Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Unrepresentative Unions

Several years ago, back in 2005/06 if I remember correctly, I wrote a chapter for a book entitled 'The Scottish Labour Party: History, Institutions and Ideas' - which was edited by Gerry Hassan.

Now I came across this book chapter recently and thought I'd share my thoughts on the subject since it struck me after reading the contents again that any change has been for the worse because if anything the absence of non-Labour figures stands out even more like a sore thumb.

The sad truth is that the trade unions in Scotland are still the industrial wing of the of the Labour Party, effectively run and controlled by Labour, with just about every senior union official you could mention being a card-carrying Labour Party member.

Despite the fact that the great majority of ordinary union members support other non-Labour parties these days - particularly in Scotland where the SNP has been the most popular party for several years and the Green Party has continued to have an effective presence in the Scottish Parliament.

So you might fairly ask - 'What do the trade unions in Scotland stand for these days?'

If they fail so evidently to reflect the diverse politics and views of the ordinary trade union members they claim to represent. In fact, I would say that if all the senior positions continue to be filled by Labour supporters, the unions might still be regarded as a 'movement' of sorts - but not a representative, modern or democratic one.

Scotland, Labour and the Trade Union Movement: Partners in Change or Uneasy Bedfellows?

By Mark Irvine

The STUC is sometimes described, to its public denial and private delight, as the political wing of the Labour Party in Scotland. It was a joke which found particular resonance in the 1980s and 1990s, when Labour struggled determinedly to solve the riddle of electability, while the STUC led a fulfilling existence as genial paterfamilias to Scottish protest against the new Conservatism (Aitken, 1997) Aitken’s thoughtful history was written shortly before the 1997 general election, but his sentiments take on a more profound significance in the light of Scotland’s new political settlement. The STUC has in Aitken’s words been ‘much more significantly politically than it has been industrially: that it has often played a motive part in influencing public policy, but relatively rarely in affecting the outcome of industrial issues.’ (Aitken, p. 2)

What is the nature of the relationship between Labour and the unions? How has it changed since the 1970s? Will Scotland’s multi-party politics make a difference and can the unions learn to love New Labour, or will the party simply revert to its union roots once Tony Blair has had his day? Scotland’s unions are at a turning point in history: they can be modern, forward-looking organisations that reflect genuinely the diverse views of their members, or just old-fashioned power brokers - prisoners of their Labour dominated past. Scotland has a new Parliament, one that reflects all shades of opinion: Scottish Socialists and Greens both enjoy a place under the sun, alongside various independents. And yet, the Scottish trade union leadership go on pretending that their organisations are monoliths and every union member supports Labour.

A mere 22,000 Scots are Labour Party members - less than half of one per cent of the population (1 in 227), yet trade unions are packed to the rafters with Labour clones. Impossible numbers are concentrated in all the top jobs, which can only happen, in equal opportunity terms, if a hidden hand is at work. Unflinching support for equal opportunities is written into the Scotland Act 1998. Scotland’s new politics oppose discrimination of any kind, yet non-Labour union figures are as rare as snow in the Sahara. As employers, unions should accept that their recruitment practices encourage a culture that is openly hostile to Scots of a non-Labour persuasion.

Sadly, Scotland’s unions now operate in a fundamentally anti-democratic way. A generation ago, many of Scotland’s most able union leaders were members of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). Michael McGahey, George Bolton (NUM), Jimmy Airlie and Jimmy Reid (AEUW), James Milne and Doug Harrison (STUC), Hugh Wyper (TGWU) and many others were strong-willed and independent individuals, dialectical not dogmatic in their views.

Nowadays, the gene pool is a shallow puddle of its former self. Labour dominates union thinking in Scotland out of all proportion to its numbers, which is bad for the unions, but also for Labour because union democracy is being manipulated for political ends. So, how once the Scottish Communists bit the dust (a party which in its heyday could never claim more than 3,000 members) - did things go so badly wrong?

1970s and 1980s: How Things Went Wrong?

In the 1970s the British labour movement was alive with challenging ideas and fierce debate. The nature of democracy in a modern industrial state was a burning issue, as the post-war generation threw off its forelock tugging past. A popular grassroots work-in at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders in 1971-72 signalled new confidence, imagination and thinking, with the then Tory Government of Edward Health conducting a spectacular U-turn to save the Clyde yards (Foster and Woolston, 1986).

Marxist ideology and the Communist Party, in particular, had enormous influence on union politics. Structures had been built on the principle of ‘representative’ democracy with union delegates conveying rank and file views up and down the chain of command.

Many of the enduring industrial images from the 1970s portrayed trade unions in a negative light, such as the power cuts and three-day week of 1974. A decade of poor industrial relations culminated in the ‘winter of discontent’ in 1979 and split the unions over how to handle relations with a Labour Government. A widespread belief developed that unions had moved beyond their legitimate, if narrow, self-interest to become the powerbrokers in UK party politics. But were they reflecting their members’ views, or pursuing industrial militancy for political ends? A thumbnail sketch of the main players helps explain the industrial landscape, which was broadly similar across the UK.

The Stalinists or ‘Tankies’ as they were affectionately known were centred on the CPGB and believed trade unions and the organised working class were the key to political change. Classic Marxist-Leninist theory held that key groups or vanguards of workers with industrial muscle, such as the miners, were the key to challenging and changing the capitalist system. The industrial and class struggle would enlighten politically the mass of workers, who would then follow their leaders down a British road to socialism.

The Euro-communists - the CPGB’s self-styled democratic left - favoured Gramsci over Lenin and a more inclusive style of politics. The emphasis was on individual as well as collective rights (such as one member one vote), broader democratic alliances with other groups, single-issue politics and rainbow coalitions that challenged gender and racial stereotypes. The defining difference was a rejection of old Marxist shibboleths about vanguards and ‘top down’ leadership.

The Labour Party had plenty of members supporting the Eurocom and Stalinist positions, but the most successful Labour group of all were the right-wing union bosses and their allies: Labour loyalists from the engineering, electricians and GMB unions. Resolutely anti-Communist and anti-Marxist, they ran the Labour Party, resisted the left and rescued Labour leaders repeatedly with block votes at TUC and Labour conferences (see Minkin, 1991).

The fourth group comprised different ultra-left and Trotskyite parties and factions: the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP), Workers’ Revolutionary Party (WRP) and latterly, Militant, were all active and influential, especially during strikes and disputes. The traditional left and right hated the ultra left and Trotskyism worse than poison and held their fellow socialists in contempt, as dangerous adventurers, because of their trademark habit of pursuing impossible, unattainable demands, albeit with great passion and commitment.

By the end of the 1980s, union members expected much more than being treated as small cogs in a giant wheel - canon fodder in the increasingly bitter fight to control the Labour Party. The problem was that ordinary union members were no more left or right wing than other voters who were growing restless of excessive union power and lack of democracy were.

After ‘the winter of discontent’, anti-union sentiment played a part in Margaret Thatcher’s election victory. The labour movement needed to respond subtly, but true to form the volume was turned up louder than ever. No one asked the obvious question: why were the biggest democratic gains in union history imposed from the outside by a hostile Tory government? The answer is, of course, that union democracy ground to a halt in the 1970s when small and unrepresentative groups of activists made all the key decisions and member-led democracy was a bad joke.

The days of union vanguards were about to end, but had a final, terrible death rattle in the miners’ strike of 1984-85. The case for pre-strike ballots had been debated fiercely for years, but in the end union leaders lacked the courage to move from a position of strength by reforming internally. Ironically, the TUC condemned the government for imposing ‘anti-union’ legislation supported by most ordinary union members. At the lowest point in 1984-85 Arthur Scargill took the once proud and powerful NUM out on strike without a ballot of members, and saw the union and industry crushed by the Tories (1) (Crick, 1985).

Many on the left drew the obvious conclusion that industrial muscle on its own was no match for the forces of the state. Soon after, events in the Soviet Union dealt another hammer blow to the old 1970s style socialism. The Soviet Union had been a touchstone for the Communist dominated left: the existence of a Marxist state proved socialism could replace capitalism and market forces. Yet, the Soviet Union collapsed politically in 1991 in the wake of Mikhail Gorbachev’s ambitious programme of democratic reforms of ‘glasnost’ and ‘perestroika’.

The miners’ strike had shown the limits on union power in a modern democracy and the Soviet Union’s abrupt demise demonstrated the hegemony of global capitalism. Together, these cataclysmic events precipitated the disintegration of the Communist Party of Great Britain and with it the intellectual cutting edge of the labour movement. The importance of informed consent, of winning people’s hearts and minds, finally triumphed over the old ways of top-down, pseudo-democracy where the leaders or a select group of cadres were always firmly in control.

Meantime, the Tories swept all before them embarking on a massive programme of privatisation, shrinking further the old bastions of union power. The 1987 election saw another effortless Tory victory, but produced a much needed reality check in the trade union movement: things were never going to change unless Labour and the unions changed themselves.

Suddenly, it was open season on policies that had been articles of faith a decade earlier. Out went a producer focused socialism in favour of a more consumer-orientated approach, with policies abandoned such as any support for greater public ownership, public subsidies for failing industries and unilateral nuclear disarmament – as Labour reinvented itself. As old certainties began to blur and disappear, so too did many of the old divisions between left and right. Trade unions provided ballast for the party and were a major driver in refocusing Labour on getting back to power, but this would also have future implications for Labour’s relationship with the unions.

In Scotland, the labour movement held together better and more cohesively than the rest of the UK, partly due to Labour’s role as the establishment party north of the border, but also because of the STUC’s ability to work on an all-party basis and with other parts of civic Scotland, notably the churches. Imaginative campaigns such as the Scottish occupation at the Caterpillar factory against the decision of the American multinational to close a profitable plant – similar in spirit to UCS the previous decade – failed to capture the public mood, and ended in defeat (Woolston and Foster, 1988).

Iain Lawson commented wryly on his experience of an all-party campaign to save Gartcosh:

The tactics are as follows:

1. Set up an all-party group made up of equal representation from all political parties. Top this up with representatives from all affected local authorities (usually Labour controlled), trade union members (usually Labour members), STUC (usually Labour members) a few ministers and a few representatives form other groups.

2. Have a main sub-committee made up a one representative from each group (inbuilt Labour majority).

This ensures inbuilt Labour control. At the first and every meeting urge the need for a co-ordinated campaign with every move being made through the ‘all-party’ grouping. This effectively inhibits other political parties from taking separate measures which may embarrass the Labour party. Any suggestion of independent action results in accusations of ‘rocking the all-party boat’ to the detriment of the workers involved. (letter to The Scotsman, 26th June 1986).

Lawson’s telling insight exposed an all too common style of work: sharing power and influence was anathema to many in the Labour Party, and the STUC were happy at times to act as what to outsiders often seemed like little more than a ‘front organisation’ for the Labour Party.

The Way Back

The Conservatives slowly began to implode post-1992 divided over Europe and their future direction. ‘No beer and sandwiches’ (Baslett, 1991, p. 312) was already a policy under Neil Kinnock’s leadership, which indicated no return to the cosy arrangements of the 1970s. Things shifted further under John Smith, and then, under Tony Blair, who began to develop new policies which were pro-business and looking to encourage a new relationship with trade unions as partners.

The election of New Labour in 1997 under Tony Blair heralded a new relationship between Labour in power and the trade unions. Blair stated that there would be no ‘special favours’ and trade unions would be treated just like any other interest group. In response, the trade union movement began to think about how to adapt, survive and recruit members in the new environment. Three different perspectives arose:

• Servicing: this involves a ‘new bargaining agenda’ around equal rights, flexible working and training. First adopted by the GMB in 1990, this approach was heavily influenced by independent research on what employees actually wanted from trade unions, placing greater emphasis on services to individual members and a more consensual approach as key to attracting women and professional workers.

• Social partners: this co-operative model has been supported by government since May 1999 when Tony Blair endorsed the concept at a TUC conference, announcing the creation of a Partnership at Work Fund with up to £2.5 million of funds, including £1.2 million from government to spend on projects to improve partnership at work.

• Militancy: this approach comes from a newly resurgent left in the trade union movement which asserts that workers still retain the collective capacity for action because of widening injustice and inequality in work. Workplace union activists are increasingly using this sense of injustice to mobilise for collective action, shifting the emphasis from ‘servicing’ to ‘organising’.

All three strategies have advantages and disadvantages. A ‘servicing’ model reduces unions to the role of a retail experience and members to consumers. Partnership has the potential to deliver new gains, but is restricted by the timidity of the Blair government on union issues, mistrust among some union leaders and the anti-trade union ethos of many employers. For example, Sir Clive Thompson, CBI President, commented:

I believe strongly in partnership between a company and its employees, but I fail to see that a union is necessary to make it work. We mustn’t fall into the trap of thinking partnership must mean unions. Of course it can, but what’s right for one company is by no means right for all. By all means let’s have partnerships – partnerships that really are between employers and employees. Let’s have union involvement, but only where companies believe (this) can genuinely add value. (Financial Times, 24th June 1999).

And ‘militancy’ is silent on the changed composition of the trade union movement since 1979, with membership halved, and trade unions effectively ghettoised in the public sector, with few members in the private growth sectors of the economy. Overall, 40 per cent of private sector workers were union members in 1979, whereas today it is 18 per cent (Taylor, 2003).

In power, New Labour and Tony Blair were determined to hit the ground running, to be bold and at their best from day one. Immediately, the new chancellor, Gordon Brown, announced that the Bank of England would become independent and free from government control – a step too far even for Mrs Thatcher! The message to the unions was loud and clear - economic policy under New Labour would stick to public spending limits announced by the Tories before being ejected from office.

Labour’s spending plans were a bombshell, but all the key decisions of the 1997 Parliament had already been taken. From the outset, government was committed to a wider role for the ‘not for profit’ and private sectors where union membership was relatively low. A public sector shake up threatened what was left of traditional union power bases, which was the underlying cause for alarm.

Union bosses talked the talk of a new role for unions as social partners, as the friends of change not its enemy. But, Labour insiders believed the internal union culture remained oppositional. New Labour advocates, who often had little empathy or understanding for trade union values and culture, feared weak leadership would result in the unions reverting to type at the first opportunity and that an upsurge in militancy would break out.

In Scotland also, New Labour was the only game in town despite the grumbling off stage. Many Scottish union leaders privately denounced Tony Blair as a Tory, turning a blind eye to the fact that the Prime Minister and his Chancellor spoke with one voice on economic policy. Both were closer to the American Democrats, such as Bill Clinton and Al Gore, than Labour leaders of yesteryear.

True to his word, Blair set about John Smith’s unfinished business of creating a Scottish Parliament in Labour’s first term of office. The expectation and talk were of a new style of politics north of the border. Proportional representation (PR) for the new Parliament was the key along with power-sharing structures – all with the intention of nurturing a very different and consensual political culture to Westminster.

As Scotland’s establishment party, Labour operated as a one-party state in its Central Belt heartlands, and it was to be a seismic shock when opposition parties were introduced to those areas via the regional list system of the Scottish Parliament. Donald Dewar, First Minister, even had the crazy idea of introducing PR to Labour’s town halls – a deathblow to the Old Labour ways of doing things! And through all the ups and downs since, this Scottish Executive commitment remained with Jack McConnell declaring his support after the 2003 elections.

As the first Holyrood elections approached, a simmering row over using private finance to build schools and hospitals (PFI) brought a dull campaign to life. Predictably, Labour ‘monstered’ the SNP’s ‘Penny for Scotland’ spending plans, cheered on by the mainly Labour supporting press and the ‘Daily Record’ in particular. The ugly aping of Tory tactics was the mirror image of what happened to Neil Kinnock and John Smith in 1992, but the irony was lost on voters.

Meanwhile, the PFI row was spinning out of control. The STUC congress in April 1999 took place just days before polling day and a headline grabbing motion was causing the Labour Party concern. Kept secret at the time, a meeting was set up by the chancellor, Gordon Brown, high priest of Labour’s economic policy and chief architect of PFI in the public services. The meeting’s purpose was to defuse the row at the STUC. Scotland’s union leaders were all present including the General Secretary of the STUC, Bill Spiers and the bosses of the major affiliated unions (Unison, GMB and TGWU). In the end, they concocted a mealy mouthed statement that said, on careful reflection, PFI was not so bad after all! In effect, Scotland’s union bosses ate their own words and cheerfully abandoned a policy because it rocked Labour’s boat ahead of the election. Of course, every single person at that meeting was a fully paid up member of the Labour Party.

The decade may have ended on a low note of old-fashioned union fixing, but there were real achievements during the 1990s under the stewardship of STUC General Secretary, Campbell Christie who led the organisation through the difficult times of 1986-98. Christie was more pluralist than many of his contemporaries and fought to maintain the STUC’s independence from the Labour Party, which it is ostensibly, though the reality is that the Labour affiliated unions run the show. In 1990 Christie accepted an invitation to join the Guinness board of directors, but the big unions forced Christie into a humiliating climb down. They did the same when Christie proposed after the 1992 election that SNP leader, Alex Salmond address the STUC Congress. Undaunted, Christie went on to play a crucial role in the Scottish Constitutional Convention that brokered the deal to deliver a Scottish Parliament and proportional representation.

New Scotland, New Politics?

Scotland under the Tories was a barren land for the trade unions. They were swept out of the corridors of power, and systematically removed from enterprise and health boards (Aitken, 2002). Rozanne Foyer, Assistant General Secretary of the STUC commented on the climate pre-devolution and the change post-devolution, ‘In Scotland, we had about five meetings with ministers in twenty years, now we have about five meetings a month with ministers in the Scottish Executive about transport, health, local government and education.’ (Murray, 2003, p. 163)

New Labour and Tony Blair enjoyed the longest honeymoon in modern political history following the 1997 general election. Signs of industrial unrest surfaced only after it became clear Labour would win a second term. And as the return of the Tory bogeyman ceased to be credible, union bosses decided it was time to flex their muscles again. A new generation of union bosses came to the fore, at UK level at least: Bob Crow (RMT), Mick Rix (ASLEF), Mark Serwotka (PCS), Billy Hayes (CWU) Dave Prentis (Unison) and Derek Simpson (Amicus). Even old war-horses of the right felt emboldened. GMB leader, John Edmonds, threatened to withdraw financial support for Labour in Scotland to scupper plans for introducing proportional representation for local council elections. Edmonds, a traditional right-winger was transformed over the years into a ‘troublemaker’, by the simple expedient of standing still, politically speaking.

Around 600 or so GMB members in Scotland are members of the Labour party, yet 99.9 per cent of its 60,000 Scottish members pay a political levy to Labour. A lawful, but dishonest operation top slices small sums from union contributions (though not in Northern Ireland where members opt in). Political funds form a conscript army of non-Labour supporters and help the GMB (and others) buy huge influence inside the Labour Party, but under false pretences.

The political levy is about power not the views of ordinary members. RMT took a Beeching-style axe to its Labour links in 2002. Bob Crow declared the previous affiliation of 56,000 members would be slashed and, overnight, a mighty army of 56,000 levy payers was transformed into a rump of 10,000. One minute 97 per cent of RMT members paid part of their union dues to Labour, the next it was a mere 17 per cent. Such is the essence of the trade union ‘rotten boroughs’ which affiliate to the Labour Party.

Of course, not one of the 56,000 RMT members involved was asked individually before union bosses used them as canon fodder in the battle over who runs the Labour Party. The RMT cut funding to Labour again in 2003 and threatened to switch its financial support to the Scottish Socialists in Scotland. The simple solution of leaving union members to decide which political party, if any, to support seems to have escaped the RMT leadership.

In 2001 New Labour’s election juggernaut pushed aside William Hague, causing the Tories to lose the plot altogether, as they went on to elect Iain Duncan Smith as leader. Labour strategists savoured the prospect of an unprecedented third term, which gave the unions the confidence to increase their attack on the New Labour project.

Meanwhile, in Scotland, the skills of government were proving more difficult for Labour to master. After a rocky start, the Scottish Parliament was dealt a savage blow when Donald Dewar, Scotland’s First Minister died unexpectedly, leaving no obvious successor. Union fixers lost no time going about their usual work. Within hours, Labour’s new leader was named in the press, as Gordon Brown and union leaders, tried to steamroller Henry McLeish into the job, without an election or debate. Jack McConnell, then Finance Minister, refused to be rolled-over, threw his hat into the ring and forced the issue to an unseemly vote involving Labour’s Scottish Executive and Labour MSP’s.

In effect, 82 people, out of a nation of five million people, decided who would become Scotland’s next First Minister, a state of affairs much to the liking of union bosses, as it maximised their influence and ignored rank and file members. The same ‘North Korean’ tendencies within Scottish Labour were evident again in 2001 when Jack McConnell was the beneficiary of the lack of a democratic culture in Labour and the trade unions, when he was elected unopposed leader. On both occasions, Labour and union leaderships feared the prospect of proper elections and debate, and used the excuse that running a full Electoral College of Labour affiliates and trade union members would be too difficult and costly! So out went democracy, its price too high!

In many policy areas, Scotland’s unions are closer to the Lib Dems, SNP, Greens and Scottish Socialists, but the love-hate relationship with Labour continues. The reason being that despite the well-worn rhetoric about the Scots belonging to one big happy community, every senior union figure in Scotland is still in the Labour Party. Anyone with a passing interest in equal opportunities knows this is impossible without deep-seated institutional discrimination against non-Labour views.

On his election as First Minister, Jack McConnell, attempted to build common ground with the trade union movement offering a ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ containing new procedures of consultation and dialogue covering economic development, modernising public services, and social partnership. The document, acknowledged the STUC’s role as ‘Scotland’s Trade Union Centre’ and included the following commitment:

The Scottish Executive acknowledge that trade unions play an important role in sustaining effective democracy in society, particularly at the workplace, and that the existence of good employment practices are a key contributor to economic competitiveness and social justice; the Scottish Executive will support, as far as practicable, effective trade unionism, fair employment practice, and greater partnership between employers and trade unions. (Scottish Executive/STUC, 2003)

These were warm words indeed - recognition after all the harsh years of Thatcherism. And they arose out of events at the 2002 Scottish Labour conference where differences between the Labour and trade union leadership broke out into the open. The trade unions indicated that they were prepared to vote down the entire Policy Forum social policy paper because of PFI/PPP; this caused mayhem among party members and was only narrowly passed because a majority of CLPs backed the leadership. Shortly afterwards the Memorandum was announced by Andy Kerr, Scotland’s Finance Minister. UK Labour followed a similar conciliatory tone at the 2003 TUC Congress with Douglas Alexander announcing a Public Sector Forum comprised of trade unions and government ministers, which was widely interpreted as a reverse for the Blairite New Labour agenda.

Fundamental differences remain on workplace issues and wider policy. In the run-up to the 2003 Scottish Parliament elections, union leaders, disillusioned at the direction of the party, threatened to withdraw organisational support from Labour due to the Iraq war; a threat that would, if it had transpired, have significantly handicapped Labour’s campaign. 

But the question we need to ask is: do union members share the old-fashioned, undemocratic politics of their leaderships? Kevin Curran succeeded John Edmonds at the GMB in 2003, voted in by 10 per cent of his members on a 15 per cent turnout. Tony Woodley, the TGWU’s new leader, enjoyed the support of only 8 per cent of his members on a 20 per cent turnout – neither result suggests that a truly participative union democracy is high up the movement’s agenda.

New militants amongst UK union leaders, such as Bob Crow and Mick Rix, are essentially unreconstructed hard leftists (though Rix was unseated in July 2003 by a relatively unknown challenger, Shaun Brady, standing on a moderate ticket). The more moderate left now stands on the ground once occupied by the powerful band of right-wing union barons, with no ideology worth the name, but happy to manipulate the political levy for selfish political ends. In Scotland, especially, this makes a farce of claims that union bosses represent the politics of grassroots members.

Most of Scotland’s union leaders are in the traditional (old right, non-hard left) camp, appointed rather than elected, dominated by the culture of their UK organisations. Scotland’s teaching unions are the exception that proves the rule. The EIS and SSTA rule the roost with the EIS in particular hugely influential in Scottish Labour circles. Despite its outwardly independent professional image, many key EIS figures over the years have been Labour Party members, yet the union is widely regarded as oppositional, producer-led and anti-change. Cathy Jamieson, once upon a time, a Campaign for Socialism left-winger and firebrand, saw her role as Education Minister until the 2003 election, as solely to avoid any policy pronouncements which might alienate the EIS leadership.

New Labour with its emphasis on individual rights is now the common enemy of the left in all its variants. The long running fire dispute of 2002-3 rekindled the debate on the modern role of unions. Privately, many union leaders slated the FBU for lodging an over the top 40 per cent unachievable pay claim, winding members up to fever pitch and politicising the strike by demanding the return of ‘Real Labour’, before finally losing control. Yet, publicly, they stifled their criticism as the FBU pursued a pointless and damaging dispute over modern working practices.

The fact is that 99 per cent of union members in Scotland do not belong to any political party and vote the same way as the rest of the population. Yet, the combined talents of the STUC and all the individual unions cannot produce one non-Labour figure of any standing; the pro-Labour orthodoxy is stifling, reminiscent of the inflated support once claimed for the Communist Party in the Soviet Union. And ironically, its lack of political diversity has got even worse in the last few years since the demise of our own Communist Party.

Few prominent trade unionists are prepared to publicly speak out against this culture, fearful of having their career prospects ruined. One unattributed full-time official, said:

'The reality is that when the chips are down Scotland’s union leaders put the Labour Party’s interests first. Maybe that’s always been the way, but the absence of any non-Labour voices means that all the old checks and balances have gone. What passes for debate now takes place inside a Labour Party straightjacket, with everyone proclaiming their left credentials, yet acting in old-fashioned right-wing ways. (2)

They went on, ‘New thinking is rare and if an idea challenges the ruling elite, it gets crushed without mercy. Michael McGahey was fond of saying the unions are a movement not a monument to the past, but his words of warning are now falling on deaf ears.’

So, while the unions remain Labour-only closed shops, the Scottish Parliament is a vibrant, mixed economy of views and representation. Political apartheid on this scale is not sustainable long-term because it is incompatible with the support for equal opportunities enshrined in the Scotland Act. Little wonder the business community is sceptical that the ‘social partners’ role for the unions is achievable without considerable reform.

Future Directions

The STUC has played an impressive role in Scottish politics. As Foyer has said:

The STUC has been the voice of the working people in Scotland on things like devolution, the poll tax, not just workplace issues. We have a broad social agenda, dealing with most social and political issues. When the Scottish did not have a parliament the STUC was the nearest thing to it, speaking for Scotland. (Murray, 2003, p. 164)

Jim Craigen, a previous Assistant General Secretary, serving under James Jack, has observed the difference between the STUC and Wales TUC:

The difference between a noun and an objective can be overplayed, but it still symbolises something more, for the Welsh body is akin to a regional council of the TUC, with little power to initiate anything independently of London. The Scottish TUC, on the other hand has, since its foundation, been an autonomous body with policies and priorities which echo Scottish needs and a Scottish identity. (Craigen, 1989, p. 154)

Both comments contain an element of truth, but also encapsulate a romanticised view of the STUC’s role in Scottish civil society – a role that can be easily over-stated, if it is not continually challenged and renewed. The issue that needs to be addressed is that representative democracy ceases to be credible when all union leaders and institutions are completely one-dimensional. 

Scottish Labour and the trade union movement have a deeper historic understanding than elsewhere in the UK, but the tensions between the two are just as real. Scotland’s trade union leaders and members have other progressive options, including the SNP, Scottish Socialists and Greens, and some are even shockingly Tories! Yet, the leadership remain wedded to a Labour-only policy, when the party can only win 34.6 per cent of the first vote in the 2003 Scottish Parliament elections.

The big challenge for today’s trade unions, both as employers and as part of civic Scotland, is to embrace the modern democratic politics that underpin the Scottish Parliament and the hopes of devolution. And to begin that road of renewal, they must welcome people from all political faiths and none: only then will the unions represent the views and values of all their members in Scotland, instead of only those from its Labour dominated past.


1. The NUM Scotland – led by Mick McGahey – and reflecting the different political dynamic of a still influential CPGB – operated very differently from Scargill vanguardism, and held a strike ballot.

2. Unattributed interview with trade union official, June 2003.


Aitken, K. (1997), The Bairns O’Adam: The Story of the STUC 1897-1997, Polygon, Edinburgh.

Aitken, K. (2002), ‘Scottish Mutuals: Trade Unions and the Business Lobbies’, in Hassan, G. and Warhurst, C. (eds), Anatomy of the New Scotland: Power, Influence and Change, Mainstream, Edinburgh, pp. 180-88.

Baslett, P. (1991), ‘Unions and Labour in the 1980s and 1990s’, in Pimlott, B. and Cook, C. (eds), Trade Unions in British Politics: The First 250 Years, 2nd edn. Longman, Harlow, pp. 307-27.

Craigen, J. (1989), ‘The Scottish TUC: Scotland’s Assembly of Labour’, in Donnachie, I., Harvie, C. and Wood, I. S. (eds), Forward! Labour Politics in Scotland 1888-1988, Polygon, Edinburgh, pp. 130-55.

Crick, M. (1985), Scargill and the Miners, Penguin, London.

Foster, J. and Woolston, C. (1986), The Politics of the UCS Work-In, Lawrence and Wishart, London.

Minkin, L. (1991), The Contentious Alliance: Trade Unions and the Labour Party, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh.

Murray, A. (2003), A New Labour Nightmare: The Return of the Awkward Squad, Verso, London.

Taylor, R. (2003), ‘Beyond the Picket Line’, The Guardian, 10th September 2003.

Scottish Executive/Scottish Trades Union Congress (2003), Memorandum of Understanding, Scottish Executive, Edinburgh.

Woolston, C. and Foster, J. (1988), Track Record: The Story of the Caterpillar Occupation, Verso, London.