Ex-front bencher Alan Johnson has rounded on the movement that elevated him to high office. Jon Rogers, Unison NEC, writing in a personal capacity, responds.
In a recent interview in Progress, renegade former trade union general secretary, Alan Johnson, calls for a reduction of trade union influence in the Labour Party on a platform bought and paid for by Lord Sainsbury.
Johnson, a former Cabinet Minister, has since found his calling occasionally sitting on a sofa next to Michael Portillo (and often on his right) on BBC1‘s This Week. He says workers aren’t interested in trade unions any more because of the image of ‘fat, white, finger-jabbing blokes on rostrums shouting and screaming’. Having conveniently — and inaccurately — stereotyped the movement through which he rose, Johnson has a particular go at Len McCluskey for daring to want more MPs who support trade union policies.
Unlike Johnson and his lazy and offensive stereotyping of our movement, trade unionists might want to consider the evidence. Are we increasingly irrelevant?
The Workplace Employee Relations Study (WERS) says that ‘in workplaces with five or more employees, the proportion of all employees who belong to a trade union changed little between 2004 and 2011.’ That proportion may only be 30%, but it’s no lower than it was when Unison Conference was persuaded by our general secretary not to call for the resignation of Tony Blair.
Furthermore, a large majority of those trade union members look to their trade unions to deal with workplace issues. What then has changed since the middle of the last decade — when Johnson courted the support of trade unionists in anticipation of his eventual doomed bid for the deputy leadership — to make our former friend change his mind?
It’s not that trade unions are less relevant — it’s that we’re being a little more assertive in the Party. That’s clearly why Johnson and his Sainsbury-funded little helpers in the Progress faction berate the unions for spending time in and on the Labour Party.
Johnson says to the trade unions, “You have only got six million members. When are you going to start addressing the real problems you have got?”
Two responses need to be made to this question. Firstly, many in our movement are trying to address all of the problems which we have, including inadequate union density. Our problems interact, however, and the legal shackles which we face contribute to our limited effectiveness, which impairs our ability to defend working people, and therefore to grow.
These legal shackles were retained by the government of which Johnson was a member, and I’d bet pensions with him that he’ll fight any suggestion of a commitment to repeal from a Labour government in 2015. Therefore, Progress and its stooges such as Johnson are part of the ‘real problems’ which the trade union movement faces.
Secondly, however, the decline in trade union membership over the past generation, while alarming, is not unique. In the same period, the Labour Party as a mass membership party with a real presence in our communities has withered away.
There may only be 30% in trade unions — according to WERS — but 47% of workers work in workplaces with on-site representation, almost exclusively by union representatives. For these workers, the presence of trade unions remains a part of everyday life. Do 47% of citizens routinely see their local Labour Party campaigning on their streets?
Johnson might have a case for his preferred option of a further reduction in trade unions’ policymaking role in the Party if he could point to the vibrant growth of other parts of the Party structure crying out to be empowered. He can’t, because there aren’t.
Indeed renewal of Labour as a mass party, if it is possible, almost certainly depends upon increasing — not reducing — the engagement of trade union members in the ranks of our Party.
But then Johnson’s preferred position of support for Tory pay freezes and Tory spending plans might be in jeopardy.