Dan Whittle – Renewing the vows: Divorce won’t work for Labour and the unions – a modern partnership can

Unions will be an important part of Labour’s renewal and return to government, but there are steps that need to be taken now to make better partnership possible.

First, both sides need to recognise the value of a closer relationship, second take steps to overcome some of the problems of perception, and thirdly to find ways to work better together.

The benefits

Most unions are not affiliated to the Labour Party, but all unions show public support for Labour politicians and policies where they deliver for union members. Though the value of this cannot be quantified in terms of cost or votes cast, it is invaluable in making Britain a place more likely to elect a Labour government.

The electoral benefits of a closer relationship between Labour and the unions are shown in the Australian election in 2007 and in Obama’s election in 2008, and in best practice here in Britain.

The Australian unions’ campaign — Your Rights at Work — began as soon as the 2004 election was over. Mass rallies and advertising campaigns were organised alongside marginal seat campaigns to mobilise local union members.

The share of voters concerned about work issues grew from 31 per cent to 53 per cent in the two years to June 2006, with three fifths of voters backing Labor’s competency on the matter over the Liberal Party.

As this was happening, the unions in America were preparing to fight to replace George W Bush with a Democrat president. Well before their members had ever heard of Barack Obama the unions were educating them about some of the issues that would dominate the 2008 election such as health, green jobs and union friendly laws.

The scale of the union campaign was unprecedented: 10 million doors knocked, 27 million worksite leaflets distributed, 70 million phone calls and 57 million union direct mail letters.

Unions worked together, and linked their political campaign to recruitment, gaining hundreds of thousands of new members.

Many of the clues to how that kind of winning relationship can develop in Britain can be found in the best of current and recent practice.

The Progress booklet ‘Organising to Win’ includes details of how the relationships of Nick Smith and John Mann to the union Community helped them win Blaenau Gwent and Bassetlaw, in the latter case the union helped provide a booklet on anti-social behaviour to thousands of local people. There are countless models of good relationships between unions and candidates on a local level which can be replicated.

With the creation of the Training Academy and ‘Movement for Change’ Labour are acknowledging the need for union style organising techniques – agents able to deliver networked power and to mobilise support. The TUC’s Organising Academy has 20 years of experience that Labour needs to learn from. Unions too are learning the new technique of ‘community unionism’, reaching out to build alliances with service users to meet their objectives. Unions maintain around 7 million members, around 35 times that of the Labour Party and it is this potential workforce that Labour and Unions can work together to mobilise on political objectives.

The rise in effectiveness of the Taxpayers’ Alliance and the Countryside Alliance has shown the importance to political parties of working with independent organisations to get their message out. The Countryside Alliance, for example, mobilises its members to campaign for Conservative candidates. The success of the union-funded website ‘False Economy’ in raising interest in anti-cuts arguments shows that single issue groups established by Labour and the unions will play an important part particularly in communicating to non-aligned voters.[1]

Policy benefits

The value of unions in developing policies that Labour can use, and in helping meet Labour’s policy objectives by their actions is another area which must be fully appreciated for the relationship to develop.

The research and political departments of unions, affiliated and non-affiliated, produce policies and briefings which reflect the views of their members and the union’s officers and elected executives. Though these inform the work of all politicians, they are particularly useful to the Labour Party where they are more likely to be in line with the values of the politicians. Unions are a huge resource for detailed and evidence based policy-making and work with Labour legislators on a daily basis.

The contribution unions make to the achievement of Labour’s policy goals needs also to be recognised. A government review of workplace union representatives concluded that they contribute up to £10 billion to the economy by outcomes such as increasing the willingness of workers to improve performance and improving access to training.[2] Unions are able to reduce labour turnover and absenteeism; to make workplaces – and society more broadly – fairer and more equal through setting pay and conditions through collective bargaining.[3]

Some of the new intake of Conservative MPs are trying to challenge unions through Parliament. They are out of touch with moderate Britain which agrees with the concept of making the law work beyond the legal minimum, recognizes the concept of employee voice, accepts the benefit of constructive challenge within an organization and understands the need for representation at work to avoid excessive conflict. Union leaders are currently more trusted than business leaders and politicians.[4]


Against this backdrop, there is an opportunity to improve the perception of the relationship between Labour and the unions. Many of the positive things unions do in partnership with Labour to help their members are drowned out by stories focusing on their voting power at Labour party conference and leadership elections.

For unions, more important than media image, are the conversations that happen in workplaces up and down the country between reps and workers and it is the tangible benefits that they deliver that are most likely to win new members. Labour, as a political party, naturally relies far more on a high profile, positive and up-to-date image in the national media.

Unions can learn from Labour’s willingness to invest resources into keeping its image working properly. Labour representatives must also promote trade unionism as a good in society.

Labour’s moderates must accept that many unions have innovated, modernised and strived, and their failure to make significant gains in recruitment and recognition over the past 10 years is partly because union laws are out of date for today’s workplaces. The Australian and American elections showed that pro-union laws can be a winning part of a political party’s offer.

A partnership between the spectrum of unions and Labour can work between now and the next election but must be based on an agreement to establish mutual goals, help each other where there are weaknesses and be open to compromise and change.


Article image by Lauran Beyer

[1] For more see Will Straw’s work on the Latimer Project

[2] BIS document “Workplace Representatives: A Review of their facilities and facilities time”.

[3] TUC Touchstone publication ‘The Road to Recovery’ http://www.tuc.org.uk/economy/tuc-17727-f0.cfm?themeaa=touchstone&theme=touchstone

[4] Annual Survey of Trust in the Professions, Mori, October 2009. Trade union leaders score -11 per cent on the Mori Veracity index as opposed to -41 per cent and -63 per cent for business leaders and politicians generally.

One thought on “Dan Whittle – Renewing the vows: Divorce won’t work for Labour and the unions – a modern partnership can

  1. Blaenau Gwent Labour won this because the sitting MP decided not to bother, otherwise believe me you would not have won it. Progress had sod all to do with it, not to many liked the New labour tribe, I should know it’s my home town.

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