Bernard Ingham: Working out the trade union enigma

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FOR most of my life I have been trying to understand the mentality of trade union leaders and their activist supporters. So far, I have not succeeded and doubt I ever will. This is because of their astonishing capacity to act against their own interests.

I can only conclude that they regard the class war with the reverence of a jihadist for Allah and consider that anything done in pursuit of it is entirely justifiable.

Otherwise, how can Len McCluskey at Unite shamelessly promise more use of its “leverage” tactic, which sees an employer involved in a dispute as fair game for harassment outside his home and in his neighbourhood?

Things have reached such a pretty pass that the unions now represent a serious threat to the Labour Party which they founded 114 years ago.

I came in almost exactly half way, first as Northern industrial correspondent of this newspaper and then on The Guardian’s labour staff in London. Strikes made us just about the hardest worked journalists in the 1960s.

I then did five years’ hard labour presenting the outcome of strike conciliation at the Department of Employment, followed by five years in the Department of Energy. It culminated with 11 years in Number 10 Downing Street with Margaret Thatcher bringing the unions under control and preventing Arthur Scargill from taking over the country.

In short, I have studied this trade union animal at close quarters. It remains enigmatic.

In the first phase, it went about wrecking the economy with a will. In the 1970s, 128,040,000 working days were lost in 25,924 strikes – an average of nearly 3,000 strikes a year.

Such was its blood lust that it seemed incapable of understanding what it was doing. Among the more obvious damage was the destruction of its members’ jobs in the car industry and through the systematic undermining of the economy.

The union barons and their shop steward NCOs who kept the troops in line seemed to think they were immune to the laws of economics, assuming they bothered their hot little heads about the dismal science.

The Winter of Discontent then robbed them for 18 years of the Labour government they preferred. It took exactly a third of that – the first six years of Thatcher steel – for them to realise that they were not the flavour of the year.

Scargill himself was perhaps the slowest learner, subjecting his coal miner members to a year’s strike in his effort to send Thatcher packing.

The trade union movement then lost half its membership, mostly in the private sector. It has since been relatively quiescent while trying to beef up the benefits of public sector employment at the expense of the taxpayer through whatever political muscle it can find.

Both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown felt easily able to resist its quest for a return of union privileges. Those privileges are not coming back if David Cameron wins the election. He aims to make it harder for the unions to stage strikes such as last week’s that disrupted the lives of many families, if only because some teachers came out.

He seems entirely justified. The National Union of Teachers is threatening more trouble over terms and conditions in September, even though its weapon is bringing diminishing returns.

Official estimates put last week’s turnout at below 500,000. However, they completely shut only about 20 per cent of schools. About 95 per cent of council staff were reported to be at work and all 717 job centres were open.

Ironically, the unions are probably in their strongest position politically as Labour Party paymasters. They are certainly bold enough to be demanding of Ed Miliband, the leader they chose, an old fashioned Ministry of Labour that disappeared with ill-fated incomes policies in the mid-1960s, and the return of union immunities after the election.

Unite may contribute £12m to Labour’s election coffers but McCluskey, with a little help from the NUT, could easily render it worthless. They will become political poison if they continue to remind people with their clipped claws what a mess they made of people’s lives in the past.

So, will Miliband resist their demands for a union renaissance? In other words, will he seek to demonstrate he has not been bought?

Well, up to now he is not proclaiming his independence. Politically, this does not add up. Or perhaps it does. If so, it’s curtains, Ed.