Media portrayal of the Labour Party debate shows little understanding of unions
A week is a long time in politics as they say. Well the last couple of weeks have been very long for the Labour Party and its relationship with the trade union movement. It began with the problems of selecting a prospective parliamentary candidate in Falkirk and ended at the Durham miners’ gala with the RMT General Secretary Bob Crow calling for the creation of a new “party of Labour” presumably with the ultimate aim of replacing the Labour Party as the natural home for some trade unionists.
Others will no doubt comment on this at length on the rights and wrongs of another attempt to set up a new party of the left, but my concern throughout the last couple of weeks has been the narrowness of the media coverage of the debate. Throughout the discussion there has been an absolute assumption that all trade unions are affiliated to the Labour Party and that the large multi-industry, multi-occupational union model is the only one in town.
Many of those offering an opinion on Falkirk ignore the fact that the Labour Party was created by the Union movement and therefore ignore the crucial fact that the relationship between unions who affiliate to the Labour Party and the party itself is fundamentally different to that between business and the Conservative Party and Liberal Democrats. Although almost always presented as a discussion about “how unions buy influence” in the Labour Party the debate is essentially about how trade unions and trade unionists are integrated into the democratic structure of the party. A difficult relationship and one that needs to reflect the times but a debate that simply does not apply to the way other parties are financed.
So what has all of this to do with my own union, the Society of Radiographers? On one level very little. As a Union that has never sought affiliation to the Labour Party, but strong enough to be prepared to debate the issue at this year’s delegate conference, it could be argued that the debate is for others and not us.
Nevertheless the narrowness of the debate and the implicit assumptions about what a trade union is, and what a trade unionist is, is of concern. Many of our members, listening to this debate, could be forgiven for thinking that all trade unions are the same and that the term trade unionist applies to a very narrow group of people. In fact nothing could be further from the truth.
We are very different from the stereotypical media description. For a start, like the majority of unions affiliated to the TUC, we are not affiliated to the Labour Party. Instead we have a very clear policy, also reviewed and reinforced at this year’s delegate conference, of political independence. A policy that means we engage robustly in the political arena with the aim of influencing decisions but that we do so purely from the position of what is in the best interests of our members, not what best suits a particular party. A stance that has a proven track record over the years and certainly works for us.
We are also a lot smaller than the stereotype portrayed in the media. If the latest round of merger talks that Unite is involved in happens then we will be a little over 1/100th of the size of Unite. The Labour Party debate conjures up images of large union “barons” wielding huge influence as a result of the size of their union. There is an implicit assumption that size equals power. Well we can never be much bigger than we are now but that does not mean we are not strong and that we are not influential.
Our strength however comes in a different way and lies in the fact that the vast majority of those who can join do. With a density rate of over 80% we are able to speak with authority on behalf of members working at all levels within radiography. And we achieve this density rate by combining the work of a trade union with that of a professional body and recognising that terms and conditions and job security are best protected and enhanced by ensuring our members skill levels and professionalism are also protected and enhanced.
The most frustrating thing about the media portrayal of the Labour Party debate is that we are not the only ones who are different. In fact most of the trade union movement is different. The large Labour Party affiliated unions represent just one model of trade unionism working under the TUC umbrella. Like us, Equity, the Professional Footballers Association, the Musicians Union, the British Dietetic Association, the British Airline Pilots Association and Prospect, to name only a few, all offer alternative models that concentrate on high density levels, rather than Labour Party affiliation, to be influential. And this is not to mention many unions that have yet to affiliate to the TUC.
Perhaps it is time for the TUC to promote some of the alternative models within its family and in so doing promote the full depth and breadth of the movement, qualities that ultimately deliver a resilience that this year, against all the odds has seen overall union membership increase slightly.
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