ message, it does not get through. Hand on heart, the best I can empathically say for the unions is that if you kick a dog, don’t be surprised if it bites back. I know I’m factually wrong on that metaphor, but it’s what I feel.

Unions exist to support their members but their definitions of “support” and “members” seems weak. I have no idea if the day after Gaddaffi died, union members started sending recruitment and development teams to Libya, but they should have. Supporting members means growing in membership, targeting the 81% of people in the private sector who aren’t members. It means spreading the values of basic employment rights, non-discrimination and health and safety laws, to other developing countries. It means sitting on the board and taking responsibility for social corporate responsibility. It means being seen to be a positive force for business and change in society, not a barrier. Labour should help the unions achieve this goal.

“Labour’s business” doesn’t just talk about the internal relations of Labour with business and aims to be a jack of all trades. By its very nature, the pamphlet is superficial but that is its strength rather than its weakness; it aims to promote debate rather that set out a detailed line of argument. With eighteen chapters written by twenty different people and edited by two, the pamphlet varies in its tone and thought processes. Conflict in the thinking inevitably and happily arises.

Yet my suggestion for the initial focus for debate is to be found in Section One of the pamphlet. For as Section One argues, how can Labour really have a serious policy for business if it first does not have the internal relations with business and the capacity and culture for those relationships to develop and grow?

The Fabian Society would like to thank Alex Smith and Luke Bozier for their kind donation of the book.


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Rob Marchant said...

Good piece, Olly and thanks for the mention. I'd just add that I heartily agree that there is no mileage in Labour distancing itself from unions, but what could certainly help would be for unions spend more time servicing their membership and making a compelling reason to join a union; and less playing politics in foreign countries at the behest of a handful of far-left members (Venezuela, Palestine).

This indulgence is both hurting the good name of the labour movement and adding zero value to members (I have written extensively about union support for unpleasant regimes in both these countries at the Centre Left).