Realpolitik (see also Political realism; from German: real “realistic”, “practical” or “actual”; and Politik “politics”) refers to politics or diplomacy based primarily on practical considerations, rather than ideological notions or moralistic premises. In this respect, it shares aspects of its philosophical approach with those of realism and pragmatism.
"Manchmal werden Leute den Wald vor lauter Bäumen nicht sehen."

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

039 - Opinion Short: Why Britain has a union-backed party.

Our nation has collective amnesia, or more accurately, we are very selective about the parts of social history we wish to cherish and promote, and those which we wish to forget.

Our grassroots socio-political history ranks amongst the most vibrant in all of the Western world, and yet we are systematically undoing all of the work our forebears have done, in the name of short term economic interests.

The Eight-hour work day (derived from a "Ten-Hour Bill"), Occupational Health awareness and the prohibition of Child Labour, are just three major achievements of British labour unions whose effects are felt around the advanced industrialised world.

These movements were spawned in the interests of ordinary men and women, who though composing the majority of society, were readily overlooked by political elites and owners of capital.

By disrupting the flow of money to those at the top through industrial disputes and strike action, those who ruled and managed, were forced to consider the needs of their workers and constituents and to legislate accordingly.

This is the historical overview of labour union movements.

In the contemporary world, the environments under which labour union movements thrived have long since been diminished. Coal mines have been replaced with call centres; factories with retail outlets.

Union membership remains highest amongst public sector workers, who typically work in comparatively better paid, safer environments. Perhaps their existence is testament to the work of union members of yesteryear. In the private sector, union membership is much diminished and though equally experiencing cleaner, safer and typically better paying workplaces, their workers are more exposed to the precarious state of market forces.

There are still workers who suffer the indignity of overwork or underwork. All the signs indicate that these shortcomings are on the increase in an age of austerity for all. So with the crushing of significant Union influence, following the demise of the Postwar Consensus, who still speaks up for the ordinary workers?

Source: BBC News (March 2012)
The answer is that it is hard to say. In Post No. 32, we highlighted the sources of income for the three major political parties, and how the equivalent of four fifths of the funding received from Trade Unions by the Labour Party, was provided to the Conservative Party via individual donations. This could potentially highlight a gulf in individual member wealth between the parties, demonstrating the type of economic demographic that typically supports each party. That's not to say that the non-conservative parties are devoid of wealthy individual donators - Labour's Cash for Wigs scandal in 2001 springs to mind. It would also be erroneous to suggest that only the wealthy support The Conservative Party.

The Labour Party - founded by Keir Hardie with the aim of representing the Victorian working class - owes its existence to union movements, as its first leader was heavily involved in establishing Scottish coal mining unions during the late 19th century.

This is a far cry from the Labour Party of today, which is still unsure whether to continue on a path of watered-down nationalisation, embracing of market-based service provision and interventionism (Blarism), or shift back to its safe left-wing roots (the exact opposite). (Instead, it has opted for a thinly veiled allusion to Benjamin Disraeli's One-nation conservatism, which on paper is a mix of the two.)

Blue - Conservatives | Yellow - Liberals/LD | Red - Labour

As more time elapses since the demise of the Postwar Consensus, the divergence of priorities between labour unions and The Labour Party, have become ever more apparent, resulting in a union movement which has (apparently) been exposed as enforcing its own special-interest agenda in the political sphere, and a political party which has increasingly tried to appear like the dominant party of the 20th century.

Elsewhere, UKIP appear as a one trick pony, playing on a subtle national bigotry towards anyone non-White English British, though being lead by a man with a history in an occupation so popularly reviled at present, whilst the Lib Dems do not merit any discussion, since they have turned back on/failed to deliver the majority of progressive policies they held in their manifesto prior to 2010.

“Last but very much not least, is the exemplary Falkirk. A seat where a candidate selection, to replace the disgraced Eric Joyce, is reasonably imminent…Using similar methods to Garston and Paisley, but at a much more intense level, led by the potential candidate, and very much supported by the local activist base, especially at Ineos [local employer] we have recruited well over 100 Unite members to the party in a constituency with less than 200 members.” 

So what's left? Apparently the labour unions, but it remains to be seen how much their power will be curtailed. There is talk of divorcing the automatic link to the Labour Party, with calls for a reversion to opt-in policy of Labour support. Perhaps this would go a long way to ensuring that Labour are not perceived to be pandering to a special interest group, although it is reported that they probably need such automated support as a matter of survival. Then there is the small detail that the very raison d'être of Labour is to be a special interest cabal - representatives of the 'working-class', don't forget.

Perhaps the idea of union influence being a negative state, are drawn from the idea that union executives tend to fair better than the so-called exploited workers they are purported to represent. In this condition, how can they truly be attuned to the needs of rank and file members?

That is a debate for another day, but the fact remains that labour unions remain the only voice left for workers who believe that change can only be delivered through collective action, irrespective of individual endeavour, action or wealth.

For those who prefer to seek change on an individual basis, then a party with union links is not for them. This certainly lends a hand to party support being an opt-in solution. How many non-Labour voting constituents refuse union membership because of the opt-out status quo?

It should be said that criticism of Labour for being 'in the pockets of the Unions', is nothing but hyperbole from a party which has preferential links with business and those in higher tears of socio-economic strata, whose wealth would not exist without the toil of lower-ranking employees.

The British political system will continue to be unresponsive to the needs of its people, if its political parties continue to converge in matters of policy. Government decision-making should be derived from hardened debate and subsequent compromises, not by failing to push the boundaries of the status quo. Since agitation for radical change has seemingly diminished, as a result of the disastrous demise of 20th century anti-capitalist movements/regulatory economic movements, political actors have become obsessed with preserving the current neo-liberal state of affairs, for fear of upsetting the apple cart.

Without a meaningful agitation for change, the populace have become disinterested in politics with voter turnout and party membership demonstrating the decline. Without individual support, political parties thus rely on organisations to fill the gap, with policy being prioritised towards the needs of lobbying/labour union groups, larger companies and wealthy individuals, leading to the accusation of following agendas beyond the public (or even national) interest.

In conclusion, labour union presence within a political party remains the only way for individual workers to have a voice in politics, as a counterweight to typically wealthier forces (at least in theory.) Minimal union membership rates, mean that union executives - much like their political party counterparts - are granted a wider birth for policy direction, often in spite of the needs of the rank and file. Labour unions will need to demonstrate that their actions are in tune with the needs and desire of ordinary workers, as well as showing they are capable of framing the worker rights debate within a contemporary setting, rather than relying on classical worker-employer condition imagery to garner support. Through this, they will remain relevant to the executive of the Labour Party, who will have less incentive to water down their influence further, if they can demonstrate that their agitations are relevant to ordinary people.

Falkirk is the manifestation of the current divergence of labour union and Labour Party ideologies and objectives.

For others who do not support labour unions, it would be in their interests to remember that a democracy does not thrive if all participants think along the same lines. Even if the majority of the public do not trust labour union influence on party politics, that people who support them exist is an argument against falling back to a tyranny of the majority. Ordinary worker interests to a greater or lesser extent, require a form of collective representation in a group-based advocacy system such as ours. It is for this reason that a union-backed party is a necessity in our liberal democracy.


Read More:

Summary of Factory Legislation 1802-1878(www.historyhome.co.uk)
Factory Acts (wikipedia)

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