All Together Now

John Lloyd

  • British Trade Unions and Industrial Politics. Vol. I: The Postwar Compromise, 1945-64 edited by John McIlroy and Nina Fishman et al
    Ashgate, 335 pp, £35.00, January 2000, ISBN 0 7546 0018 1
  • British Trade Unions and Industrial Politics. Vol. II: The High Tide of Trade Unionism, 1964-79 edited by John McIlroy and Nina Fishman et al
    Ashgate, 389 pp, £35.00, January 2000, ISBN 0 7546 0018 1
  • The TUC: From the General Strike to New Unionism by Robert Taylor
    Palgrave, 299 pp, £45.00, September 2000, ISBN 0 333 93066 5

Two days after May Day, the festival of labour, a story appeared on the front page of the Financial Times under the typically downbeat headline: ‘Work permit shake-up targets skill gap.’ It told of the Government’s introduction of a permit system which would allow rapid entry into the UK for foreign professionals and highly skilled technicians – doctors, nurses, software engineers, information technologists and others. The same package proposed that non-British students who possess skills which are in short supply should be able to move easily from completing their degrees to finding employment. Aimed primarily at Asia and Central/Eastern Europe, the scheme was commended by David Blunkett as proof that the Government was ‘delivering nothing less than one of the world’s most flexible modern work permit systems. To maintain a buoyant economy we need to ensure employers can quickly fill key posts where shortages exist.’

This initiative came a few weeks after the US Government had announced that it was seeking to attract up to half a million software engineers from India – one of the world’s software hotspots. Around the same time, the German Government agreed – in the face of some opposition from the Right, who played on fears of youth unemployment – to issue visas to a hundred thousand Indian IT workers. Ireland and Australia have similar plans. It seemed, in other words, that some of the world’s richest countries were willing and able to draw on new reservoirs of talent and skill in countries where relatively sophisticated education systems were turning out men and women instantly employable in the rich countries at rates of pay as much as twenty times more than they could command in their own, relatively or absolutely poor states.

Blunkett’s enthusiasm for flexibility and modernity disguises a number of difficulties – chief among which, for a Cabinet minister in a centre-left government, is the effect on developing and transitional economies of wooing away their best and brightest in such a massive, multilateral brain drain. Beyond that, the flurry of efforts to draw skilled labour into the dominant industrial sector seems to point to the globalisation of labour, or at least the beginnings of it; to the development of a technocratic élite which would be encouraged to be stateless; and to the possibility of Europe’s tighter immigration restrictions being balanced by an influx of professionals and technicians. ‘Global citizenship’ would thus be extended from the upper to the middle classes – a lifestyle equivalent to the extension of the suffrage. For some years, commentators have pointed out that globalisation has meant the mobility of all forms of capital except labour: now, that is no longer the case. The voracious requirements of the information economy and the inability of the advanced states’ education systems to meet them mean that when it comes to recruitment the world is the high-tech companies’ oyster.

The main non-barking dog in all this has been the British trade-union movement. Blunkett’s announcement did not mention the unions, nor did the FT writers feel it necessary to seek a comment from any union representative. Issues like pay, conditions, the transferability of grades and seniority between the country of origin and the UK, benefit entitlements, pension rights, the length of stay, expected employment trends in the industries, union enrolment of the new workers – none of them came into the picture. Yet these are the kinds of thing about which trade unions have sought – and, for part of the period covered by British Trade Unions and Industrial Politics, sought successfully – to be automatically consulted, both because they wanted to attract, or demand, the membership of new entrants to the job market, and because they wanted to have some say over the way these newcomers would fit into the existing structures. Consultation of this kind was progressively removed from the agenda under the Conservatives; not very much has been reinstated.

Unions, it is true, talk to departmental officials and ministers more regularly and co-operatively than at any time in the Thatcher-Major period. But they do so on an issue by issue basis. They have almost no representative presence in the British state. There is no longer a National Economic Development Council – flaccid beast though it was – on which they could have equal status with employers; there is no trade-union representation on the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England (there was, deep into the Thatcher period, a trade unionist on the Bank’s Board of Governors – Sir Gavin Laird, of the Engineers); there is a trade unionist on the BBC’s Board of Governors, but he is a deputy general secretary (of the Communications Workers), where once he would have been the general secretary of a large union. The one trade-union leader brought into government since 1997 is Liz (now Baroness) Symons, formerly general secretary of the First Division Association, which represents senior civil servants. She was given a job, not in an economic or home affairs ministry, but in the Foreign Office, from which she was promoted to the Ministry of Defence. She is also the only trade-union leader who is a working peer. The only leading official to whom the Prime Minister talks regularly is John Monks, the TUC General Secretary, who shares something of his political approach and whom he usually sees discreetly, rather than for talks heralded by the TUC. Union leaders have had, perforce, to get used to a vastly diminished status – though none of them has experience of leadership under anything other than Conservative, and now New Labour, administrations and thus no experience of their word being closely attended to, even feared, by ministers and by the public.

And it was feared. Harold Wilson’s 1964-70 and 1974-76 Governments and James Callaghan’s 1976-79 Administration spent more time cajoling, ‘standing up to’, browbeating, placating and schmoozing with union leaders than with any other group. Robert Taylor’s close account of the TUC has in it some wonderfully revealing passages on these (and other) periods: none so rich as the gathering of 1 June 1969 at Chequers which brought together Wilson, his First (and Employment) Secretary Barbara Castle, Jack Jones of the Transport Workers, Hugh Scanlon of the Engineers and Vic Feather, the recently elected TUC General Secretary. The hours of argument circled round the Government’s need – political as much as economic – for legally enforceable constraints on industrial action. Jones and Scanlon refused to countenance anything more than a strengthening of the TUC’s procedure for disciplining unofficial strikes – and that only reluctantly.

The event is vivid in part because Taylor relies on quotations from the memorandum Wilson wrote that evening. In it, he dispassionately records that

there was clearly some fear that an incoming Tory government would seek to go very much further, but the two union leaders were totally confident of their ability to make Tory-type legislation unworkable and drew pictures of British industry stopped by a series of shorter or longer strikes in a large number of industries. They thought nothing of the argument that failure to deal with this problem would make such a government and such legislation more likely.

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