Don’t give up on unions – they can still drive a more progressive politics | Zoe Williams

Zoe Williams
‘It is plain, from the sidelines, that Len McCluskey is the ego candidate.’ Photograph: Neil Hall/Reuters

The last day of voting for the Unite leadership is technically on Thursday, but the real deadline whooshed past on Saturday. No post on Monday; second-class stamps on the ballot papers. It is a minor irony of the Easter season that its myth is cute animals delivering things, when getting anything real delivered over the period is impossible.

Part of me wants to break off Unite to complain about the perverse difficulty of getting a last-minute Easter egg, which brings us neatly to the point: the battle for control over this union has huge consequences, not just for its mirror struggle in the Labour party, but for the labour movement as a whole. However, it’s no spectator sport: if you pause to watch the action, you get drawn into a bog of grievance, impossible to map without a superhuman interest in personality and process.

It is plain, from the sidelines, that Len McCluskey is the ego candidate. If, as has been suggested, the election was brought forward from 2018 so that McCluskey could have a third term and not have to retire, that is outrageous. And if that isn’t what happened, why are they having this election at all? Yet it’s outrageous in a very boring way, cast in the ancient – but also dispiritingly current – mould of the man who thinks all his ideas, as strong and self-evident as they are, will nonetheless disperse like dandelion spores if he’s not there to lead people to them. I’m sick of having to beg for some pluralism from these men.

Dig beneath that, and you’re mired in the fine detail, adding confusion and opacity to the tedium. Was the ballot deliberately held over Easter to minimise turnout? Why have only 1.06 million ballot papers been issued, when the union had claimed 1.4 million members? What kind of voting numbers would this election need for legitimacy, and who would be a reasonable arbiter of that? Ultimately, it becomes like watching a couple fighting on a bus: interesting for about two minutes; after that, both predictable and incomprehensible, intimate and hostile, until it becomes a little bit undignified to keep on staring.

That leaves us with a problem: Unite in particular, and unions in general, are too important to ignore. The fashion since Thatcher has been to present their decline as a key driver of inequality; we see the distribution of profit steadily shifting away from employees, towards shareholders, and this is plainly because labour is failing to organise. It creates a feedback loop: as employees stop bargaining collectively, their conditions are eroded, and their jobs become too insecure to risk any troublemaking. Every country that has seen wages stagnate has seen a corresponding decline in union membership.

Unions don’t even have to limit themselves to the labour force: they could pool the power of the worker and the consumer

Since the turn of the century newer critiques have begun to characterise unions as old-fashioned by definition, with a terminal cluelessness around the challenges of modernity built into their DNA. Conceived as institutions of resistance – to exploitation, to asymmetrical power structures, to the boss class, to poor conditions and the erosion of rights – unions resist everything, change of any sort. They will resist the arrival of women into the workplace as staunchly as they resist a new overtime deal. They will resist agency workers as though the workers themselves, rather than the agencies, were creaming profit from already low wages. Like an auto-immune condition, they reject first and ask questions later.

All that may be true, yet none of it is insoluble. If we have the ingenuity to cure real auto-immune diseases, we surely have the imagination to cure metaphorical ones. While the movement’s failures are undeniable, they carry the seeds not just of their own regeneration, but of a broader political one. Unite doesn’t need to accept a membership decline, or perform quasi-corporate manoeuvres of gobbling up smaller unions in order to steady the figures. It could think creatively about the precariat: zero-hours workers, agency workers, informal workers, migrant workers – all the people classed as a threat to workplace conditions who could, if looked upon as allies, be a source of solidarity and strength.

Unions no longer have to accept that only the most secure workers will join: they can create semi-anonymous communities online, so that the membership becomes a cross between old-school unionisation and newer, online pressure groups like 38 Degrees or Avaaz. Unions don’t have to accept rigid sectoral distinctions, where only rail workers can fight for each other; with the more fluid structures made possible by online membership, university lecturers could fight for teachers, teachers for carers.

Yet nor do unions need to paint themselves into the corner of permanence, constantly having to expand in order to service their own institutional requirements. The pop-up union that formed in Brighton three years ago – which fought one battle successfully, then disbanded – is salient.

Ultimately, unions don’t even have to limit themselves to the labour force: they could, with a broad and flexible spectrum of actions – strikes at one end, petitions at the other – pool the power of the worker and the consumer, so that where negotiation didn’t work, perhaps the threat of reputational damage would. Imagine if Southern Rail passengers and guards could contrive to be on the same side. Think how powerful that would be. And while we’re breaking out of old constraints, unions don’t have to be tied to the Labour party, and even if they do, they don’t have to mirror its ideological divisions.

This isn’t a battle cry to vote for Gerard Coyne. You’re probably too late now, anyway. It’s a call for optimism. The trade union movement has been shrouded in despair as a matter of cliche; in fact, it is cause for optimism.