Policy Papers

Trade unions: a foundation of political pluralism?

Alastair J. Reid |

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Executive Summary

  • Voluntary associations are vital checks on the power of central government and vital guarantees of the open discussion of public policy.
  • Trade unions have made significant contributions to the extension of human rights in modern Britain: particularly the right to organization, the right to representation and the right to work.
  • These campaigns have also had positive implications for social diversity, as they have benefited non-unionists and have been enabling rather than prescriptive.
  • The established distance of 'New Labour' from the unions may have been justified by the recent state of public opinion, but it is short-sighted in relation to the positive long-term contribution of trade unionism to the development of liberty, democracy and diversity in British society.


Even now, in the second term of 'New Labour' in government, British trade unions are at a low point, in terms of both their membership and their wider political standing. Their image is still dominated by the catch-phrase of 'the block vote', with its sinister overtones of a united mass, constantly blocking progress both inside the Labour Party and throughout British industry. It is therefore time for historians to play their part in challenging this widespread impression of backward-looking uniformity and to re-examine the case for the value of strong trade unions in liberal democracies.

First, let us consider a fundamental political point. The assumption which still underlies much public discussion, that all power should lie with the national legislature, would be seen by political pluralists as a dangerous doctrine likely to lead to parliamentary dictatorship. If the Thatcher regime had anything to contribute on the subject of power in a democracy, it was surely to reinforce this lesson. The present government has been prepared to move towards a degree of decentralisation, with the introduction of an independent central bank and the resumption of the devolution process, and this trend in constitutional reform will hopefully go on to revive the powers of local government which have been so significantly eroded.

However, another fundamental feature of liberty in a large-scale society is the effective representation of the diversity of interests it contains. At this point the negative emphasis of political pluralism on checking the power of the central state turns over to reveal a positive emphasis on the importance of constructive conflict and negotiation between different points of view and different ways of life. For the fundamental freedoms of thought and of speech are seen as beneficial not just for the expression of individuality, but also as the major source of the sort of genuinely open discussion of public policy our type of society needs in order to produce flexible and multi-faceted responses to the challenges of the modern world. One major guarantee of this process normally expected in a liberal democracy would be a dynamic opposition party, but this is something which has been conspicuously lacking in Britain since the 1980s, as the Conservatives and then Labour have both governed with massive parliamentary majorities. As a result, pluralists would argue, other sources of power outside the immediate domain of party politics have become even more vital: for example, independent mass media and effective voluntary associations.

Unfortunately, the mainstream channels of the mass media have become less independent as the explosive growth of professional public relations has begun to influence news reporting in a period of reduced journalistic resources. One recent study (Davis 2002) has indicated that corporate PR may not always have been as effective in shaping opinion as its critics fear, but that it does seem to have had an important role in shielding the activities of the financial elite in the City of London from proper public scrutiny. At the same time, trade unions have shown themselves increasingly willing to devote resources to professional PR and over some issues, most notably Post Office privatization, have been able to win sufficient backing from public opinion to persuade governments to change their policies. Indeed the unions are now one of the few remaining alternative sources of democratic influence in British society: for even at their current low ebb, with a combined membership of around 7 million people they still make up the most important movement of voluntary associations in the country.

Thus, far from being sinister threats, trade unions are an increasingly vital guarantee of all our liberties and of the possibility of a genuinely democratic public life. Moreover, in the British case the historical record is quite clear, they have also pressed courageously and successfully for a number of fundamental rights, as now embodied in the United Nations' 'Universal Declaration of Human Rights' (1948):

  • the right to organisation (in Article 23);
  • the right to representation (in Article 21);
  • the right to work, under reasonable conditions (in Article 23).

These aims all arose together, and any successes that have been achieved have had to be defended vigilantly, but broadly speaking we can divide the history of British trade unionism according to the successive pursuit of these three rights.

The right to organisation

Actually, the right to organisation as such has not been much at issue in British history. For the long, slow transition from feudal fragmentation to a market society was made without the intervention of a strongly centralised state, in contrast to most of the rest of Europe. Thus in Britain the medieval craft guilds were able to evolve gradually into modern trade unions, and already by the late-eighteenth century there were at least 50 such bodies, particularly well-organised among the urban tailors, the rural woollen workers, and the maritime seamen and shipyard workers. What was at issue was the right to make these organisations effective by pursuing industrial action, above all through the withdrawal of labour in what became known as 'strikes'.

Thus, contrary to a widespread assumption, the famous Combination Act of 1800 was not designed to make trade unions illegal, but rather to impose a ban on industrial action during the Napoleonic Wars. Similarly, the infamous deportation of the Tolpuddle Martyrs in 1834 was carried out under a harsh application of surviving wartime legislation against the taking of secret oaths to an agricultural labourers' movement for higher wages.

In general though, the broadly liberal nature of the British state inherited from the early-modern period meant that the main impediments to the right to strike were usually raised by employers and judges through the common-law courts. Initially this was done under the mysterious law of conspiracy, first applied to the conduct of industrial disputes in 1721, and which became the main target of trade-union campaigns for legal reform for the next 150 years. It led to a united and initially successful campaign in 1824-5 both for the repeal of the 1800 Combination Act and for immunity from the common law of conspiracy, under the leadership of Francis Place, a former tailor, and John Gast of the shipwrights. And then it led to a second and more lastingly successful campaign between 1866 and 1875 for the statutory reinstatement of immunity from prosecution for criminal conspiracy, under the leadership of Robert Applegarth of the carpenters and George Howell of the bricklayers, later joined by Alexander McDonald of the miners. However, the employers found a second major way to impede the right to strike, by pursuing claims of civil conspiracy and taking unions to the courts for huge financial damages arising out of industrial disputes. It was this which produced the famous Taff Vale case against the railwaymen in 1901, soon leading to a third major reform campaign which achieved new statutory immunities almost immediately in 1906.

It is not surprising to find that it was these campaigns over the right to strike which were the primary motivation for the unions' direct involvement in national politics.

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) began to meet in 1868, and in 1874 Alexander McDonald and John Burt of the miners were the first two trade unionists to sit as MPs in the House of Commons. Then, of course, the TUC initiated the Labour Representation Committee in 1900, secured unprecedented support from individual unions once the implications of Taff Vale became clear, and took off after the general election of 1906 with almost 30 MPs and the new title of the Labour Party. Moreover, this primary concern over labour law led naturally to another major strand in trade-union campaigning: for fairer access to the political system itself.

The right to representation

The first problem the early trade unionists faced in their public campaigning was that most of them did not have the vote. To some extent they could rely on Whig, Radical and Liberal sympathisers from within the political elite, but this was never reliable and it began to seem increasingly demeaning and unfair. Thus throughout the long process of parliamentary reform in modern British history, the voluntary associations which pressed most consistently for the extension of the franchise and other constitutional reforms were the trade unions.

Union contingents were already in evidence during the demonstrations in favour of the Great Reform Act, which took the first step to extend the franchise in the borough constituencies in 1832. Then, in 1867, the unions were one of the major elements in the extra-parliamentary alliance which agitated successfully for the male householder franchise, a contribution to democracy which they repeated in 1884 when they campaigned for the extension of that franchise to the county constituencies. Even then, other aspects of constitutional reform remained high on the agenda of the TUC and its growing parliamentary group which eventually became the Labour Party: the state payment of MPs' salaries, for example, along with full manhood suffrage and the extension of the vote to women, which eventually came in 1918 and 1928.

However, in the meantime yet another obstacle to effective campaigning had been raised in the courts: the Osborne Judgement of 1909 which ruled that political action as such was outside the legal definition of trade unions, and that they were therefore no longer allowed to make any financial contributions to political parties. Following a vigorous campaign led by the TUC and the Labour Party, this was overturned through the state payment of MPs in 1911 and then the full restoration of the right to make contributions to parties in 1913. But this was only on condition, firstly that each union held a ballot to secure the approval of a majority of its members for a political fund, and secondly that individual members be allowed to opt out of paying the political levy if they wished. It was these safeguards which then became prime targets for Conservative attempts to undermine Labour, particularly in periods of high unemployment when the unions were periodically weaker and less popular.

Thus in 1927, in the immediate aftermath of the defeat of the General Strike, the Conservative government under Stanley Baldwin turned the requirement around to individual members having to actively opt in to paying the political levy, and apathy cut the combined union political fund by around 50%. In response, one of the first acts of the Labour government of 1945 was to restore opting out. Then the issue was put back on the agenda by the Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher in 1984, which required the holding of ballots every 10 years as opinion polls seemed to show that a majority of trade unionists no longer supported either Labour or the idea of political funds. However, following yet another vigorous TUC campaign, the first ballots found considerably more membership support than anybody had expected: not only were all the existing funds approved by large majorities, but 20 other unions set up new ones. It can hardly be over-stressed how decisive this moment was for the survival of the modern Labour Party, and therefore possibly even of a political opposition as such, in late-twentieth-century Britain.

On the whole, then, resistance to the extension of political representation has tended to backfire in this country, producing mass movements for reform in the nineteenth century, and strengthening the link between the unions and the Labour Party in the twentieth century.

The right to work

Having made significant advances in the area of the first two fundamental rights, the unions then began to use their organisation and representation to secure the right to work under reasonable conditions. Of course, spreading the work available among as many of their members as possible, and improving pay and conditions, have always been priorities in each union's use of its industrial bargaining power, and the point to focus on here is their influence in bringing these issues into wider public awareness. For even at the level of national legislation, a good deal of the pioneering gains were achieved by individual trade unions.

The first breakthrough came as a result of the spinners' campaign for the reduction of working hours in the cotton factories through a long series of parliamentary acts beginning as early as 1819. This was then emulated by the miners, who achieved parallel successes over improved safety at work through a series of acts from 1860. Then the Women's Trade Union League was able to make a new breakthrough over the principle of government intervention to promote minimum wages, first applied in 1909 to the predominantly female 'sweated trades' of tailoring, box-making, lace-finishing and chain-making.

Once the Labour Party had emerged, the unions' main contribution was to entrench the right to work at the centre of its policies. For a job with a living wage was seen as a much better solution to the problems of unemployment and poverty than dependence on financial support, whether it came from private charity or from the state. Naturally, this began to assume an overwhelming significance during the Great Depression of the inter-war years when it was the unions, under the leadership of Ernest Bevin of the Transport and General Workers' Union, who formulated practical proposals for reducing unemployment without waiting for the 'transition to socialism', and who welcomed Roosevelt's 'New Deal' as something more significant than a mere palliative for capitalism. This then became the predominant influence on the Labour Party's programme of post-war reconstruction, which focused squarely on the limited but achievable goal of full employment in a mixed economy, to be achieved through a combination of expansionist demand management, public ownership of the utilities and free collective bargaining.

These remained the more or less unchallenged pillars of public policy until the 1970s and their subsequent systematic demolition by the Thatcher regime only further reinforced the trade-union commitment to Labour as their traditional political ally. So crucial had this link become for the unions after fifteen difficult years of mass unemployment and new restrictions on basic rights, that they were prepared to give loyal support to a complete overhaul of the Labour Party's constitution in a direction apparently quite unfavourable to their own previous position. For they accepted an unprecedented public distance from party policy-making and a reduction in their share of the conference vote from 90% to 50%, in return for party leadership commitments to improving union recognition and introducing a statutory minimum wage. It is widely considered that this renewal of the party was fundamental to its historic landslide election victory in 1997. But the trade-union contribution to that process of reform is less widely appreciated, as is the fact that the 'New Labour' government put its commitments to the unions high on its list of early priorities, with the result that new recognition and partnership agreements are currently spreading, while gender and ethnic wage gaps have been significantly narrowed. It can also be overlooked how much Labour's overall economic policies throughout its first two terms in office have focused on the restoration of something like full employment, accompanied by an ambitious 'New Deal' for retraining the young and long-term unemployed.


British trade unions have therefore been consistent champions of three fundamental human rights, and we may return in conclusion to the ways in which their pursuit of these rights has had further pluralist implications.

Firstly, though the unions campaigned primarily with their own members in mind, it is clear that the rights they achieved also benefited other groups: they knew that they would and intended they should. For example, the success of the nineteenth-century campaigns for the rights to organisation and representation were primarily the achievement of the older craft unions, but they clearly benefited all other trade unions, as well as all other workers who stood to gain from the spread of collective bargaining, and all other men and women who had previously been excluded from voting in parliamentary elections. Similarly, the breakthrough over statutory minimum wages in 1909 by the Women's Trade Union League, with under 100,000 affiliated members, is reckoned to have directly benefited far more than twice as many low-paid female workers.

Secondly, these rights have been enabling rather than prescriptive. This is clearest in the case of the first two rights of organization and representation, which have given a wide range of groups greater access to the means to pursue their own preferred ends. But even the apparently more substantive right to work was deliberately designed to replace dependence and fear with personal control over the time, health and money needed to pursue freely-chosen ways of life.

A brief look at some of the campaigns currently being promoted by two of the country's largest unions, Unison and the GMB, shows that these traditions are being maintained and adapted to modern circumstances. High on their list of priorities is the preservation of public services and public housing, which has the potential to bring them into direct conflict with the government and is clearly intended to produce benefits not only for their own members but for many other disadvantaged citizens. Similarly the GMB is campaigning for low interest rates to stop job losses across British manufacturing, while Unison is pressing for free nursing and personal care throughout the country. Moreover, their perspective on enablement has been updated to include a long list of issues which might once have been considered the preserve of 'new social movements': for example, support for their own members in dealing with work/life balance, domestic violence and pre-menstrual tension, alongside broader campaigns for improvements in parental leave, and equal pay for women and young workers.

The unions' ability to adapt and modernize themselves is also evident in the methods they are currently using to promote their members' interests, among which legal action plays an increasingly prominent part: they are regularly winning thousands of pounds in compensation for people injured at work, as well as winning back jobs for people who have been unfairly dismissed or discriminated against. Moreover, far from being doomed to extinction with the decline of heavy industry, their coverage has been spreading as professional associations have been increasingly willing to affiliate to the TUC and establish political funds. Thus it seems likely that the next surge in union recruitment will see not only new breakthroughs among part-time workers in such fragmented services as catering and cleaning, but also a major revival among technical and professional staff in the private sector.

Trade unions may not be perfect, no human organizations are, but the current reticence in 'New Labour' circles about their positive long-term role is both unnecessary and unwise. For their influence on liberty, democracy and diversity is not just a past memory but a present reality, and one which is likely to grow considerably if relatively full employment is maintained over the coming decades. It may not be too long before British trade unionism turns from an electoral liability into an electoral asset once again, and progressive politicians had better be prepared if this is not to take them by surprise.

Further Reading

Pluralist thought was first introduced to British labour movements by the early writings of G. D. H. Cole and Harold Laski, explicitly acknowledged in W. Milne-Bailey's Trade Unions and the State (1934), which in turn had a considerable influence in TUC circles.

For recent interest-group use of PR see A. Davis, Public Relations Democracy. Public Relations, Politics and the Mass Media in Britain (2002).

For the gradual removal of the legal barriers to effective organization see J. V. Orth, Combination and Conspiracy. A Legal History of Trade Unionism, 1721-1906 (1991).

For the role of organised labour in achieving the right to representation see F. E. Gillespie, Labour and Politics in England, 1850-67 (1927, reprinted 1966), and A. Chadwick Augmenting Democracy. Political Movements and Constitutional Reform during the Rise of Labour, 1900-1924 (1999).

For the centrality of the right to work in the Labour Party's early programmes see K. D. Brown, Labour and Unemployment, 1900-1914 (1971).


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