That ol’ red herring – Labour’s links with trade unions – is raising its head again. Kevin Rafter suggests the Party’s 21st Century Commission (an internal review body) should:
‘ . . . look at Labour’s relationship with the trade union movement.’
Mr. Rafter likens this relationship to that which the State used to have with religious faiths. He further comments that trade unionists are somehow a ‘vested interest’ and points to research showing ‘the public’ believes Labour is in the pockets of trade unions. Therefore, Labour should rid itself of this ‘vested interest’ in order to achieve success.
Well, I would advise the Party’s Commission that if they want Labour to remain a half-party, if they never want to challenge for real power, if they want to champion low expectations, then by all means – take on board Mr. Rafter’s advice. It will be a winner.
I had thought we were finished with all this. Following the last general election we had a spate of solutions for Labour’s woes: change the Party’s name, stop begrudging the wealthy, seek out the never-defined ‘new middle class’; and, of course, break with trade unions. But it all faded away, as do most quick-fix solutions do when they come up with a slightly more complex reality.
But here comes Mr. Rafter, quick-fixing once more. Let’s look at some of his points.
(1) Trade unions are a vested interest. I’m always perplexed by this assertion – as if cashiers in Boots or meat packers are in the same league as property developers. Hotel and restaurant workers, clerical, secretarial and sales staff, plant operatives – nearly 170,000 employees, representing a substantial proportion of low-paid. Meet the ‘new vested interest’, exercising their immense economic and political clout to pervert institutions and political practice to their obvious benefit.
When workers don’t join a union – for whatever reason (including fear of employer retribution) – they are not a ‘vested interest’. They are hard-working families seeking the nirvana of the ‘new middle class’. But when they combine together to bargain with their employers collectively, voila – they are suddenly transformed into a proletariat golden circle. This labelling smacks of the bygone ‘combination laws' when workers were accused of so many things – from destabilising the natural order to treason. It’s an old vocabulary updated for modern ears.
(1) Research shows ‘that the wider public remains unconvinced about Labour’s ability to tackle public sector reform as it may be in the pocket of trade unions’. I don’t know what Mr. Rafter is referring to, but it may be the same focus group survey – not a poll - that was leaked to the Sunday Tribune (and from there to all over the place) prior to the last general election. What did this research say?
From five different groups, with 39 quotes from various respondents on a range of ‘brand’ issues, only one interviewee was quoted as being ‘unconvinced’:
'Labour can’t get too involved with the health, because the problem with the health system in Ireland is administration….. Now Labour can’t argue with these guys because they are all unionised, so I can’t see them doing a lot for the health system.'
This was the only negative comment quoted. It’s a big claim to suggest that ‘research shows’ on the basis of one quote from a survey that doesn’t measure attitudes in society. Maybe Mr. Rafter has access to other research. If so, it would help if he would produce this. Otherwise, it’s just one more unsubstantiated assertion.
Mr. Rafter could have looked at international comparisons: for instance, the UK Labour Party, whose links with trade unions run much, much deeper. These certainly don’t seem to harm Labour. I mean, three election wins in a row. Indeed – despite the tensions between the Labour leadership and the unions – the links were and remain bulwark of Labour’s success.
Or the Nordic countries, where the links are so intertwined it’s sometimes hard to distinguish the social democratic party from the trade union – are these examples of vested interests inhibiting Left success?
Or further afield, he could have examined the Australian Labor Party’s recent victory. Here, the links with unions are, if anything, even stronger than in the UK – not only institutionally, but in terms of financial support. There is little question of the trade unions’ role in helping deliver Labor’s success. What’s noteworthy is that both the UK and Australia have a lower trade union membership (in percentage terms) than Ireland.
Mr. Rafter could have made these apt comparisons but he chose not to – wouldn’t do the argument any good.
If I were a Labour strategist this is how I would size up the situation. I would see that Labour is historically stuck on 10% - a half-party that has made little inroad into the public debate for the last 10 years and three elections. I would turn my attention to the size and scope of trade union membership.
First, there are over half a million trade union members. But this only tells part of the story. Over 350,000 have a spouse or partner. Thousands more are retired. Then there are those who would like to be members but are prevented by their employers, while still more benefit from trade union support – community groups, etc. It’s not too much to say that nearly a million people are in some way, directly or indirectly, touched by trade union membership. That’s a big, big constituency.
Second, trade unionists are broadly representative of society. Over 190,000 are below the age of 35, while 290,000 live in a family with children. Occupationally, they are spread throughout all categories. Rather than seeing the trade union link as an obstacle, it is instead an opportunity to tap into a vast reservoir of potential support.
In fact, Mr. Rafter contradicts his own assertion that unions, as a vested interest, are an obstacle to electoral success:
‘In his final words as Taoiseach last week, Bertie Ahern reminded the Dail that Fianna Fail is the voting home for most members of trade unions.’
This didn’t occur by accident. Fianna Fail has, ever since Lemass, worked hard with trade unions and their members – formally and informally – creating a series of successful alliances. Have these alliances ever held Fianna Fail back? Hardly. They are the bedrock of their dominance of Irish politics.
The RTE/Lansdowne exit poll after the last election found that within the ‘working class’ category – the C2DE group which made up half of all voters – Fianna Fail won 43% to Labour’s lowly 9%. This working class vote made up over half of Fianna Fail’s vote. Now include the secretarial, clerical, technical and sales voters who are included in the ‘middle class’ category – the ABC1 grouping – and we can grasp the size of the broad working class vote Fianna Fail relies on and which Labour should target.
Ultimately, Mr. Rafter gives the game away with a perspective that is shared by a number of people on the Left (and certainly by commentators who don’t have the Left’s best interest at heart):
‘By arriving in government in 2012, Eamon Gilmore is seeking to achieve what his two formidable predecessors . . . failed to do.’
For Mr. Rafter, ‘achievement’ is tantamount to entering Government at the earliest possible opportunity. This echoes his colleague, Shane Coleman, who wrote shortly after the last election that Labour’s situation wasn’t all that bad – that it could actually lose seats in 2012 and still end up in Government. In other words, Labour could lose and still ‘achieve’.
Yes, if ‘achievement’ is all about getting into a right-wing-led government then issues such as breaking Fianna Fail’s stranglehold over the trade unionist vote are secondary. All one needs is a couple more seats (or, at least minimise the losses), a flexible strategy that allows support for either right-wing party, and hope the Dail arithmetic comes right. In such a scenario, you don’t really need a review body, you just continue with the inertia – tweaking the structures and practices a bit, while staying on automatic pilot.
Indeed, you don’t even have to ‘review the trade union links’. Just let them atrophy, as they have for the last decade. For you know in your heart that no one either votes for or against Labour because of such links, for the simple reason that they don’t mean or effect anything, positive or negative.
However, if Labour’s review body intends to take a more ambitious approach it will eschew the ‘you-can-lose-and-still-win’ advice being offered, and reject the tired and out-of-date labelling that passes for analysis.
Then, it certainly will review its links with the trade unions, study similar links in other countries, analyse how these links can break Fianna Fail’s stranglehold over the trade unionist vote, convince Labour's affiliates to take the link equally seriously, and construct a strategy where achievement is synonymous with growth, leading to the end of Labour’s half-party status.
It will take on Mr. Rafter’s advice to look at the trade union link. But it will come to a much better conclusion.