Alastair Reid

Life Fellow and former Director of Studies in History at Girton College, Cambridge

Overcoming ideological differences

The Trade Union Forum is a group of historians, industrial relations academics and trade union officials who meet regularly to discuss issues of mutual interest. Members of the Forum attend seminars to examine the historical background to current issues, such as the government’s trade union legislation and the future of collective bargaining. The Forum also organises a series of open events attended by academics, trade unionists and politicians, to explore how significant events in recent trade union history, such as the miners’ strike of 1984-5 and the 1986 Wapping dispute in the printing industry, are remembered and interpreted today.

Alastair Reid, a labour historian and author of United We Stand, a history of British trade unions, co-founded the Forum in 2007 with Jim Moher, a former national legal and political officer at the Communications Workers Union. This case study looks at why Reid decided to set up the Forum, what he believes it has achieved, and how it has influenced his thinking on the relevance of history to current issues. The accompanying case study on the Trade Union Forum presents the view of trade union officials, and describes some of the benefits they have gained from participating in the Forum. 

The case study illustrates that while a partial or incorrect understanding of the past is sometimes used (by politicians for example) to reinforce an ideological divide, a more thoughtful approach to history can help bridge personal and political differences and provide common ground for dialogue and discussion. Participating in the Trade Union Forum encourages academic historians and trade unionists to actively engage with each other, and examine highly contentious issues in a neutral environment.

‘United We Stand’

Reid’s views on how best to communicate the results of his academic research to trade unionists developed over a number of years, while he was writing United We Stand. The book was commissioned by Penguin Books and intended for a general, not an academic readership. Reid wanted to write what he calls accessible, rather than popular history, to make his and other labour historians’ findings accessible to general readers:

‘I was trying to do something distinctive, to write as clearly and straightforwardly as possible, but not to simplify any of the thinking.’

Other historians writing about trade unions tended to highlight certain events, such as the 1926 General Strike, and tell trade unions what they should have done then, or should do now. Reid came to the conclusion that this approach was misguided. Rather than criticising trade unions for supposed mistakes made in the past:

‘Ordinary trade unionists and trade union officials knew what they were doing and they didn’t need an academic to tell them how to do it better. So paradoxically, my approach to an audience of people making policy was precisely on the basis that I didn’t have some privileged perspective to put them right.’

United We Stand received hostile reviews from or was ignored by many academic labour historians, but the book appealed to historians in other fields and to trade unionists. Reid felt he had achieved what he had tried to do, when one trade union official told him:

‘I’ve been reading your book United We Stand and it’s the first history of trade unions that conveys what it’s like to be a trade unionist.’

Jim Moher first contacted Reid after picking up a copy of the book in his trade union library and reading it. They decided to set up the Trade Union Forum as a discussion group to bring together academics and trade unionists. Reid described their decision as follows:

‘History & Policy was already up and running so I said OK, why don’t we do it under the auspices of History & Policy? I’ve always wanted to somehow create more connections, make the university world more accessible to trade unionists. That was part of the agenda I had in mind, to be able to get trade unionists into university academic environments.’

Correcting bad history

According to Reid, much of the existing history of trade unions constantly obscures and distracts practicing officials. Most labour historians take a traditional Marxist approach to the subject, which shapes the questions their readers have to think about, and narrows the range of debates among those working in the field:

‘At History & Policy we are not setting out to bring history into public life. It’s already there. But much of it is really bad history. We are trying to make a much better version of historical understanding of the past available and remove the mythology which clogs up thinking in the public world and very much so in the trade union world.’

Even if they disagree with each other, Reid believes that historians who wish to influence public policy should know how to deal with completely different positions, adopted by people with a wide range of political views: 

‘Nobody in the centre or right of politics studies trade unions, normally the range is from social democratic to revolutionary Trotskyist … If trade union officials and members are constantly reading socialist inspired histories, which are all about the way trade unions have succeeded or failed to bring about socialism, it’s a big distraction from thinking about how and when trade unions have functioned well as trade unions.’

He cites the example of the General Strike of 1926, which took place several years into a period of economic depression and high unemployment.

‘In the current mythology, the normal mythology, the General Strike is the peak, the pinnacle of a surging labour movement, which is exploding from 1911 up to 1926 and then is defeated by the strong arm of the State. This is completely mythological.’

In fact trade unions were getting weaker, the TUC never intended the strike to happen, and there was no way it could have succeeded.

While strikes may have made sense in some industries in the past, in Reid’s view this is no longer necessarily the case in, for example, the modern car and printing industries, or the IT sector: 

‘The activists and the militants are always trying to get some kind of strike action. So that becomes a limiting, almost one dimensional view of how trade unions might organise when there are a lot of other options available that might be more appropriate in other areas.’

Bringing people together

Although the initial impetus came from Reid’s experiences writing United We Stand, setting up the Forum was a very different challenge. When writing the book he had to focus on how best to package his ideas for a particular target audience. To establish the Forum, the first goal he had to achieve was simply to bring the right group of people together.

In the academic world, Reid had found that seminars worked best when they succeeded in creating a frame of reference, and participants started to use shared examples and concepts.

‘So after a few years, participants are not just talking past each other. They are actually engaging with issues in a way that may even change how they think.’

In his academic career, as Director of Studies helping students build their ideas and their understanding of complex issues, he had always found that developing a concept as part of a group was the most effective way of changing people’s thinking. Over time, seminar participants got to know each other, and were prepared to trust and learn from each other.

‘You don’t change people’s thinking by giving them one piece of information only on one occasion, or one argument on one occasion. People’s thinking changes when they meet regularly and talk together regularly over a period of years.’

The same principles apply when working with people outside academia. In Reid’s view, when research councils and other funding bodies now ask for evidence of ‘impact’, they are no longer satisfied, as they had been earlier, with historians saying ‘I disseminated my findings in this way’.

‘They want to see some sort of evidence of on-going interaction with non-academic audiences. That’s what we had in mind from the start.’

As the Trade Union Forum developed, Reid noticed that participants started talking to each other and listening to each other more, especially when meetings took place in university premises, which they perceived as neutral, with a reputation for intellectual integrity:

‘So you get people who are ideologically quite opposed to each other in the trade union world, who will actually engage with each other and discuss things, in a way they wouldn’t otherwise have done, because they are in an environment which is not part of their normal world.’

In one event, on the Wapping dispute in the newspaper and printing industry, Brenda Dean and John Lloyd, two former leading officials from unions on different sides of the dispute, both admitted they had made mistakes. John Lloyd even apologised for the way his union, the EETPU, had behaved during the dispute.

‘These people were actually building bridges, whereas they had been fiercely hostile to each other at the time and for many years afterwards.’

The purpose of the Forum, according to Reid, is not to promote one particular answer or some particular policy, but to broaden peoples’ perspective, so that they ask themselves questions or have some comparisons in mind.

‘What’s the point of a group of people meeting regularly together? It’s to create a kind of framework of intellectual reference in the minds of those people and anybody else who visits them. So other people come in and it has an effect on them. It exposes them to this intellectual framework which has been established for more open minded and thoughtful reflection on how to make trade unions work better.’

Another event, on the future of collective bargaining, was attended by Tony Burke, Assistant General Secretary of Unite, one of Britain’s largest trade unions.

‘In the discussion time there was, almost a sense of consensus among the regular participants that, for example, the legally enforceable elements of an agreement were a relevant thing to focus on, which is obviously very different from the idea of mass strikes. Enough people would say something similar that converged on that point, to make him think about it. He had probably thought about it before, but he was faced with an environment where a number of people from different backgrounds were saying the same thing. And I think that had an effect on him.’

Conclusion

Based on his experience Reid suggests that:

  • History can reinforce ideological differences, and often does. But it can also help bridge them.
     
  • Developing a concept through group discussion, over an extended period of time, can be the most effective way of changing peoples’ thinking.
     
  • A target audience that has very sharp disagreements within itself (such as trade unionists, academic historians, or some groups of politicians) may create a limit to how persuadable people are.
     
  • Discussing the historical background to an issue, in the neutral space of a university environment, can sometimes get people to realise that they are holding on to old personal or emotional grudges that don’t make sense any more.
     
  • Building trust between academics and practitioners takes time, but it can be done. You have to allow it time to grow. It’s not something you can make happen in one meeting.
     
  • Just to be listened to, and be taken seriously by the academic world, can in itself have an impact among a group of people, such as trade union officials, who may have attended university as students, but may later have come to regard academics as arrogant and reluctant to listen to views other than their own.

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Biography

  • Alastair Reid is a Life Fellow and former Director of Studies in History at Girton College, Cambridge. He is one of the founders of History & Policy.

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