Unions should recognise that a brighter future awaits them outside New Labour

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The Independent Online
IT IS almost a relief to see the renegade left hoist the red flag in the trade unions. Having been castrated in Parliament, sidelined in their council heartlands by Lib Dem protest votes and mysteriously quiet (or gagged and bound) in local Labour parties, they had to be somewhere. The disappearances of Dave and Deirdre Spart was getting suspicious.

Now we know where they went. The Campaign for a Fighting and Democratic Unison is agitating inside the public service union. The closeness of "democratic" and "fighting" betrays the twin influences of Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party and the dog-ends of Militant. In the train drivers' Aslef, the General Secretary's job went to a Scargillite. The Communication Workers' Union, has shifted to the left by electing Derek Hodgson, a loyal Old Labour man, but not one likely to be found discussing the Third Way with Tony Blair over a plate of Hob Nobs at Number 10.

Now that the ambiguities of Opposition can no longer be preserved, New Labour treats the unions like aged, faintly unsavoury relatives whose existence is acknowledged by infrequent, guarded contacts. Mr Blair was never going to allow a resurgence of union power in Britain. He might as well have post-dated his own electoral death warrant. Hence, the setting of the minimum wage at the lowest end of expectations.

As for union recognition, the details will be hedged around with enough barriers and conditions to defend a citadel; the moderates will be accused of having failed their members, and the left will profit further. This is largely the fault of the TUC for making recognition the keystone of its relations with a Labour government.

The best advice in such a predicament comes from Marshall Foch in 1914: "My centre is giving way, my right is in retreat: situation excellent. I shall attack." The trade unions need to think again about what they are for, whom they serve and how. That demands as thorough and daring a reappraisal as any undertaken by the Blairites when they forged New Labour out of the compost of the Old.

But too many trade unionists embraced the return of a Labour government in the fond expectation that it would simply roll back the tide of hostility which engulfed them in the Thatcher years. It cost Mr Blair nothing to reinstate the unions at GCHQ. Signing the Social Chapter was a gesture towards the EU - the unions were incidental beneficiaries. But no sooner was the ink dry than he was warning the rest of Europe about the dangers of imposing "a burden of extra costs on employers". When it comes to economic models, Mr Blair does not quite know which way he is facing.

We can surmise, however, that he does not share the unfettered enthusiasm for the European social agenda embraced so fervently by John Monks at the TUC. Mr Monks venerates as a "model of civilised prosperity" the German trade unions. When it comes to their admiration for Germany, British union leaders entertain a vision as obsolete as Lederhosen and oom-pah bands. The corporatism of post-war Germany is under attack and will not survive the next five years in its present form. In the East, employees regularly vote to bypass collective bargaining in order to maximise jobs. There is no future for British trade unions in aping a failing German consensus.

Mr Monks is credited with coining the phrase "New Unionism" to reflect a shift away from militancy and towards co-operation. Beyond the name, innovations are few. The fatal flaw in the psyche of the unions is an abiding desire to win rights from government and wrest concessions from employers, instead of asking themselves what they might do themselves to stop the slide in membership and ensure that companies value them as assets.

New Labour, meanwhile, is snipping one strand of its union ties after another. Funding of the election campaign by the brothers dropped from 90 per cent in 1992 to 25 per cent in 1997. Less than a quarter of the party's annual funding comes from them, as opposed to half three years ago.

The institutional role of the unions delivers far more to Labour in terms of funding and benefits in kind than it does to the trade unions. But they are astonishingly slow to see that they are being taken for a ride. If the unions put a fraction of the effort into widening their services to members that they put into arcane arguments about the impact of percentage thresholds for recognition, they would be better placed to stem the exodus of workers. The unions will only prosper, like any other voluntarist association, if they offer people good reasons to be members.

In an uncertain world, they could begin to do so by rediscovering the mutualism of their co-operative roots. Blue-collar workers are most vulnerable to the decline in public services. They often lack the time, the means and the skills to adapt the way they plan their savings and other provisions to rapidly changing circumstances. Unions that offer sound independent financial and mortgage advice and hammer out good insurance and private pension deals can be an asset to companies as well as workers.

On a wider scale, Unison - even the bits of it not in the grip of permanent revolutionaries - is short-sighted to reject the introduction of private funding in the health service. Its members suffer from the over-burdened NHS as much as anyone else. Ultimately, there will be private-public partnership. They might as well get used to it now and try to influence the terms.

Strategically, the unions' position is weak and likely to grow weaker unless they change. Does it not occur to their leaders that they should make their own plans to ditch the Labour party first? If Mr Blair is aiming to create a broad centre-left coalition, possibly by a change in the voting system, the unions are in a very strong position to make ad hoc alliances elsewhere.

The Liberal Democrats - more collectivist in their thinking than much of New Labour - would be the obvious place to start. In a devolved Scotland, there would be a rich seam in making common cause with the galloping SNP.

Truly independent trade unions would have far more chance of influencing Government than those formally, but ineffectually, linked to Labour. They should grasp the chance to reinvent themselves as a campaigning, supportive network, ensuring minimum conditions for the dignity and well-being of working people - in other words, the reason they were formed in the first place.