Labour or Tory, we want to talk

John Monks will tell the TUC Congress: don't put all your eggs in one basket
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With even the Institute of Directors openly preparing for a Labour government, Brighton is bound to reverberate during this week's TUC Congress with talk of the relationship between trade unions and a Tony Blair-led administration. Delegates would be wrong to take a change of government for granted. But while complacency is inappropriate, such discussions will have more substance than for many years.

Informed debate will start from an appreciation of our different roles. Our shared origins and intertwined history means we share common values, but it is important to understand that we are two separate organisations. Labour is not the political wing of the TUC, nor is the TUC the industrial wing of the Labour Party.

If we always agreed, we would not be doing our jobs properly. Our task is to put the interests of the world of work as forcefully as we can to anyone we can influence. A Labour government must govern in the interests of society. When we differ it is not a split, whatever the attractions of a five-letter word to headline writers, but proof that we are both performing our proper roles.

About half our member unions choose to affiliate to the Labour Party and about half the individual trade unionists that make up our near seven million membership pay a political levy, part of which goes to the Labour Party. Yet other unions value their political independence, and while few deny the need for political campaigning, they prefer to do this independent of party affiliation.

Traditionally, the main focus of the TUC was the government of the day - of whatever party. Naturally, as governments of different political complexions came and went there were correspondingly lesser or greater areas of agreement. But for many years it was taken for granted in both Whitehall and Congress House that the TUC spoke for those at work, and this was a voice that should at least be heard before decisions were taken at the highest levels of state.

That, of course, changed in 1979. Few would deny that some of the institutions and arrangements that worked so well in sustaining the post-war settlement of full employment and the welfare state had run their course. But the exclusion of the trade-union voice became an article of faith for many Conservatives.

Yet, as many perceptive Tories now recognise, the growth of insecurity at work that resulted from deregulation mania is a key cause of their electoral difficulties. Not only do people fear for their jobs, their insecurity feeds into a reluctance to make long-term commitments to mortgages or other big purchases. In turn, that reinforces the widespread failure by worried voters to appreciate even the genuine improvements in the economy, which are now threatened by that very lack of confidence. The root of the Government's problems lies at the workplace.

Neither past model of government-union relations is helpful in mapping out the relationship that trade unions need to develop with a future Labour government. Even if we wanted to, the institutions and conditions that made the post-war settlement work have gone for ever. To press for a repeat of the past few years, but in reverse, so that favoured trade-union leaders replaced the business cronies that currently have special access to government, would be even worse.

My message to TUC delegates this week will be that we need to construct a new set of relationships for how the country does its business. We must look to build social partnership as the guiding principle for relations between employers, employees and government, both at national level and within the individual firm. I do not want this to be a special deal with the Labour Party. That will then only last as long as the next Labour government. It is no secret that I would hope this will be a considerable period of time, but after more than 15 years of opposition the trade-union movement knows it cannot put all its eggs in the Labour basket.

Instead, I would want the national mood that would follow any change of government to be used to construct an entrenched set of relationships that can endure changes in government because they are clearly of benefit not only to employees but to the economy and society as a whole. In particular, we want to see the extension of citizenship to the workplace, so that employees no longer leave their democratic rights at the workplace door.

That is why, since we relaunched the TUC last year as a campaigning organisation, we have made great efforts to engage with employers, interest groups and MPs of all parties. Once again, I am visiting all the political party conferences this year.

Social partnership rests on two closely connected views of how society should be organised. First, itdepends on a pluralist and inclusive view of society. So many on the right tell us that only the authoritarian capitalist models of some of the East Asian and Pacific Rim economies can now deliver prosperity. We reject that pessimistic view. Economic success is not only compatible with diversity, tolerance and democracy in society, and at work, but in a free society depends on them. That is why social partnership recognises the rights of large interest groups to participate in decision- making.

Second, social partnership rests on the belief that we can achieve agreement on common aims for both the country and the individual firm. It encourages dialogue and a search for national consensus. It therefore encourages the TUC to win allies from industry and other legitimate interests before we seek remedies from government. It compels us to campaign nationally and to work locally, for our influence depends on our ability to serve and involve trade unionists at the workplace.

Social partnership is closely connected to the stakeholder model of the economy, which argues that employees, the local community, customers and suppliers have a legitimate interest in the governance of companies, which can help to counter the short-termist pressure from shareholders and help companies to become good corporate citizens, concerned for their local environment and employee relations as well as their bottom line. It does not mean an end to disagreement or discord at the workplace, but this can still take place against a shared interest in their firm's success.

After so many years of injustice at work and growing social divisiveness there are urgent reforms which we look to a change of government to deliver - although none that is not taken for granted in most other European countries. But more important is that the next government bequeaths a new, lasting settlement that once again recognises the right of working people to have a voice at work and in the corridors of power.

The writer is general secretary of the Trades Union Congress.