Bernard Ingham: Stuck in the past trade unions still doomed to bring misery to workers

When will the unions stand up to Jeremy Corbyn?
When will the unions stand up to Jeremy Corbyn?
Have your say

AS a lad in Hebden Bridge, my father used to take me to Todmorden, four miles up Calder Valley, to pay Weavers’ Association union dues to Lewis Wright who became a member of the TUC General Council.

Later the moderate Wright told me when I was a labour reporter in London that the omnipotent unions could have it all ways. They could, for example, strike – as they frequently did in the 1960s and 1970s – and blame the government for the failure of the economy. Margaret Thatcher saw them off.

Union membership is still only about half its peak, yet they have learned nothing from their past.

Although brought up in a trade union home, I have now harboured deep concerns about the movement over the 50 years since Wright’s sad boast.

What are they on this earth for? Is it power for power’s sake or to give working people a hand up?

Latterly their leaders have backed Jeremy Corbyn. They expect him to lead them back to the promised land of union privilege and dominance. Corbyn’s attitude suggests that, given half a chance, he intends to put the workers in control.

This is guaranteed to wreck the economy, not because all or even a majority of workers or trade unionists are stupid or negative. It is the militants’ ingrained approach to wealth – and its creation – that would knock any economy for six.

The Left’s support for the EU is more tactical than real, having for years regarded it as a dirty capitalist plot. They have now convinced themselves that they will get more worker’s “rights” out of Brussels than Westminster, unless perhaps Corbyn were to become Prime Minister.

And there’s the rub. Although Labour did better in the local elections than they feared, Corbyn could surely only head a British government by default or through a Tory brainstorm.

So why are the major unions lined up behind Corbyn and the EU?

The simple answer is encapsulated in the word power. Driven by class war doctrine, their comfort zone is intimidation in industrial relations, bossing Labour about in the political sphere and taking drips from the social democratic (and failing) EU. We cannot expect any serious thinking from them about their role in a modern society.

As at present constituted, the unions are of little use to their members, though steel workers may have little else to cling to. Indeed, unions are singularly helpless when firms go into administration or impose redundancy.

Transport workers in London will not agree – at least until we get driverless trains – since Underground footplate men earn far more in training than junior doctors in starting work. They have done well out of leaving London’s commuters in the lurch. Capitalists have nothing to teach them about the abuse of a monopoly.

I hope that the BMA is not acting on their example in the face of David Cameron’s easily bowled over Government.

It is ludicrous for junior doctors to parade with banners proclaiming they are a profession – and a profession dedicated to saving life at all times – when they are forcing the postponement of operations by the thousand.

Like the rest of the union movement, the BMA seems to have lost its way.

This is a pity because I have been impressed with young doctors over the last 18 months when my wife and I have been in hospital.

But I had to make it clear to one of them that I had not much sympathy with them over anti-social hours – as distinct from their exploitation – when, like other journalists and then a Civil Servant, I worked at weekends without additional pay when a job had to be done.

It is now time for the unions to consider their position. They are unlikely to have the salutary experience of a Corbyn or militant-led government and Europe, in its current shocking state, is more likely to bind them hand and foot to decline than supply a dividend.

So what can they do?

The answer is very little without summoning up the blood and raw courage required to plot a new, more relevant and prosperous course when their party is led by Marxists to the core.

Where is there a union leader to kick over the traces and opt for making the capitalist system – and capitalists – work for his members? They are as important as shareholders. Shareholders may provide the chicken but only the workers lay eggs.

The unions cannot, like Lewis Wright, surely still believe they can have it all ways.