Tuesday, 17 January 2012
Here's an article I wrote several years ago for VIEW magazine - the in-house journal at the time of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO).
I read it again the other day - in the context of civic Scotland coming to the fore once again and playing a key role in the ongoing debate - about a referendum on Scottish independence and how Scotland should be governed in future.
I have to admit it gave me goosebumps reading the article again after all these years - but readers will decide for themselves whether it stands the test of time.
But for me it raises a key issue about the role of 'civic partners' - such as the trade unions and COSLA - who both played a very influential role in the Scottish Constitutional Convention (SCC) in the 1980s and 1990s.
Yet to me these once proud institutions are mere shadows of their former selves - of which I shall have more to say in the next day or so.
The trade unions for example are so politically partisan - so one dimensional and unthinkingly pro-Labour these days - which suggests they are not really good civic partners - that they are unable to play the role of 'honest broker' in 2012 and beyond.
Tribal Cultures and Civic Partners
Trade unions face some interesting times over the next ten years. Having come through the dark days of the 1980’s and 90’s, when they were constantly on the defensive, the outlook today is not just good, but verging on the benign.
The economy is stable, despite manufacturing’s ongoing decline. To all intents and purposes, we have full employment for the first time in generations. Public sector investment is at an all-time high and the traditional bargaining role of unions has been restored – compared to the hard times endured under Margaret Thatcher and John Major.
Yet something’s not quite right, the unions don’t behave like good or equal partners - what you see and what you get are different things. Fundamentally, they remain highly party politicised and unrepresentative of their own members. In short, they are increasingly out of step with the new politics and values of Scotland.
The Scottish parliament is criticised for all kinds of reasons, sometimes justifiably, but the new set-up is unarguably much fairer and more open to scrutiny than Westminster ever was. Some argue, with more passion than evidence, that Holyrood has failed to shine, that too many duds and dunces have found their way on to the backbenches, or even high office. Of course, this ignores all the duds and dunces we sent to London in the past, and the fact that the Scottish parliament is still in its infancy, as far as political institutions go.
The key to Scotland’s new politics has been fairer voting - the acceptance of the need to be seen to be more representative of ordinary people and public life. Proportional representation (in various guises) has made Scotland’s politicians far less arrogant and overbearing. Put simply, Jack McConnell today would never get away with Donald Dewar’s sleight of hand over the controversial Holyrood building project.
In the new Scotland, others (namely the Liberal Democrats) have been part of government for years, helping to check and balance what is done in the people’s name. Vocal minority parties and independent MSP’s are on the opposition benches – Tommy Sheridan and Margo McDonald, for example, have no real counterparts in the Westminster parliament, sad to say.
In effect, the old-fashioned tribal nature of politics in Scotland has been forced to change and this trend will be reinforced when PR changes the face of Scottish local government. Soon the ‘first past the post’ (winner takes all) approach to decision-making will be swept away for good – and with it the nonsense of Labour in Glasgow holding 94% of council seats on 40% of the votes!
Instead, Scotland’s local and national government will enjoy a mixed economy of representation: Labour, Lib Dems, SNP, Tories, SSP, Greens and Independents will all have their say and ensure that a wide range of voices are heard. Less powerful politicians’ means they have to work much harder to carry a majority, both inside and outside their own groups and parties.
Where are the trade unions in this debate? Well, they’re not leading the charge – that’s for sure. Because the logic of demanding that our politicians should better reflect public life and civic society means that other civic partners should accept their responsibility to behave the same way. But despite the 4 and 5 party politics in Scotland the unions continue to behave like one-party Labour states.
In the 1980’s I worked in London as a NUPE (National Union of Public Employees) official. A colleague at that time was Sue Slipman, former leading light in the National Union of Students and prominent member of the Communist Party. Sue did something incredible for the times: she left the Communist Party, eschewed the Labour Party, and joined the recently formed SDP (Social Democratic Party) along with Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, David Owen and Bill Rodgers – along with many disillusioned former Labour supporters.
Now that should have made no difference to Sue’s role inside a union that supposedly transcended party politics. But it did. Though many ordinary union members shared Sue’s views, she was treated as a traitor and cold-shouldered by the union leadership. The logic of their position was that only loyal Labour party members could be trusted in senior positions – a view still prevalent today. Sue Slipman got the message and moved on to achieve success elsewhere in a less tribal, hostile and macho environment.
At best 20,000 Scots are Labour members - less than 0.5% of the population. Yet unions are packed to the rafters with Labour activists and supporters. Impossible numbers are concentrated in all the top jobs, which can only happen if a hidden hand is at work. In Scotland, unions will employ non-Labour supporters to answer the telephone, but not in a position of leadership and responsibility – the irony of which is lost on people who otherwise see themselves as champions of fair play and equal opportunities!
The truth is that 99% of union members in Scotland don’t belong to any political party and vote exactly the same way as the rest of the population - yet still the unions claim to speak for their members on party political issues. How ridiculous and absurd, and increasingly indefensible.
For example, only 600 or so GMB union members in Scotland are also individual Labour party members - yet 99% of its 60,000 Scottish members pay Labour a political levy. Small sums are top sliced each week from the union contributions of GMB members who never vote for or support the Labour party at election time. Interestingly, union members in Northern Ireland have to opt in to such schemes on an individual basis.
The political levy is about power - not ordinary members. In 2002, RMT rail union leader Bob Crow took an axe to its Labour party links - declaring that its previous affiliation of 56,000 members was no more! Overnight, a great army of 56,000 levy payers was transformed into a rump of 10,000. One minute 97% of RMT members paid money to Labour, the next a mere 17% - yet not one of the 56,000 individuals involved had any say.
The challenge for Scotland’s trade unions (both as employers and civic partners) is to embrace the modern, democratic and inclusive politics that underpin the Scottish Parliament (and Scottish local government). This requires the unions to welcome people from all political faiths and none: only then will they accurately represent the views and values of their members in Scotland.
The need for change is reflected in trade union policy – much of which remains firmly stuck in the 1970’s and 80’s – vaguely left wing and resolutely old Labour. But because the gene pool of talent within the unions is so shallow, so unrepresentative of the grass roots membership, the outlook of the leaders is narrow, one-dimensional and self-perpetuating.
A good example is the attitude of the trade unions’ towards the voluntary sector, which is at best ambivalent and at worst hostile. Take the housing association movement in Scotland. For many years the unions (and the Labour Party) opposed council house sales and housing associations were regarded, quite wrongly, by many on the left as a Thatcherite creation and therefore not to be encouraged or trusted.
Yet, the community based housing model was a great success with its emphasis on tenant led services, local delivery and new smaller neighbourhood identity - a world away from the monolithic housing schemes and services of the past! 20 years on, the unions opposed tooth and nail the move to transform social housing in Glasgow and to set up a new Glasgow Housing Association, condemning the plan as naked privatisation - in a complete distortion of the truth.
The real reason for this hostility is that union density in voluntary organisations is much lower at around 25% to 30% of the workforce - whereas in the public sector union membership stands at 50 or 60%. So, the unions need to work that much harder to recruit and retain members.
In union world, big is best while the rest of us are now generally agreed that small is beautiful! Big monolithic unions are the product of big monolithic employers and services. The two things go together, their highly politicised culture is similar and they tend to mimic each other – sometimes to the detriment of the people and purpose they claim to serve.
Trade unions have an important place in a modern Scotland. If they didn’t exist we’d have to invent them, but they now need to reinvent themselves in a changing world where people want a strong individual voice – not just a collective one. I speak as an active trade unionist all my working life and paid up member of the politically non-aligned NUJ (National Union of Journalists).
My sense is that if the unions are to become full civic partners in Scotland, they need to practice what they preach, to be more open and inclusive, to strike a better balance between collective and individual views, and to reflect the diversity of their members in every way.