If unions are to stay relevant in the new workplace, they must change | Will Hutton

Will Hutton
Len McCluskey is running for re-election as leader of Unite. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA

This should be the left’s moment. Popular discontent about Britain’s current economic and social deal thrives. What used to be taken for granted – the ability of a young couple to buy a house, build a career and expect to live at least as well, if not better, than their parents – has evaporated. Anger and rage are rising. But the left has never seemed so marginalised, directionless and free of a compelling, organising philosophy.

It is a malaise that extends from the Labour party to the trade union movement. This is now epitomised by the election for the general secretaryship of Unite, Britain’s largest and richest trade union, and, crucially, the single biggest donor to the Labour party. The incumbent, Len McCluskey, is running for re-election on the basis that he is a proved defender of workers’ interests. Now, when times are perilous, is not the moment for a new face, he declares, especially if the new face is his “Blairite” challenger, Gerard Coyne.

McCluskey has certainly survived decades of Labour and trade union infighting, requiring both guile and steeliness. He is also the genuine article: working class by origin, an ex-dockworker who built a career representing the interests of fellow trade unionists. He is good at the traditional union role – threatening strikes much more often than he calls them and cutting effective deals.

Yet, for all his qualities, he is the wrong man to take his union – and the Labour movement – forward in 2017. Nonetheless, unless something changes, he is probably going to win. Very few of Unite’s one million electorate will vote. Most who do will think he is good enough and so the result will be determined by some 100,000 members whose reflex reaction is to back the left, no-change candidate.

But trade unionism is in crisis and another steady-as-you-go five years with Len is not good enough. He has done what he can do, as three retired trade union leaders wrote in a letter to the Guardian last week. Elect him and membership will continue to drift downward, while the Unite leadership will continue to genuflect to a backward-looking leftism. It may want to be on the side of “workers”, but it does not know how to reach, for instance, today’s small-scale, fast-moving, service sector workplaces.

The brutal truth is that trade unions need root-and-branch reinvention to attract new members. Then, from the legitimacy won by having a base of rising membership, they could start to insist on the rewriting of fairer laws that incorporate new forms of collective bargaining and participation and so recast the increasingly high-risk, low-quality character of the British workplace. McCluskey, like the current Labour leadership he so generously but misguidedly backs, is nowhere near thinking through what is needed.

Coyne is at least attempting to open up the debate about how Unite can grow. The union has an income of £170m; Coyne calls for more transparency in how this money is spent, disputing sweetheart deals backing Jeremy Corbyn, challenging a £417,000 “co-investment” in a London flat for the general secretary. Above all, he calls for strategic priorities to advance members’ interests.

Unions need to be more appealing to new members. One deterrent is that membership fees are too expensive – freezing them for two years is a step in the right direction. Another proposal is to emphasise the union’s potential to transform Britain’s approach to training. Coyne’s attack on shelf-stacking apprenticeships at Morrisons masquerading as the real thing is telling. Is this the best that Britain can do? Skills, as Coyne says, should be at the heart of modern unionism.

Arguing that the technological revolution will continue to transform jobs and therefore skills, Coyne proposes that negotiations over skills should be a key part of bargaining over the good workplace and Unite should relentlessly police how the new apprenticeship levy is being spent by employers. He would introduce “Unite Endorsed Apprenticeships” as a kitemark of high quality and build on Union Learn, the TUC skills organisation, so that employers have one union point of contact to discuss and develop training programmes. Unite would become the pole partner in developing the 21st-century workforce.

Dismissing this as Blairite collaborationism won’t wash. Unite members would heartily welcome such initiatives. Most of Unite’s national executive and industry section heads, to my certain knowledge, are admirable, even inspiring, people who know which way is up. As are many rank-and-file members of Momentum: they may be angry with what has gone before, but they are ready to be convinced by new ideas. Few, notwithstanding their leadership, want the left to decline into a politically useless social movement that talks to itself.

Coyne could have gone further. Why not pilot the idea of the trade union as an employee mutual – acting as a form of employment agency for workers it supplies to gig economy employers, but offering a job security that they cannot provide? He could also have argued for a fair pay process in every workplace, even for new forms of collective bargaining backed by law. I accept his skills agenda completely, but it does not send the pulse racing. It needs to be part of a bigger story.

Here, Coyne misdirects his criticism. The problem is not, as he says, that McCluskey spends too much time on Westminster politicking – it’s that he spends too much time on the wrong kind of politicking. Most Unite members are not in the business of trying to turn capitalism into socialism; rather, they want to use their collective strength to reshape it so that it works for them, alongside a legal architecture that makes work and pay as fair as possible. The way to secure such change is for the left first to win the argument and then power.

McCluskey, Corbyn, John McDonnell and the leaders of Momentum are not moving beyond slogans and their preoccupation is less with winning power than hard wiring ancient and outmoded left positions into union and party policies that turn Labour into an unelectable social movement. They can be stopped: Unite is a democracy. The future of the Labour party, British parliamentary democracy and the country itself, as it is led into a hard Brexit, demands that Unite members rouse themselves. They must vote for change – for all our sakes.

By using Yahoo you agree that Yahoo and partners may use Cookies for personalisation and other purposes