Theresa May's Government needs to forge better relationship with unions to make success of industrial strategy

Amid the sound and fury of a critical report by MPs, what has been missed is a call for more dialogue and less sound and fury

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Amid the sound and fury that accompanied a critical report on the Government’s much vaunted new industrial strategy by MPs on the Business Energy & Industrial Strategy Committee, it should not come as any surprise that no one paid much attention to its call for a little less of the sound and fury. 

As part of their research, MPs on the committee took a visit to Sweden to learn about the successful implementation of an industrial strategy in a European economy that has been booming. 

What struck MPs was the consensus they found within business, government and unions about its role. 

In their report they opine that an “adversarial culture, not just in parliamentary politics but in industrial relations, inhibits the possibility of a successful long-term industrial strategy”. 

And there’s more: “It is notable that those sectors which have seen success in recent years (in Britain), particularly aerospace and automotive, have very productive and positive relationships between management and unions.”

Much of the evidence the committee members received “emphasised the need for Government to work in partnership with business, local government, academia, trade unions and communities in order to develop and deliver its industrial strategy”. 

They are right to raise this. And yet, by contrast to the healthy relationships built up in the above sectors, it’s hard to find much evidence of any similarly healthy working relationship between the Conservative Government and the trade unions in any sector. 

To the contrary. Far too often unions are denounced by Conservative MPs, demeaned by their friends in the media (sometimes with their connivance) and made subject to laws that even countries not known for their friendliness towards the union movement baulk at. 

The pre-Brexit Conservative Government of David Cameron dialled back on some of most repressive proposals during the passage of the Trade Union Act of 2016.

It even suffered a defeat over the issue of collecting union fees through pay packets in the public sector. 

But a repressive law still found its way on to the statute book, one that was notably opposed by the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development, which described ministers' approach as outdated during the passage of the bill through Parliament. It argued instead for “dialogue-led approaches” to be taken by employers and unions, such as the signing of no-strike agreements. 

I arrgued at the time that ministers would have done well to heed its progressive approach. The CIPD’s members, after all, find themselves at the sharp end when strikes occur. If they think an anti union law is a bad idea, then it's a bad idea. 

Of course,  the forging of a new, and more constructive relationship, will require movement on the union side too. 

But TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady’s statement in respone to the MPs' report suggests that is possible. “Unions are keen to work in partnership with government and business to make industrial strategy a success,” she said, while calling upon ministers to pay due heed to the MPs’ recommendations. 

A reciprocation of that conciliatory tone from Number 10 Downing Street downward would be welcome, as would a willingness on the part of ministers to face down the more lumpen and ideologically driven MPs in their own party. It’s not as if the latter haven’t been given plenty of red meat to chew on with the Government’s approach to Brexit. 

A successful industrial policy could serve as a more meaningful and worthwhile part of Theresa May’s legacy than the latter. It would be something more positive than “Brexit means Brexit”. 

For that to happen, her Government needs to jettison the language of confrontation and to instead adopt a big tent approach.

The pursuit of a more constructive relationship with unions would be a fine way to demonstrate that it is up to the challenge of doing that.