Where do we go now the ‘good old days’ are gone?

Alex Campsie

9 January 2017

Recent Renewal editorials have underscored the urgent task facing the Left today: the need to ask big questions. We must understand shifts in the nature of the global economy, and the changing relationship between the state, society and politics. Unsurprisingly, the profoundly shocking political events of 2016 have thrown these issues to the fore. Survival is the order of the day for the Left. But intellectual renewal, too, is sorely needed.1 However tempting, we cannot simply fight to reclaim a lost golden age. Dissatisfaction with the managerialist tendencies of ‘Third Way’ politics in power laid many of the foundations for the illiberal anti-elite consensus which seemingly characterises this moment. As well as fighting the populist Right, we also need to establish a more dynamic left-wing politics that makes sense of social change, and presents attractive solutions.

Leading figures in industrial relations have recently highlighted the need to understand social fragmentation, calling for more adaptive forms of organising. Today the UK labour force faces rising precariousness, falling real incomes, and a steady assault on workplace rights. Both Paul Nowak (Deputy General Secretary of the TUC) and Dave Prentis (General Secretary of UNISON) have discussed the deep ambivalence they felt when a vast number of their members voted to Leave the European Union which – in however attenuated a form – at least helped to insulate British workers from the sharpest edge of these attacks.2 How can we explain these contradictions and their relationship to international capitalism? And how might trade unionism be reoriented to help re-build a forward-facing left-wing politics today?

In order to address these questions, Renewal has joined both the Cambridge branch of the University and College Union and Anglia Ruskin University to organise a seminar series discussing the challenges facing trade unionism in this country and beyond, bringing together researchers, practitioners, policy-makers and members of the public. The inaugural seminar, on 27 October, adopted a historical lens.

Alastair Reid, historian at the University of Cambridge and author of the classic popular history of trade unions United We Stand: A History of Britain’s Trade Unions, began with some autobiographical reflections on his own life and his study of trade unions. Growing up in Glasgow in the 1950s and 1960s, Reid remembered being driven through the Clydeside towns of Port Glasgow and Greenock to visit relatives. Along roads flanked by shipyards, to him these journeys evoked how profoundly a sense of occupational belonging was ‘ingrained’ into not just the West of Scotland but vast swathes of the country in the early to mid-twentieth century. And yet as Reid explained, his desire to ‘get inside those shipyards I’d been driven past’, through his historical research, led him to find that these identities were far from homogeneous.

Alan Finlayson has recently stressed the need for the Left to understand the variegated social geographies of our globalised world.3 Reid’s study of late-nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century trade unionism offered a window into an equally diverse landscape. Though the advent of the industrial revolution saw the nature of work shift to mass production in vast firms, the workers who flocked to Glasgow from across Scotland retained longer-held associations. Reid uncovered how older strands of community Presbyterianism, radical liberalism and craft identity persisted on into the shipyards. As he outlined, these heterodox influences created a mutable form of workplace activism.

Jonathan Rutherford and Maurice Glasman are amongst a number of intellectuals who have also looked back to the mutualist origins of the British labour movement, using history to argue that contemporary leftists need to reconnect with the instinctively socially conservative nature of working-class culture.4 But while some workers in the shipyards undoubtedly were socially conservative, what Reid found distinctive about their trade unionism was its pluralism. Workers and leaders of differing political persuasions worked out problems collaboratively through practical, collective decision-making. The power of these unions stemmed not from industrial clout alone – nor the defiant homogeneity of their politics. Rather, Clydeside’s working class developed its industrial strength out of self-management and pluralism at the grassroots – and used this to cement bonds of trust not only between members and leaders, but also between the unions and their employers.

In their forthcoming book Alternatives to State Socialism: Other Worlds of Labour in Twentieth Century – and in this journal later next year – Reid and his colleague Peter Ackers will argue that this example stands within a rich tradition of mutualism within British left-wing organising. Labour’s 1945 New Jerusalem was a historic victory, in which the labour movement secured a raft of benefits from the central state. But across the twentieth century, progressives of all stripes have just as successfully utilised producer’s co-operatives, community organisations and tenant’s associations (amongst other things) to secure improvement not just through the state, but within civil society.

And as Willy Brown, University of Cambridge Emeritus Professor of Industrial Relations, continued, this is a model which might usefully be drawn on in the push to find solutions for the present crisis. Brown – like Reid – offered us an autobiographical route into his talk. His first job after graduating from university in the mid-1960s was as a research officer for the Prices and Incomes Board, which saw him travelling the country’s car plants, refineries and factories interviewing shop stewards. Brown was charged with gleaning information which would help smooth the mechanisms of post-war industrial relations, upholding the ‘protection at all levels’ afforded by the system of corporate bargaining granted to unions in acknowledgement of their sacrifices made in the war effort. But as Brown underscored, the system that ‘worked so brilliantly’ in the high production, high growth economy of the post-war period is now fundamentally ‘gone’, with the bargaining muscle of unions profoundly ‘emasculated’ within the re-made political economy of twenty-first-century Britain.

Certainly, this has been aided and abetted by a series of politicised attacks since the 1970s, resulting in what Brown called the ‘ultimate humiliation’ of the 2016 Trade Union Act – but, for him, to see restrictive legislation as the sole cause of this deleterious situation is to ‘miss the point’. The internationalisation of capital, the privatisation of big, previously state-owned firms across the world, and the intensification of competition within global product markets have created an economic climate that is profoundly hostile to negotiated pay agreements between state and industry, or trade unions and bosses. Unions don’t just need to win more members. We need to recognise that the nature of work and wage bargaining has changed. The growth of temporary or flexible work in the private sector in particular has profoundly changed the nature of trade unionism itself. Even in the 1980s, two-thirds of the UK workforce had their pay negotiated for them. In 2014 this figure (in the private sector) stood at only 10%. Now more than ever, workers find themselves ‘hurled’ into a ruthlessly competitive labour market, characterised by precariousness and uncertainty. Crucially, the fact that unionisation persists far more strongly in the public sector – which in 2014 accounted for 90% of strikes in the UK – means that workers are no longer negotiating collectively against employers, but increasingly find themselves in conflict with other tax-paying citizens. This presents new challenges in the fight for better pay and working conditions, and makes it harder for the wider public to see the benefits provided by trade unions in the community. We need solutions which can persuade consumers as well as producers of the benefits of trade unions. 

But if the centralised social-democratic state was not present at the birth of trade unionism, then neither does its seeming demise spell the end for those who dream of more secure, beneficial and better paid forms of employment. Shifts in the international economy have also brought new contradictions. The increased complexity of supply chains and the globalisation of product markets mean that firms are now more than ever reliant on their reputation for corporate social responsibility. Brown argued that both workers and members of the public can exploit this, lobbying companies – particularly through social media – on their employment practices across the world. Just as Reid’s Clydeside shipbuilders worked out industrial relations strategies through rooted, co-operative discussion, so too could ordinary citizens come together collaboratively to raise awareness around specific workplace issues. Knitted together through the spread of information, particular campaigns could in turn be used as a collective resource to urge governments to establish international standards around better pay and working conditions.

And efforts at doing just this kind of work are already ongoing, particularly ones which draw on novel forms of communication. In recent issues of Renewal, Joe Guinan, Thomas Ferretti, Matthew Brown and Martin O’Neill have all highlighted strategies developed by left-wing politicians and activists which enable ordinary people to have more of a say in their workplaces and communities.5 We also heard about work by Nathan Schneider and colleagues at University of Colorado Boulder which seeks to develop online forums connecting producers with consumers of their goods. Employees gain a direct medium through which they can express dissatisfaction at working conditions – and a means to influence consumer preferences. In so doing they can not only put pressure on companies to improve their practices, but also offer more progressive suggestions for how corporations should be run within the community at large.

Reid, too, underlined that social media enables consultation between unions and their members on crucial issues, providing new spaces in which decisions can be made. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, unions, friendly societies and religious organisations drew together ordinary people from within communities. Agreements were established in relation to unacceptable types of work, and more progressive visions of the world were imagined. While the post-war settlement brought significant gains for the labour movement, perhaps the bloc nature of collective bargaining worked to dissipate some of this co-operative ethos – increasingly transforming trade union activity into an instrumental struggle for incremental wage rises, rather than serving as a platform for the imagination of novel alternatives. The older, mutualistic tradition might be re-imagined for the radically different context of the twenty-first century, particularly through new media and alternative platforms.

A vast range of commentators have echoed this interest in the novel possibilities opened up by the ‘network society’. And yet it is all too easy to see social media and the like as a panacea to the ills of the twentieth century.6 As these talks reminded us, it is not that technology in and of itself will inevitably bring more progressive forms of organising. Rather, technology provides platforms through which workers can build links with the wider community – out of which new, more positive visions of industrial relations can emerge. As well as through co-operative working, this must be done with an accurate reading of the twenty-first century economy. Reid commented that unions like Equity and the Musician’s Union are fighting to uphold universal standards in industries that are by definition mobile and flexible. Likewise, he pinpointed efforts by USDAW to negotiate with particular firms rather than organising throughout the industry as a whole, which enables them to fight on issues specific to groups of their members, in a way that some of the UK’s ‘mega-unions’ cannot. Just as the economy has become more flexible and decentralised, so too must unions work in a more adaptive manner.   

The current political and socio-economic climate is profoundly depressing. But it was equally unpropitious for workers on Clydeside in the late nineteenth century. Reid and Brown ended by emphasising that the labour movement has always succeeded where it has worked with the direction of social change – upholding workers’ rights but also presenting a convincing vision of the future. As Brown commented, ‘the good old’ mass strikes of ‘the good old days’ are no longer possible. Nonetheless the twentieth-first century also presents novel opportunities for workers to organise and to engage with other progressive forces within society. The next session of this seminar series will discuss just these issues. Dr Laura Schwartz (University of Warwick) will present on the historical role of domestic service, and Karol Florek, research consultant for UNI Global Union (UNICARE), will outline the struggles facing care workers in the present day, and how they might be integrated into trade union activism more broadly. Held on the 8 February 2017, Renewal will be blogging about this session in the near future.

Alex Campsie is a commissioning editor for Renewal.

1 J.Stafford and F.Sutcliffe-Braithwaite, ‘After 2016’, Renewal 24:4.

2 Paul Nowak at ‘The Productivity Puzzle and Workers’ Movement’ seminar, Anglia Ruskin University, 25 October 2016; Dave Prentis at ‘Trade Unions and the European Union’, History and Policy Trade Union Forum seminar, Kings College London, 17 May 2016.

3 A.Finlayson,  ‘Editorial: The present crisis and questions we must ask’, Renewal 24.3 (2016), 5-14.

4 See for example: J.Rutherford,  ‘The first New Left, Blue Labour and English modernity’, Renewal 21:1 (2013), 9-14.

5 M.Brown and M.O’Neill,  ‘The Road to Socialism is the A59: The Preston Model’, Renewal 24:2 (2016), 69-78; T.Ferretti,  ‘Mondragon in five points: advantages and challenges of worker co-operatives’, Renewal 23:4 (2015), 37-54; J.Guinan,  ‘Bring back the Institute for Workers’ Control’, Renewal 23:4 (2015), 11-36.

6 For a critique of this view, see: D.Runciman, ‘A win for “proper people”? Brexit as a rejection of the networked world’, Juncture 23:1 (2016), 4-7.