Andrew Fisher: main author

With a whimper

Labour’s proposals on union rights amount to mere tinkering, writes Mike Macnair

On Tuesday May 16 the Labour Party launched its election manifesto. A draft of it was leaked on May 11, and promptly denounced in the media as “leftwing” and offering to “take Britain back to the 1970s”.1 Other commentators have claimed that the manifesto means that voters are finally offered a “real choice”2 - this seems to be spin coming from Labour.

However, Greg Rosen’s May 12 commentary in the New Statesman was headlined ‘Forget 1983 - Labour’s 2017 manifesto is a throwback to New Labour’.3 Rosen’s headline and story is a more accurate account of what is on offer. The manifesto’s proposals for ‘labour law’ provide a striking example:

A Labour government will invest in enforcement through a new ministry of labour, and empower workers and their trade unions - because we are stronger when we stand together. So we will review the rules on union recognition, so that more workers have the security of a union.

The manifesto in several places talks of extending collective bargaining. But there is hardly any reference to rolling back the overweening power of employers’ lawyers over the timing and conditions for industrial action. Labour, we are told, will “repeal the Trade Union Act and roll out sectoral collective bargaining - because the most effective way to maintain good rights at work is collectively through a union”.

But the Trade Union Act (2016),4 which includes elaborate measures to render trade unions incapable of action without employers’ approval, is only the most recent in a long run of pieces of legislation aimed at weakening the trade unions. What about the rest?

The leaked draft included another proposal, which has not made it into the final version: “Labour will also consult with employers and trade unions on permitting secure online balloting for industrial action votes.” It is a good thing that this proposal did not make it into the final version. It would have been perfectly ridiculous, since provision for pilot schemes of online balloting is already in the Trade Union Act 2016 (section 4).

But then, of course, the issue is posed: why did the Tories make this proposal? The answer is that online strike balloting would provide more, not less, excuses for the courts to issue ‘labour injunctions’ to illegalise any strikes which might actually inconvenience the employer. Introducing online strike ballots also extends the principle of the Tories’ campaign since the 1970s for unions to operate forms of ‘plebiscitary democracy’, which give excessive power to media barons.

We might imagine that, having been visibly scammed by the Tories and the media barons using plebiscitism twice in the recent past (the Scots independence and Brexit referenda), Labour people might have begun to recall the old opposition of the labour movement to plebiscitary democracy. But no. (Indeed, we had already seen, since the Brexit referendum, Corbyn’s co-thinkers playing in Momentum the same Cameron-Khomeini-Hitler-Napoleon III game.)

The manifesto has almost nothing to say about the anti-union laws. It ‘talks the talk’ of strengthening unions and collective bargaining - repeatedly. But it is completely unwilling to ‘walk the walk’. Or, to use a different cliché: Labour, as supposedly ‘led’ by Corbyn and his co-thinkers, is not prepared to grasp the political nettle of actually reversing the post-1970s experiment in giving employers, through their lawyers, the power to control the timing and effect of industrial action; and more generally of weakening unions by judicialising ‘unfair dismissal’ and so on.


It is worth making a brief comparison with the proposals of the Institute for Employment Rights Manifesto for labour law (2016), since the language of the Labour manifesto shows clear influence from the IER’s proposals: ministry of labour, extension of collective bargaining, promotion of ‘sectoral’ collective bargaining, and so on. The difference, though, is fundamental proposals in the IER Manifesto which are absent from Labour’s manifesto. To quote some of these from Ciaran Cross’s summary:5

  •  Reforms to the law on freedom of association should be made to ensure a better balance between trade union autonomy and trade union democracy (with trade union elections conducted in accordance with trade union rules and procedures).
  •  With regard to the right to strike, it should be lawful for everyone to be able to take collective action with others in defence of their social and economic interests in the workplace, and for their trade unions to organise such action. The Manifesto calls for the repeal of the existing statutory duty to give notice of an intention to take industrial action, as well as the duty to give notice of an intention to ballot for industrial action. It proposes that a simple duty to give no less than three days strike notice would be ample.
  •  Trade unions should also be permitted to take or to call for ‘secondary’ or ‘solidarity’ industrial action in support of any other workers in dispute (including industrial action involving another employer), where the primary action is lawful. There should be a ‘presumption that solidarity action is lawful’, because ‘the whole point of trade unionism is not only collective strength, but mutual support in times of trouble’.
  •  Moreover, lawful industrial action should not be regarded as a breach of the contract of employment or service, but as a temporary suspension only. To this end, those participating in lawful collective action should have the right to be reinstated at the end of the strike, if it is their wish to be reinstated.


None of these points, which really would reduce the bias towards employer interests in the current law, has found a place in Labour’s manifesto. Why not?

I would suggest that what is involved is three elements. The first is that the Labour right and ‘centre’ are, in fact, committed to anti-strike laws and radically weakened trade unions, though right now (as distinct from in the days of Tony Blair) it is only their lower-ranking ideological hangers-on, rather than their leaders, who can say so openly.

The second is the ‘governmental illness’ of the Labour left, who imagine both that the worst Labour government is better than the weakest Tory or coalition government, and that it is possible to sneak into governmental office by evading discussion of controversial issues.

The third is that the unions speak in Labour through the full-time officials; and the officials imagine the union in terms merely of their jobs for the union. That is, they imagine a union which can function without membership mobilisation or autonomy at ground level, through legal powers conferred by the state on the officials.

Labour right

The commitments of the Labour right are not just a matter of Blairism or even Thatcherism. They go back to Barbara Castle’s In place of strife (1969), which originally proposed the requirement for compulsory strike ballots. The background is, of course, ‘declinism’: the recognition by the late 1960s that British industry was in decline relative to its competitors in western Europe and Japan.

I discussed two weeks ago how ‘declinism’ motivated the ‘education reform’ agenda.6 I made the point there that the aspirations of capital and its supporters on this front are illusory, because the cause of British decline is to be found in geopolitical-economic dynamics leading to underinvestment in fixed capital and a dynamic towards financialisation and dominance of services (both of which imply lower productivity), not in an undereducated working class. The result of the illusory quality of the goal is that the aspirations to degrade education are endlessly unsatisfiable.

The same is true of ‘trade union reform’ (witness, indeed, the Trade Union Act 2016 as the latest step of the ratchet). The illusory end goal is something like the return to the law under which, in 1736, a group of workers could be criminally prosecuted for “conspiracy to refuse to work more than 16 hours a day, to the great loss and damage of their employers”. But, even if this was achieved, British relative productivity would still decline.

Why did the Labour right become committed to the illusory goals of restoring ‘British competitiveness’, in spite of holding themselves out as the political representatives of labour? It is probably not a matter of pure corrupt careerism. Rather, the great schism between social democrats and communists as a result of 1914-18 was more than anything else about the social democrats’ nationalism and loyalty to the nation-state: the idea that reforms are only possible if they are paid for by the relative success of ‘our’ state. But then the logic is inescapable that social democrats must bite the bullet of whatever is required to restore, or ensure, the competitiveness of ‘national’ business.

The social democrats do not, in fact, fully follow this logic. They can (for example) come under pressure from trade unions. Or they could come under pressure from an external left not committed to the ‘national interest’ - if that left was not so committed to ‘moderate demands but militant action’. Indeed, Theresa May is not fully following the ‘national competitiveness’ logic in this election, but making various pseudo-left noises aiming to take votes off Labour (which led to grumbles in the rightwing press). Her choice to do so reflects the fact that the outcomes of attempting to apply the competitiveness mantra have turned out to be increasingly radical inequality and the rise of right-populist alternatives to ‘establishment’ parties across the world. The ‘competitiveness’ logic is nonetheless influential enough for the need for anti-union laws to be an unquestionable dogma of the British establishment since the late 1960s, including within the Labour right and centre.

Labour left

The Labour left has in fact routinely called for the repeal of the Tory anti-union laws for the last 35 years. It is then extraordinarily striking that it should stop doing so when Andrew Fisher had the opportunity to draft the manifesto. I make this point not in relation to the final manifesto. The final version should in theory be inevitably a product of left-right compromise, given the right’s continued control of the parliamentary party, the full-time apparatus, and most Labour council groups and constituencies. The point is rather that Fisher’s leaked draft - which the rightwing press complained reflects union wish-lists - was already extraordinarily weak on this front.

The explanation is a matter on which we have written repeatedly in this paper. The Labour left is indeed to the left of the Labour right and centre. But it is also a Labour left, committed to Labourism - on the ‘social democrat’ side of the great schism.

This does not play out as internalising the ‘competitiveness requires anti-union laws’ mantra. Rather, the Labour left remains nationalistic, but imagines the delusion that the ‘national’ part of the economy can be (largely) detached from its ‘international’ part; and that there are then various substitutes for cost-cutting to raise the rate of profit as a road to ‘competitiveness’. Keynesian stimuli, or education spending, or improvements in worker participation in decision-making, or whatever, are all imagined sources of improved economic performance and productivity.

Further, the Labour left remains committed to the constitutional order. How this plays out is the belief that the fundamental task is to get a Labour government. Substantive policy wish-lists then fall to be sacrificed as necessary to the need to avoid division in the party - and ‘scandalous’ ideas, which the Tories can exploit. By homing in on a small number of policies potentially attractive to the electorate, it is imagined that Labour can sneak into office. Hence the manifesto draft is already radically watered down by the left, before it comes to be negotiated with the right. Proximity to office (mis-imagined as ‘power’) reduces the Labour left’s willingness to confront establishment dogmas.

Union officials

The union officials are no doubt affected variously by the ideas of the Labour right (that loss of ‘competitiveness’ means fewer and worse-paid jobs) and of the Labour left (that unity and avoiding confrontation with establishment dogmas will allow electoral victory). But there is also a particular poignancy about union officials in discussions in the Labour Party agreeing not to call for the abolition of the purely class-biased rules introduced over the last 46 years to weaken trade unions.

The explanation is probably that union officials - in spite of having presided over a gradual decline of the unions under this regime - think of the unions in terms of their own jobs: as administrators, but also as representatives in negotiation and lobbying. From this point of view every strike looks like a failure; and, in a sense, it is: it would be better to get a good deal by negotiation than to fight - and perhaps lose the fight, as well as the pay lost while striking.

Hence, to officials, it looks like an attractive option to drop proposals to change the law to facilitate strikes and other industrial action (big no-no with the media), but retain proposals to change the law to increase the unions’ negotiating role and the presence of the officials in consultations, and so on.

The problem is that the reasons for the employers to make concessions in negotiations (whether immediately on terms and conditions, or more generally on legislation and policy) are not out of the goodness of their hearts. The managers and representatives who do the negotiating owe duties to their shareholders, etc to maximise profits or minimise losses. The reason for them to make concessions is that the alternative to a deal is also worse for them.

Hence, without an improvement in the ability to take industrial action, the concessions made by employers will remain measly. And confidence in unions will continue to decline, and with it their membership - and so on in a vicious spiral. The officials may imagine that the right to strike is an optional extra: in reality, their role here is as turkeys voting for an early Christmas.

We may hope that, even if Labour is beaten as badly as the polls seem to be predicting, Corbyn will refuse to fall on his sword, and point to the saboteur role of the Labour right. But the Labour manifesto proposals on ‘labour law’ suggest, rather, that the ‘Corbyn movement’ will end not with a bang, but with a whimper, which has already begun. It will do so because the Corbynistas have sacrificed the chance of an effective opposition to the illusory hope of an ‘anti-austerity’ government.

An effective opposition remains the goal we actually need to pursue. Such an opposition could actually advocate the overthrow of the regime of employer-controlled labour law.



1. ‘Jeremy Corbyn’s leftwing Labour manifesto leaked’ The Daily Telegraph May 11.

2. Eg, Ian Lavery on LabourList: https://labourlist.org/2017/05/lavery-a-manifesto-for-the-many-not-the-few. But note that the same argument was offered by Dave Prentis in April 2015: www.devoncountyunison.org.uk/news-events/labours-manifesto-gives-voters-a-real-choice-says-unison.

3. www.newstatesman.com/politics/june2017/2017/05/forget-1983-labours-2017-manifesto-throwback-new-labour.

4. The garbage contained in this act can be found in detail at www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2016/15/contents/enacted.

5. I have not yet read the actual book, so rely here on the summary offered by Ciaran Cross in his review in International union rights Vol 23. section 2, pp10-13 (2016).

6. ‘What kind of education?’ Weekly Worker May 4.