Friday, 22 April 2011

The role of Trade Unions

The major influences in my political development have been a personal lack of opportunity, football, the church and trade unionism (not necessarily in that order).

Another key influence was Margaret Thatcher. I grew up in the 1980s and while political philosophies take some time to formulate I always knew I could never be a Tory. My political conscience was probably determined by issues such as the miners' strike and the destruction of industry. I owe Mrs Thatcher a great deal, although I have no wish to meet her to thank her personally. I'm sure I'm not the only Liberal Democrat whose political motivations were decided by the negative legacy of the Thatcher era.

It will therefore probably come as no surprise that I have been a believer in trade unionism for far longer than I've been a believer in partisan electoral politics. Some people have called me a communist - fortunately there's never been sufficient evidence to convict me on that score. No, I'm not a "leftie" but I'm a union member and I've been proud to have been active within UNISON and for several years served as a workplace representative. On one level, union work dictated my political views to a much greater degree than other influences. It meant that I developed an inclination towards collaborative and co-operative approaches, preferring conflict resolution and facilitating solutions for my members and service users to the narrow politics of tribalism.

I am a member of Unite and the Liberal Democrat Association of Trade Unionists. It was therefore with pleasure that I accepted an invitation to attend the Paisley TUC Hustings on Tuesday evening.

The event itself was perhaps of little interest to the wider public. It demonstrated that there remain those whose only interest in politics is to antagonise and abuse. It was also a reminder that tribalist attitudes die hard and that simplistic populism is often the easiest means of winning public support.

However, I decided not to put forward a policy pitch as other candidates did but instead focused on my personal vision for the role of trade unions. I explained I wanted a Scotland in which the unions would inform and direct the political conversation, and in which they would help shape the public services agenda of the incoming government. I don't want my union, or any other, to be simply an expression for angst and opportunistic oppositional protest. Instead, I want it to be a dynamic organism of progressive change, working closely (if not necessarily co-operatively) with the new government to put forward positive ideas for reforming services and social policy.

After all, who knows most about the needs of nurses - the RCN or politicians? Who can most authoritatively speak up for our public sector workers - UNISON or the government? It's obvious that unions can and should make a more significant contribution towards Scottish politics than offering blind, uncritical support to Labour.

I believe unions should have greater freedom to play this role. That might make me sound like a socialist, but it shouldn't. I actually think it's extremely liberal to propose that unnecessary limits on trade union expression should be eradicated. In a democratic and liberal society, freedom of expression is of paramount importance. I would like far more consultation between unions and government - and, for that matter, more dialogue between government and other pressure groups and voluntary organisations.

In the last few weeks I have received many "manifestos" from various organisations urging prospective MSPs to support their objectives on a range of issues. Many ideas within these manifestos are creative, imaginative, practical and well-researched. It is stimulating to engage with organisations who want a conversation about how best to facilitate change. I really like talking to such people and I'm genuinely interested in what they have to say. Unfortunately, it seems that none of the unions has seen fit to put together its own "manifesto" or to take the opportunity to advicate their own policy vision for Scotland and lobby would-be MSPs. I can only imagine why not...

I believe trade unions should be given increased opportunity to adopt a greater role in helping to set the political agenda, but I should add that with such opportunity comes responsibility - responsibility to serve both their members and the country. Like political parties, they have to identify with the public rather than allow themselves to be dominated by a small but vocal minority. And increased dialogue, which is obviously preferable to open hostility, means increased accountability.

As a union member, a political activist and someone who cares deeply for Scottish democracy I would like to see our unions more proactive in empowering the public, influencing policy and widening the appeal of politics. Unions can be a force for enabling Scots to make a stand rather than looking to politicians to do everything for them. I would like to see union laws relaxed to allow for new approaches where government can work with organisations, communities and workers rather than for them. It's about creating a new inclusive approach to government. That is, I believe, a genuinely liberal vision.

For this vision to become reality will require a willingness from Scotland's political parties to work more closely with unions, and for the unions to leave behind the arguments of the 1940s and the adversarial attitudes I witnessed on Tuesday. How likely is this? On the latter point at least, I would say that while the silent majority of union members would probably welcome this, the chances of convincing the more vocal union activists of the merits of a consensual appraoch are on a par with Tommy Sheridan's chances of becoming First Minister.

1 comment:

Andrew said...

An SNP take on the Paisley TUC Hustings meeting: