Ed Miliband needs trade unions

20 Octubre 2010

To create real political change, the new Labour leader must look beyond his party to the unions that helped him win power.

See related: How democracy can transform public services


At last we have a political leader who welcomes argument. Argument, as Milton argued in his Areopagitica, is "knowledge in the making" – a source of strength and regeneration for a political movement. In this spirit, let's open up the argument about how to achieve the goals Ed Miliband laid out on Tuesday.

The new Labour leader's objectives are appropriately ambitious: to end the gross inequalities that hold back millions of people, wasting their skills and potential contribution to society; to tackle the power and wealth of the City; to regulate labour markets and end the exploitation of migrant and precarious labour; to reduce working time and the dominance of commercial values in favour of personal, community and environmental priorities; to radically reform the state to make services responsive and effective and politics transparent, accountable and honest.

But who are the allies, the social and economic actors with whom Miliband will work to achieve such radical goals? If the "new politics" is to mean anything, it surely requires that leadership is about collaboration with and support for initiatives and movements well beyond Westminster.

This is one area in which there will undoubtedly be argument. In particular we must challenge the attempt to narrow the terms of the debate about the role of trade unions. It's an indictment of the battering that our rights at work have taken that a Labour leader feels the need to spell out that "responsible trade unions are part of a civilised society, every democratic country recognises that".

More than this, we need to assert that trade unions have helped to create civilised societies and need encouragement to continue to do so. Miliband's proposals for shorter working hours, public service reform and overcoming inequality require them once again to be not only voices for fairness but agents of radical social change.

Miliband suggests the basis for this wider social role when he refers to school dinner ladies "wanting to serve their schools". In other words, trade union members are knowledgeable service providers, wealth creators and caring members of the community, citizens and workers. In the public sector, they are the ones who, along with service users, have the knowhow to identify how to improve services and allocate money in a more socially efficient manner. A strong and well-organised union provides the security and collective voice through which to share that knowhow.

This wider understanding of trade unionism has underpinned the growing phenomenon of anti-privatisation struggles based on well-worked-out alternatives that aim to maximise public benefit rather than private profit. Examples range from the CWU's alternative plan for Royal Mail reform to Unison's highly effective collaboration with Newcastle council to achieve millions of pounds in savings at the same time as improving services. There are many more.

By building on such initiatives, Miliband could transform the support he won from trade unionists from a source of vulnerability to a legitimate basis on which to broaden the scope of trade unionism.

In the past, the often limited horizons of trade unions have been reinforced by the nature of their relationship with the Labour party, which has tended to treat them as a passive source of money and votes. What if, as part of his political clean-up, the new Labour leader swept away this limited culture and instead looked to the thousands of workplace organisers as the basis for a very different kind of relationship with the unions from the one that is currently being evoked in a Thatcherite anti-union scare against him? A relationship based on valuing the knowledge and experience of millions of public servants, which can be gathered and expressed through our public service unions, and bringing out the public service ethic of these worker citizens?

This sort of constructive trade unionism has so far been marginalised – including by some union leaderships. But it could be one component of an alliance that could work with the new political leadership to reform the public sector, thereby making public spending more productive and better able to contribute to the revival of the economy.

Miliband is no Obama but his victory is a local Obama moment: a revolt against a broken and corrupted political system. One lesson we can learn, coming later to this revolt, is the importance of organising a constructive counter-power to the forces of reaction, who will work hard to protect the institutions in which they have a vested interest.

In the US, the failure to convert the community organisers who mobilised for Obama's victory from "one-off" campaigning into a continuing political force was a crucial error. In the UK, the worker-citizen organisers now scattered across the trade union movement have the potential to become a positive force for change in the workplace, the community and the economy and society at large. They represent an opportunity we can't afford to miss. The new Labour leader cannot transform politics from within the Labour party alone.