Leading article: Toothless unions don't need muzzling

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The Independent Online
New Tory proposals to shackle the unions further are unnecessary and - most important, in this season of electoral calculations - unlikely to reap a political reward. The Government's latest wheeze is to publish proposals, green, white and blue, and promise to legislate for them "in the next Parliament". This allows the machinery of Whitehall to be used to work up proposals that are effectively paragraphs from the draft Tory Party manifesto. Yesterday's addition to this suspect canon of governmental literature was a Green Paper proposing yet more trade union restrictions.

It is not worth wasting much time on the specific measures proposed, for one thing because much of the detail has yet to be filled in. Legal immunity is to be removed from industrial action that is "disproportionate or excessive" - for example, we are told, action carrying a risk to health and safety. Presumably that includes any strike action in the water or electricity industries? It is a measure of this Government's disconnection from proper priorities that it cannot see that the public is now much more concerned about inadequately regulated and greedy managers in the household utilities than about their shrinking numbers of employees.

The new proposals do stop short of banning industrial action in "essential services". And increasing to a fortnight the period of notice before industrial action can be taken is not going to thwart determined employees. A lot of this Green Paper is political posturing. But it is a performance in vain.

Two decades ago British trade unions were an unmistakable symptom and causal agent of the British disease. The unions had power but no responsibility; public distaste for their role was underlined by the number of their members who voted for Mrs Thatcher in May 1979, and in subsequent general elections. During the Eighties trade unionism was exposed to restrictive Tory legislation, and the opening of the economy to brisk competition. Union membership shrank. Industrial power passed from shop floor to boardroom. Tripartitism, Britain's variant on the corporatism practised successfully across post-war Europe, withered. The union barons became outlaws.

The other great change was the emancipation of the Labour Party from the unions which had given it birth. The movement begun by Neil Kinnock, and now just about realised by Tony Blair, was needed long before the challenge of the Eighties. In spite of that, the unions took their time to move on out. But recently there have been welcome signs of union leaders' reaching for their own, separate political destiny. Take the speech made on European monetary union yesterday by John Monks. It was in some ways an odd speech: does the TUC really buy the deflationary effects of the Maastricht convergence criteria, with all that they imply not just for the jobs of state employees in member countries but for "social partnership" itself? Mr Monks doubtless has his reasons. But the symbolism of his taking a different line from Labour mattered more. This is how it should be. The TUC has to become more like the AFL-CIO in the US, anxious to secure the return of Democrats, surely, but resolutely distinct in organisation and aspiration.

Those changes have cleared the field not so much for a revival of trades unionism but for a renewed acceptance of the unions' role and opportunity. The British people - tomorrow's British Social Attitudes survey will doubtless confirm previous findings in this direction - have an ineffable sense of fairness. In spite of the Tories, they favour progressive taxation. They despise boardroom greed and the patent lack of merit in so many of the payments systems enjoyed by company directors. On the unions they broadly feel enough is enough - that the balance of power inside organisations either is just about right, or has maybe already shifted too far in the employers' direction. Intermittent action by Royal Mail staff and last summer's disruption on the railways and the London Underground have not shifted this view. Those are not examples of resurgent Scargillism: we all know that is stone cold dead. It was the result of long years of bad management and bloody-minded and often politically-motivated union leadership.

Two core principles cover what is needed: a right to join a collective bargaining unit, and a right to take action against an employer in accepted circumstances. As a formula, common law immunity is anomalous, yes, but it still registers the public's wish for those at work to have some sanction to redress the inevitable imbalance of power between them and their employers. Labour has some useful ideas for smoothing the path of those wanting to organise. But there is no compelling case for more legislation controlling unions. Unions can only be as strong as their capacity to persuade and inspire. They will continue to attract members and find a role in some areas of employment, but they will struggle to sustain an active role in others. The shakedown of trades unionism in our society should now be allowed to follow a natural course; we don't need to meddle with it any further.

The Government's thinking about the future of the unions is on a par with its reaction to the 48-hour week - this one muddied because of the European connection. The best performing organisation commands not just the assent, but also the enthusiasm of its staff. Trades unions, at best, can increase the difference between the cost of employment and organisational output. As collective bargainers, they can enhance the dignity and rights of individual employees. There are few economic sectors where unions can, as they once could, threaten the public interest. There will even be (rare) occasions when public inconvenience is a price the public is prepared to pay. The Government should stop living in the past; Labour should start talking about the future.