In Quentin Lett’s estimable tome, 50 People Who Buggered Up Britain (2009), there was one surprising entry for a writer of such conservative leanings: Margaret Thatcher. The rationale for inclusion was her government’s aggressive attitudes towards trades unions, especially the rough handling of striking miners at Orgreave in 1984, along with her longer term programme of economic restructuring. Such policies were, at least to some degree, responsible for rupturing the concept of national unity, the very thing that natural conservatives hold dear.
The mass militancy of some trade unions in the 1960s and 1970s gave Britain a terrible reputation for industrial relations. Strike actions were a factor in driving some firms to the wall. The necessary curbing of out-of-control unions through legislation and other labour reforms undoubtedly reduced the number of days lost through strikes and improved the performance of industry.
Trade union reforms were also part of the wider re-ordering of the economy, begun in the 1980s that was to stimulate what many now term ‘globalisation’, the hyper-transnationalisation of finance, manufacturing and technology, which, among other things, has enabled the offshoring of production to countries with cheaper labour.
Not made in Britain anymore… something gained, something lost
The worship of globalised economics in the UK reached its peak from the late 1990s onwards, first under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s New Labour project, and, after 2010, the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition. The laissez-faire neo-liberal economic model pursued by these governments did not care about national ownership, and were prepared to see venerable companies, and sometimes the jobs that went with them, transferred abroad – ICI, Cadburys, Jaguar, Rolls Royce Cars, Manchester United. Just about any British enterprise with some brand recognition was up for grabs. These employment and industrial trends were affected also by Britain’s membership of the European Union. Freedom of movement enabled over 3 million people to settle in the UK, depressing wages and career prospects for UK workers in a number of sectors in the economy.
All these factors were reflected in the decline of trade union membership, which between 1979 and 2015 fell from 13 million to six million. Today, most unionisation is concentrated in the public sector: health workers, teachers, university staff, local government officials, and so on. Private sector workers comprise merely 2.5 million.
The decline of trade union power, along with wage stagnation and increased imports allowed the price of many consumer goods to fall. Some sectors of the British economy prospered – finance, banking, high end technology, as did the regions that tended to harbour them – London, university towns, and south-east England in general. And that was Lett’s contention: it was not that this re-structuring was, ipso facto, bad in the purest economic sense of increasing GDP growth. The price of consumer products, now made in China, may be cheaper. The City of London may be booming. The M4 corridor may be teeming with new enterprises. Cambridge may be the Silicon Fen. The problem was that the social costs of this transformation to the fabric of the nation were substantial and long lasting.
While employment levels might have been higher than ever, for many people wages, pensions, and purchasing power were eroded. Productivity levels as a result of large-scale immigration also remained poor. Moreover, indigenous industries – coal, steel, shipbuilding, car making, the potteries – to name only a few, were left to wither away. Thousands of workers, and their related skills, were thrown on the scrap heap. Once proud manufacturing towns and cities went into decline, from Derby to Darlington.
Rarely had these places been Tory-voting but many of the values embodied in unionised labour also represented core ‘conservative’ principles, such as communal bonds, voluntarism, mutual obligations, self-help, along with many other characteristics like fortitude, loyalty, honesty, humour. And these values were invariably encompassed within a fundamental sense of patriotism. If Lett’s pointed addition of Margaret Thatcher was a lament, it was that perhaps something of genuine social value had been lost along the way.
The Conservative case for trade unions
That a Conservative political disposition should embrace those with conservative instincts, regardless of whether they vote Conservative, is an idea that has gained ground over the past 10 years since the advent of Phillip Blond’s notion of Red Toryism. In his 2010 book, Red Tory: How the Left and Right Have Broken Britain and How We Can Fix It, Blond posited the formation of a new civic Conservatism that was as sceptical towards unconstrained free market ideology and hyper-individualism as to state interventionism.
A return towards communitarianism among conservative-minded theorists has caused other strands of conservative thinking to re-evaluate the approach to trade unions. Citing positive union and management cooperation at the Nissan car plant in Sunderland, David Skelton, writing in the Daily Telegraph in 2015, maintained that ‘good trade unions can bring real benefits to the economy, helping improve productivity and skills and tackle low pay’. Trade unions, he continued, ‘should be an important part of making our economy a high skill, high wage, high productivity economy’.
Nick Denys, Head of Policy at Union Blue (formerly Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists) echoed such sentiments in a 2018 article for Cap-X. He argued that for Conservatives to be true to their beliefs they ‘need to make sure that workers are rewarded fairly’ and observed that: ‘Workplaces where trade unions operate are more equitable and ethical’. In an economy characterised by fast-paced movements of capital and rapid technological innovation it is imperative for enterprises to remain adaptable. For Denys, this requires involving employees in the concerns that any business faces because in order to achieve change successfully ‘you need to take the workforce with you’.
The alienation of the traditional working class
The goal of improving working relationships between management and trade unions, however, continues to be blocked. A major problem is the attitude of union leaderships. Individual employees with specific difficulties not infrequently find that their union is more interested in collective action on, say, pay and conditions, than on resolving local disputes. Syndicalist unions have focused on broad political representation to the cost of protecting the victimised employee.
The relative decline of union membership in private and traditional industries has, furthermore, led to a gradual drift of unions away from anything resembling a recognisable working class base, cleaving instead towards the more bourgeois preoccupations of those often far from lowly paid members in the public and service sectors. Denys noted that despite any good intentions on the part of mainstream trade unions, they ‘have an abysmal record in attracting those who most need their help. Someone who is over 50 and in a high-paid public sector job is 25 times more likely to be a member of a union than someone under 30 in a low paid-paid private sector job’.
The effects are not only that low pay and poor job conditions fester for those at the bottom of the pile, and in some cases have got worse, but that trade unions have become ever more ideologically biased towards the post-modern New Left. Many of the established trade unions, ironically, now embrace not the principles of collectivism and solidarity that were once their life force, but the very opposite in the form of divisive identity politics and the essentialism of race, gender and sexual orientation. And they positively eschew, if not vilify, patriotism.
From the working class to the woking class
These factors have played their part in alienating the constituency that once formed the primary trade union base by disrespecting not only traditional beliefs but also common-sense opinion on topics such as Brexit, mass immigration and transgenderism.
A microcosm of the descent of some trade unions into quasi-religious sectional intolerance was the treatment of Paul Embery of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU). Lucid, reasoned and incisive, committed to traditional socialist principles, Embery was expelled from the FBU’s National Executive for speaking in his own time and personal capacity at a pro-Leave rally in March 2019.
The example of Paul Embery typified the shift of left-wing politics towards a metropolitan, multicultural and elitist outlook that disdained old-school trade union and working class culture. The divergence between the communitarian values that once underpinned trade unions and what Embery himself termed a ‘London-centric, youth obsessed, middle-class’ labour movement has been a long time coming and was articulated, for example, by Michael Collins in his prize-winning book The Likes of Us: A Biography of the White Working Class (2004).
Writing in the Independent in 2009 Yasmin Alibhai-Brown dismissed the communities Collins had written about as the ‘always-wretched complaining classes’. ‘Their culture is proud; they are noble’, she proclaimed sarcastically, ‘what they believe – however stupid or vicious – must be awesome’. ‘Oh, and they are never to be called racist’, which of course they were routinely by the increasingly ‘woke’ elites that were worming their way into the vanguard of the Labour party.
The end result of this assault has emboldened a narrative that believes a new ‘working class’ is coming into being based not on old industrial labour and their outmoded, vulgar, and narrow-minded attitudes, but socially aware university students, ethnic minorities and public sector employees located primarily within the middle class.
Woke workers: you have nothing to lose but your brains
‘High income, high status: this is Britain’s new working class’, pronounced a headline in the Guardian in July 2016. The newspaper’s report pointed to an evolving ‘working class of the mind’ amongst a breed of employees based on the industries of the ‘new economy’ like tech, finance, the creative arts and media, along with other well-paid woke folk.
The forging of these ‘new cultural identities’, the Guardian relayed, were ‘coalescing around social and political attitudes as much as income’. These ‘attitudes’ assumed that the old industrial proletariat, which once made up the backbone of organised labour could now be dismissed and denigrated. The Brexit vote in 2016, naturally, underscored this belief.
Illustrative of this direction was a series of interviews conducted by the Irish Times in March 2019 with over 20 scions of this new toiling class: novelists, poets, arts centre directors and lecturers. Not one of the interviewees, predictably, had a good word to say about Brexit or the people who voted for it. Fairly typical were the reactions of Brian Dillon, a teacher at the Royal College of Art, whose analysis was that Brexit was ‘the result of a shameless choice by many people – the vaunted People and their Freedonian masters [sic] – to pursue xenophobia, racism and outright fascism’. ‘All the circumstantial explanations aside’ he added, ‘you have to choose to be a bigot’.
The fact that so many bigots of the declining industrial heartlands supported Leave meant no one should feel especially sorry for them. ‘Make Kent a car park’, tweeted another member of this neo-proletariat, Dr Who television producer Phil Collinson: ‘Serves all those stupid working-class voters right who believe Boris and his mates’.
Negating the concept of trade unions
The problem with the development of these supposedly ‘new cultural identities’, constructed as they are on possessing the approved ‘attitudes’, is that they negate the ostensible purpose of a trade union, which is to represent the interests of the worker regardless of an individual’s political inclination. Any trade union that signs on, either directly or indirectly, to a social justice project of radically changing the culture ceases to be politically disinterested in objective circumstances and conditions in the workplace. Instead, the quality of representation for any workplace problem or grievance is likely to vary depending upon where one fits in within the victimhood/oppression hierarchy.
Thus, the concerns of a ‘pale, male and stale’ union member being victimised by his employer is likely to be of no priority, particularly if he is up against a member of a special interest group. If your case does not further the ideological aim to re-fashion society along cultural Marxist lines, if your face doesn’t fit, or even if you are a committed trade unionist and happen to contravene the received political line, as those like Paul Embery discovered, then being a member of a union is unlikely to help you. At most, you might be referred to some flaccid and suitably neutered counselling facility that will assist you in coming to terms with your low status as a person of little importance to the progressive cause. Only a mug would continue to pay union subs on this basis.
The case for new trade unions
The turn of mainstream unions away from their communal roots towards more exclusionary understandings that privilege political and social stances over individual employees ensures that anyone interested in the provision of competent and fair-minded representation is likely to be disappointed.
For Nick Denys of Union Blue, laws should be reformed to encourage the formation of unions that are non-party political in orientation. Independent unions should be free to ‘advertise their services in the workplace, promote new forms of collective bargaining’, and ‘follow a less stringent reporting regime than political unions’. ‘Those trade unions that want to play-party politics can continue to do so’, he argued, ‘but they will not be taken seriously as a worker’s organisation’.
Significantly, Denys’ call for new forms of union organisation also reflects similar trends emerging in the United States, which has, according to a Financial Times report in September 2019, witnessed a resurgence in union activity over the previous year. Much of this has been driven by a growing consciousness of falling living standards, lack of wage progression and retirement insecurity.
Yet, the stimulus has also been provided by a desire for properly representative labour organisations that operate professionally without recourse to partisan politics, and which can thus attract, among others, those of a Republican and conservative persuasion that might otherwise feel discriminated against by established union culture.
The Financial Times article held up the example of the Freelancers Union, which has advanced the conditions of the 56 million people in the United States who are self-employed. As a consequence, the report noted, the Union, ‘which caters to white-collar professionals, like photographers, writers and graphic artists, has also gained membership and political clout’.
Case study 1: The Workers of England Union
In the UK, too, new unions are beginning to take shape in novel and distinctive ways. One development is the labour organisation that does not confine itself to a particular trade or industry but is open to any employee regardless of their profession. The Workers of England Union (WEU) was formed to provide a protective voice for workers based in England in the same way that the Welsh and Scottish Trade Union Congresses campaign for the rights of employees in their respective domains. The WEU prioritises the needs of the individual worker, laying emphasis on the ability to provide high quality advice in respect of skills and training or for grievance and disciplinary proceedings, along with expertise in Employment Law.
Traditional unions deploy shop stewards who may possess the advantages of proximity to the workplace along with organisational and occupational knowledge. However, they are usually members of that very same company or organisation, and therefore have to try to defend their members’ interests in front of the same management to which they themselves are subject.
In the words of Stephen Morris, General Secretary of the WEU, the objective of the Union is to ‘show that employers are wrong to think that Union representation should be in-house. On the contrary if shop stewards are under the same organisational hierarchy as other employees then this creates a serious potential conflict of interest’. Being independent of any managerial hierarchy allows unions like the WEU to represent their members free from conflicting interests or informal pressure to bend to the aims of managerial imperatives.
Such independence enables the WEU to be highly active in standing up for its members. According to Stephen Morris, because Employment Law applies across the board, whether to bank managers or to Asda check out staff, ‘specialised knowledge of particular work environments is not a necessity and could even be a hindrance’. For these kinds of reasons, Morris declares, the WEU has been successful in pursuing ‘breaches of Employment Law all the way. These include three Court of Appeal cases, all of which we have won!’
Interestingly, Morris maintains that ‘sensible employers’ also welcome dealing with WEU representatives precisely because they are experts in Employment Law, and are therefore ‘genuinely able to help both our members and their employers in clarifying what the proper legal approach should be in each individual case’. He continues: ‘It is refreshing for them to find that we are not cutting corners to make money to the detriment of both our members and their employers in order to give the money to the Labour Party – unlike the TUC member unions’.
The WEU is also expressly non-partisan, receiving no party funding and shunning any political affiliation. This provides reassurance to its members that they will be represented equitably regardless of their personal views on anything. That is not to say that the WEU possesses no political points of view at all. On the contrary, the union is overtly critical of policies that result in ’employment opportunities either going overseas or being outsourced to other countries within the UK’ and is trenchant in its advocacy of creating and preserving jobs, skills and investment in the local economy.
In all these respects a labour organisation like the WEU is an innovative amalgam of the old and the new. It is clearly a different kind of union that has adapted to the fluctuating employment patterns of the new economy, which have seen reductions in big union power and the rise of more flexible working practices. As a consequence, the WEU focuses its efforts on the representation and protection of the individual union member.
Even so, at the same time, the WEU reinforces the original communitarian spirit that motivated trade unions in the past, namely, the dedication to a civic morality, which holds that resilience, solidarity and rectitude in industrial relations contributes to the well-being of the individual and, thereby, also contributes to the collective good. The WEU, for one, explicitly embraces the need for a ‘new approach, for new, for clear and fresh thinking’ and a commitment to the principles of ‘truth and courage’, which demand that trade unions should stand up for their members.
Case Study 2: the Free Speech Union
Another form of emergent union is one based on the commitment to a professional ethic.The Free Speech Union (FSU) is an exemplar of this approach. Conceived as a loose confederation of concerned journalists, writers, and academics in August 2019, the FSU is in the process of being formalised, and is expected to launch as an official entity in early 2020. The mission of the organisation is to defend, promote and secure the principle of freedom of speech in an era that has increasingly witnessed the curtailing of freedom of thought in the public sphere, arising from amongst other things the upsurge of social media outrage mobbing, ‘cancel culture’ and the decline of viewpoint plurality in the universities.
The genesis of the FSU lay in the idea that thinkers and writers should come to the defence of each other if any of their number is subject to censorious social media campaigning or specious persecution by an employer on account of causing offence to someone. The role that the FSU envisages is that it will be the organisation itself rather than named individuals, or groups of individuals, that will come to the aid of anyone in trouble.
Like the WEU, the FSU combines features of the old and new. It is new in the sense that it is dedicated to the defence of people who subscribe to an important liberal norm that is now under assault, rather than a specific vocation. In that sense, the FSU will be open to pretty much anyone, not just intellectuals and academics. Yet, it also upholds the traditional trade union ethic of collective solidarity, thus reducing the scope of outrage entrepreneurs or craven employers to hound and intimidate people for standing up for each other.
According to the FSU’s founder, journalist Toby Young, the function of the FSU will be to ‘lobby for anyone accused of a speech crime – or subjected to a complaint about their behaviour prompted by their expression of a dissenting viewpoint – to be granted due process, whether they’re a full-time employee or a freelance’.
“Unlike the WEU, the goal of the FSU will not be to negotiate about the conditions of employment like pay or pensions, or physical safety at work, but is explicitly aimed at building up a protective network for those in need by providing professional guidance to members on defamation and Employment Law, expertise on how to raise funds for legal costs, access to possible donors and how to generate effective media coverage. It will also be offering members a legal insurance scheme similar to that offered by other trade unions.”
Summarising his motivation for launching the FSU, Toby Young states:
“Most trade unions no longer defend their members’ right to free speech, as the FBU’s treatment of Paul Embery demonstrates. That’s what’s created a need for an organisation like the one I’m setting up. It’s a tragedy because one of the reasons many unions were established in the 19th Century was to protect workers from being fired for expressing political views their bosses disapproved of. Today, company managers and trade union officials have been to the same universities and move in the same elite circles and subscribe to the same woke orthodoxies on issues like Brexit, immigration and gender-neutral toilets. Union officials are more than happy to work with the bosses to weed out employees who don’t share their progressive views.”
The need for alternative representation
The rise of new forms of labour association like the WEU and FSU are therefore demonstrations of how trade unions are in the process of reinvention. The new trade unions are adapting to contemporary working environments wrought by the changes in technology, the economy and across social relations in general. These changes have seen large increases in the number of people who operate as free-lancers, are self-employed, or those who work from home, etc. They also stress the protection of persecuted individuals in the workplace, through the provision of advice, guidance and support, rather than mass activism.
One of the potent attractions of new unions in this respect is that they focus clearly on the specific concerns of their members, and are not in hoc to fashionable enthusiasms that often do much to undermine the equality of representation. Stephen Morris is emphatic that ‘The Workers of England is not blinded by political correctness’. The WEU ‘willingly supports employees whose employers are trying to sanction expression of political opinion. We are proud to have won tens of thousands of pounds for members whose “philosophical beliefs” have been discriminated against’.
Thus, the appeal of these newer forms of worker representation to those who might feel alienated from established trade unions is palpable. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the WEU, for instance, is picking up members from the higher education sector in greater numbers. The deterioration in the quality of academic leadership across the UK’s increasingly corporatised universities has led to an institutional culture that tolerates the denunciation of fellow academic colleagues for wrongthink and is sometimes even complicit in the persecution of staff for having a point of view that contradicts the ‘woke’ obsessions of senior university managers. Here, the conjunction of forces has seen, rather ironically, the ideological alignment of traditional unions with those of the employers themselves. When employers and trade unions come to configure themselves around the same demagogic interests, it cannot be a surprise that people reach out for alternative forms of representation.
Conclusion: revolution or rediscovery?
‘To the barricades, Comrades. It is time to start another revolution’, so said the Free Speech Union’s Toby Young, somewhat tongue in cheek. He has a point, though. The appearance of new types of unions reflects new times and new circumstances. Trade unions need to adapt if they are to survive and associations like the WEU and FSU are heralding a shift in forms of trade union activity away from a fascination with niche ideologies that are irrelevant and off-putting to so many people.
In another paradoxical way, however, the ‘revolution’ is all about re-discovery: the re-discovery of the attributes common to so many working class unions of old: solidarity with a professional community and a commitment to humane principles of dignity and respect in the workplace. Long live the paradoxical revolution!
About the author
M.L.R. Smith is Professor Strategic Theory at King’s College London. He is co-author of ‘The British Road to Dirty War’ (https://www.brugesgroup.com/blog/the-british-road-to-dirty-war-analysis-by-david-betz-mlr-smith-1) and ‘Carry On Democracy?’ (https://www.brugesgroup.com/blog/carry-on-democracy-analysis-by-david-betz-mlr-smith), and co-author of Sacred Violence: Political Religion in a Secular Age (London and New York: Palgrave/McMillan, 2014).