Another prominent Conservative has joined John Redwood in support of trade unions. Harlow MP Robert Halfon reminds his fellow Tories that many union members vote Conservative and argues that unions are just the sort of little platoons that epitomise the Big Society:
Unions are the very core of the Big Society, rooted in their communities. Behind all the political rhetoric, they are grassroots organisations, providing much needed services to their members. Legal aid, health insurance, discounts on goods and services, health and safety advice, are just a few of the services that Unions offer. Collectively, Trade Unions represent the largest voluntary organisations in the UK. TUC research shows that Union members “are eight times more likely to engage in voluntary work and give to their members”.
He has a point. Unions were crucial element of that local infrastructure that provided welfare support before the welfare state.
My late father in law often used to talk about how welfare provision in the industrial towns worked in the 1930s. Cottage hospitals, charities, friendly societies, trade union funds and churches provided for the poor. The unions and mechanics institutes helped workers to educate themselves. There was a council fund which would discreetly buy shoes and clothes for poorer pupils if the local headmaster tipped the mayor off. Teachers would report bruised children and battered wives to the local police who would go round and ‘have a word’ with the abusers. It all worked because the union leaders, aldermen, church leaders, teachers, policemen and charity trustees all knew each other and worked together. Sometimes the same people would hold different roles in the system. During his lifetime, a firebrand shop steward might become a respected councillor and, eventually, a wise alderman and charity trustee. The policeman, the teacher and even the vicar might take similar paths. But take out any one of these elements and the whole thing fell apart, which is why such an informal and voluntarist system only worked in certain parts of the country.
This model, which provided welfare support for much of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is, at least implicitly, the template for the Big Society. As Mr Halfon says, it will be difficult to recreate it without the trade unions.
The trouble is, like a lot of the forces that might once have powered the Big Society, the trade unions are not what they were. It suits some on both sides of the political spectrum to blame or praise Margaret Thatcher for the decline of the unions but comparisons with other countries suggest that they would probably have lost much of their power eventually anyway. Trade union membership has declined over the last quarter century across the de-industrialising Western economies, regardless of their governments’ political colour.
The societies that gave rise to the pre-Beveridge welfare structure were a product of the industrial age. The regimentation of the factory system gave rise to equally regimented workers’ organisations. Orderly rows of cottages fanned out from the mines, factories and pot banks. Most people could walk or cycle to work and it was not unusual to be able to see your workplace from your house. People lived amongst their workmates. The discipline of the factory was replicated in the communities and in the institutions which the workers set up.
Industrialisation made the unions and the model of social provision which went with them possible. Just as the mines, factories and pot banks have gone, the communities that surrounded them have gone too, as have the friendly societies, mechanics institutes and workingmens’ clubs. The unions are hanging on but with ever depleting numbers.
As Owen Jones says, the working class looks a lot different now.
Instead of working in factories, mines and docks, most working-class people now earn their keep in call centres, supermarkets and offices. There are a million call centre workers: that’s as many as worked in pits at the peak of mining. A woman who works part-time in a supermarket is as good a symbol for working-class Britain as any.
Fewer people are unionised and those most in need of social provision are often cut off from the institutions and support networks that once provided it.
Robert Halfon is right. The trade unions are just the sort little platoons that provide “the social capital, people power and social entrepreneurship” necessary for the Big Society. But their decline is a symptom of the disappearance of a way of life and the social structure that went with it. Like all the other little platoons, unions have nothing like the power and resources that they once did. Our great-grandparents depended on a big society, of which trade unions were part, as a last line of defence against poverty. In most parts of Britain that society no longer exists.