FROM THE 19TH century with the growth of industrialisation, until the 1960s; trade unions were needed to fight the injustices employers heaped upon their employees. The union movement grew and became strong (it even founded its own party – the Labour Party). No one doubted the social need for trade unions apart from a few dinosaurs among the business community as well as many within the Conservative Party; but even this ended in the 1960's when Toryism returned to Disraeli's 'One Nation Conservatism' and it evolved into the social democratic party it is today; after that is, a brief interregnum under Margaret Thatcher - but even she was a social liberal.
Today the trade unions are living on borrowed time; they are no longer the force they once were. They overstepped the mark in the 1970s when they almost brought this economy to its knees. Then the Labour Party was weak and always perceived as fawning over the trade union barons such as Hugh Scanlon, Clive Jenkins, Jack Jones, Vic Feather, Arthur Scargill, to name but a few who parked their tanks on Harold Wilson's lawn and held the nation to ransom. In the 1970s, these and many other trade union general secretaries held sway. They marshalled their lieutenant shop-stewards on the factory floor to call their members out whenever the employers turned down their outrageous inflation breaking demands for an increase in wages.
Labour governments, and even the wet Tory ones, had been grabbed by the balls by the unions and the grip tightened whenever the employers refused to kow-tow to their blackmail. Compromise after compromise with the unions followed as parade after parade of general secretaries marched into Downing Street. We became the laughing stock of the world economies, and unless things changed we would have become comparable to the likes of Greece today.
It was appalling. Nationalised industries such as British Leyland were turning out shoddy products that no one wanted to buy except from a misguided belief in patriotism. There was 'Red Robbo' the shop steward (and the nearest we came to a Fred Kite) at Dagenham. He orchestrated the demise of British Leyland; and cost his thousands of members their jobs.
THE UNIONS were gradually being put on the back foot. The three and four day weeks that were the curse of 1970s which eventually and thankfully produced a determined political leader of a Churchillian mould – a woman, no less. A strong willed old fashioned Tory who stood out among and above her male competitors for the leadership of the now reclaimed Tory party.
She set to work with a will. She took on the unions; she reformed union law by outlawing wildcat strikes of the type Red Robbo was orchestrating. She effectively democratised the unions making it harder for them to, at a moment's notice, demand industrial action, on penalty of huge fines. If the unions had not thought themselves imperious and untouchable as they did during the 1970s, then such legislation may not have proved necessary.
All this while the Labour Party did nothing except pour scorn on the Thatcher government by depicting her as a kind of medusa. Throughout the Thatcher terms in office, the Labour Party sank further and further into the political abyss, until Tony Blair resurrected the party, and was much hated by the party for so doing.
TODAY THE UNIONS played their last hand when choosing Ed Miliband to lead the party who stamped upon the Blair legacy. They picked the wrong brother because they could not contemplate another Blairite in the form of David Miliband governing their party and becoming prime minister which he would have become.
Well, not for the first time, the unions made the wrong choice. The unions today are despised by the general population because of their grip on the Labour Party via funding and union sponsorship of MPs who can be relied upon to vote at the behest of their sponsors.
It is ironic is it not? It appears that among the general public the trade unions are becoming as much despised as the early capitalists were. So much for living in the past as the unions seems intent upon doing.
The Labour Party needs to confront the unions and make it clear who runs the show. For up to now it has been the unions; and the public have caught on. I very much doubt if the Labour Party are up to the challenge. Union finances are so important to the party that they have nowhere else to turn – well Blair did.
If the Labour Party wishes to govern, they have to do two things. First of all it has to change the party's name to the Social Democrat Party. Secondly, it must reach out to business for its financial support. If it fails on both counts then the Labour Party will wither on the vine (at least they will take the unions down with them).