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Showing posts with label Scottish trades unions. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Scottish trades unions. Show all posts

Friday, 11 October 2013

The Unions and Scotland’s independence

Last night’s interviews and statements by Len McCluskey are very significant events indeed, and perhaps the media and the strategists of SNP and YES – usually astoundingly naive about industrial relations - will now wake up to their significance for independence at this critical time. I reproduce the interviews here and let them speak for themselves. For those of you with the time and energy to read my previous thoughts on trades unions and independence, proceed below!

I wrote this in 2011, in the context of some very dodgy contracts sealed by Glasgow City Council affecting union members -


Labour, especially Glasgow Labour, has systematically betrayed the interests of trades unions, their main party funders. To be more accurate, they have betrayed the interests of trade union members, but advanced the interests and political ambitions of  some trades union officials, who have never doubted where their unswerving loyalty lay - not to their members, but to the Labour Party machine that was going advance their ambitions.

A harsh judgement maybe, but it must be seen in the context of my spending a large part of my life in industrial relations, dealing with union members, union representatives and full time officers across a range of industries in in different areas of the country. I have attended the TUC Conference and have been party to high-level discussion between senior managers and directors and union officials.

As a consistent supporter of the role and function of trades unions (often in career-threatening situations!), despite being on the other side of the table from them most of my life, I think a strong trades union movement is vital to the functioning of an effective democracy and essential to maintaining justice and equity for working people. 

In consequence, I take a keen interest in the dynamics of the Scottish Trades Union movements stance on independence, and the complex interaction between individual unions, the STUC and the Labour Party. This is especially true because the Scottish National Party and the independence campaign, at least up until YES Scotland was launched, showed very little real understanding of trades unions or the left in Scottish politics, especially in Glasgow (comparatively few SNP MSPs have any industrial/trades union experience of any kind at first hand, in marked contrast to Labour) and little awareness of the widening rift between union members on one side and Labour and the official union hierarchy on the other.

However, things have changed, not only in Scotland, but in the UK, with an even wider fissure appearing between Labour and some of the major trades unions and their general secretaries, e.g. Bob Crowe and Len Mc Cluskey.

At the time of the Falkirk.Labour/Unite spat, the false initial instinct of the SNP and the YES Campaign was to take pleasure in Labour and Unite’s difficulties, and I warned against this superficial analysis and reaction at the time. I wrote this on 8th July 2013 at the time of the Falkirk debacle -


N.B. From here on in, I don’t pretend neutrality, and only as much objectivity as I can muster, because I am of the Left in politics and I am also a Scottish nationalist – not a SNP member or member of any party, but wholly committed to a socially democratic independent Scotland.

Labour has a long history of fights with the trades unions. Unions are by far the Labour Party’s principal source of funds through the political levy (optional) that members pay, and unions apply the funds in various ways, including sponsoring specific MPs. In return for this, they not unreasonably expect the MPs and the Party to serve the interests of their millions of members in addition to serving the whole electorate. This has always led to tensions between Party and unions. Exactly the same practices apply on funding to all political parties, with the key difference that the Tory and Liberal Democrat parties, for example, get their funds from organisations and individuals, a very much smaller group of large donors in comparison to the millions of small donors of the trades unions.

The key difference is that these corporate donors and individuals operate to a large extent behind closed doors in pursuing what they expect for their money – and they all expect something – whereas the union interaction tends to occur in a blaze of publicity.

To try and contrast the two systems in a nutshell – the trades unions, an imperfect but functioning democracy representing millions of UK workers interact with a much larger imperfect democracy in the Labour Party, whereas totally undemocratic organisations and individuals in commerce, industry, armaments and interest groups not confined to the UK interact with the imperfect democracies of the Tory and LibDem parties. Ultimately, in both cases, the trades unions interact with the over-arching and highly imperfect democracy of the UK Government.

The problem of the union conflicts with the Labour Party over the last half century (e.g. Clause Four) created  - or were alleged to have created – the problem of electability, and this was specifically what Blair, Brown and Mandelson set out to remedy after  Neil Kinnock had done some of the spadework. They created New Labour and it worked – Labour was elected and re-elected. The results, over 13 years, are now history. Two wars, one illegal, the deaths of hundreds of thousands, terrorism brought to UK by the Iraq War, the gap between rich and poor widened, corruption of Parliamentary institutions, the prosecution and imprisonment of Labour MPs, the resignation of the Labour Speaker of the House of Commons in disgrace, the corruption of the Press and the Metropolitan Police, the banking and financial collapse, cash for access, etc.

Hardly a success, except in one key aspect – Blair, Mandelson, Brown, Labour defence secretaries, Labour ministers and many Labour MPs got very rich indeed, in the case of Blair and Mandelson, egregiously rich.

The revolving door between government ministers, civil servants and industry – especially the defence industry – spun ever faster and more profitably. And the military/industrial complex rejoiced and celebrated New Labour’s achievements.

Meanwhile, the trades unions were marginalised, and the benches of Westminster became increasingly populated by MPs who had never experienced the real, harsh world of Blair’s Britain, MPs who came directly into politics waving their PPE degrees through internships as SPADs, etc.

This great divide, this yawning chasm has widened between the trades union movement and the political machine for enriching politicians and their friends that New Labour has become. After being finally destroyed electorally, Labour was replaced by a Coalition that is almost indistinguishable in its right-wing practices from the right-wing Labour Party. As an opposition, Labour has been feeble and equivocal. The trades unions, having placed brother Ed Miliband at the helm, vanquishing ultra-Blairite brother David Miliband, have been bitterly disappointed in their choice. And now he attacks them, setting the police on Unite.

The Falkirk debacle is symptomatic of this – a war between the Blairites (led by the noble Lord Mandelson, who cannot conceal his visceral distaste for trades unions)and what is left of the Left in the Labour Party, which is mainly the trades unions – some of them at least.


All of the above has been gone over with a relatively fine tooth comb by the UK/metropolitan media. They see the Falkirk Affair in a UK context, from a UK perspective. The fact that Falkirk is in  Scotland, that Scotland played a major role in the foundation of trades unions and the Labour Party is ancient, and mainly irrelevant history to them. This superficiality and parochialism is what Scotland has come to expect from London media. From time to time, Scotland intrudes rudely on their consciousness, and they are aware that Scottish voters are effectively disenfranchised and don’t get the government they vote for on occasion, but then, Scotland is just another region of England (sorry, Jock – UK!)

What is almost unforgiveable is that the Scottish media has swallowed this narrative whole, and conceives its duty done when they passively regurgitate it to Scottish voters. Consider the following examples -

To listen to this duo, one might think the Falkirk debacle had nothing whatsoever to do with Scotland's independence, and had no significant implications for it.

But these journalists accurately reflect a Scottish press and media that is either so locked in a UK mindset that they are oblivious to them, or are so caught up in editorial policies that don't wish to highlight them that they are hamstrung as professional journalists in telling the truth to the Scottish electorate by fully analysing a political event that is shaking up UK politics and is central in many ways to the great independence debate.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

The working class can kiss my **** - I’ve got a Labour job at last …

I’ve been banging on about the Scottish trades unions, the political levy and affiliation to the Labour Party for some years now. For the record, I’m opposed to trades unions affiliating to any political party - it’s bad for their members and bad for democracy.

Events of the last couple of days lead me to think that this post in the middle of last year is worth a reprise -

REPEAT POST: Sunday, 18 July 2010

The English Trades Unions wake up to the Labour betrayal – when will the Scottish Unions do likewise?

The Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival 2010 has been taking place this weekend. The Politics Show was there to take the temperature of the unions over the impending cuts. On the ground, the message was clear – a deep suspicion of the LibDem coalition and its plans to ‘reduce the deficit’, code for attack the living standards and amenities of those least able to afford it, and entirely blameless of ruin of the economy by the Labour Government and the banks.

Quote -

“At least back in the eighties there was a state to dismantle. At the moment, we’ve only got the precious things left – the Post Office, the Health Service, the schools, the education service, and they’re coming for it.”

Quote -

Nobody should be under any illusion whatsoever – the 1980s were awful, and this government is far more right wing in our view. I tell you, the battle is coming very shortly and it’s going to be massive. The trade union movement has got to come together, and cannot rely, unfortunately, on our allies that we’ve had in the past.”

That last remark, in my view, is trade union code for “we cannot rely on the Labour Party ---“ and the interviewers comment, “maybe the Labour Party as well?” and the nod that followed it confirmed this.

Both these quote were from Communications Workers’ Union representatives. The interviewer moved on to a lady from the National Union of Teachers.

In response to a specific question about the Labour Party and the Trade Union leadership, Rachel Thomas replied -

I don’t think we can put our hopes in any of the major parties – they’ve proved, time and time again, they’re the parties of big business – they’ve given billions and billions to the banks, and we want some of that for public services --- I think the trade union movement – the TUC – needs to get some rocket boosters – in order to fight back.“

(The comments on Lord Mandelson’s memoirs were wisely censored as “not really printable.”)

We then move back to Jon Sopel and his guests in the studio, Fraser Nelson and Jackie Ashley.

Jackie Ashley – Mrs. Andrew Marr - is a television newspaper reporter and New Statesman and Guardian columnist. She fought her way up from humble beginnings as the daughter of Jack Ashley – Baron Ashley of Stoke – and a grammar school and Oxbridge education.

Fraser Nelson, a Scot (born in Nairn) and educated at Nairn Academy, Dollar Academy, Glasgow University and City University, London. A historian and journalist, Fraser Nelson is also editor of The Spectator, and has a healthy media career as a panellist and commentator.  He is a right-wing conservative, a board director of The Centre for Policy Studies. He is described as an economic libertarian, or neoliberal.

Before you try Wikipaedia  on the term neoliberal, I should warn you that the definition there is ‘contested’. By whom and why, I leave you to judge for yourself.

The BBC and The Politics Show presumably selected these two guests as offering some kind of political balance in the great question of the moment, namely, who f****d up Great Britain and what should be done about it?

How qualified are these privileged, comfortable and possibly very rich people to consider the plight of the low-paid, the elderly and the sick people who will suffer the impact of the cuts, the bankers’ greed and recklessness and the Labour Party and Gordon Brown’s ineptitude in government?

One thing is for sure, they will both be totally insulated from the draconian cuts to come, indeed they may confidently anticipate even more lucrative media appearances as they survey the wreckage of our society and pontificate on it.

They have the task of trying to question Bob Crow of the RMT – introduced by Jon Sopel as “one of the most prominent, some would argue militant figures in the Trade Union movement.

Since the formidable RMT man understands what his role is very clearly, and is unafraid to cut through cant and the special pleading of the rich and powerful by concise and blunt statements of fundamentals, this is no easy ride for our privileged duo, not to mention Jon Sopel.

I leave to you watch and listen to Crow as the media trio trot out their feeble and predictable mantras. He makes them sound like Marie Therese, wife of Louis IV commenting on the plight of the starving poor - “Qu'ils mangent de la brioche …

It all reminded me of a freezing February morning in the late 1970s, when my MD decided to address a large group of truculent draymen in Newcastle about the need for retrenchment. He jumped up on to the back of a lorry, and said “Gentlemen, we must all make sacrifices …”

There was a long, icy pause, then a voice from the throng shouted “What f*****g sacrifices are you going to make then?

The MD hastily jumped off the lorry and handed the meeting over to me, but I had no answer either …

The English members of the trade union movement are at last realising the depths of Labour’s betrayal, and the horrors facing them from the LibCon government, and they intend to do something about it. They had no choice at the general election, but the Scottish electorate did have a real choice – the SNP, yet voted Labour again, in increased numbers.

Among that electorate were many trades unionists. When are you going to wake up, Scotland?

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Call Kaye? Not if you want to say anything that challenges the topic …

I have strong views on the public sector strikes – I also have strong views on the way the Scottish media have addressed this vital topic. So I  had some hopes for Call Kaye - a Radio Scotland vox pop morning phone-in programme that often tackles important and relevant topics.

I have only phoned this programme twice, to my recollection, and on each occasion, I got a hearing, so I had high hopes for this morning’s topic – the public service strike. But I had a reservation about how they had defined the issue in advance, essentially narrowing the debate to the teachers’ strike, and ignoring - in company with the rest of the Scottish media - an aspect that I consider central to the debate in Scotland, namely that it is arguable that one can support the grievances of the strikers and support the strike in England but not in Scotland.

So I duly Called Kaye at 9.00 a.m to try to get a slot on the programme. I gave my name and location to the person at the other end, then came the question – “And what do you want to say, Mr. Curran?” I knew the risk, and could have camouflaged my question, but decided to be upfront.

I think you are addressing the wrong question. Instead of asking callers do they support the strike, the question should be should those who support the strike be supporting it in Scotland, given the fact the Scottish government supports the public service workers, and has tried to resist pressure to attack their pensions. This strike will harm Scotland but have little effect on the UK Government.”

Maybe I imagined it, but I thought I detected a chill breeze coming down the line. Call Kaye didn’t call Peter back. I won’t be calling Kaye again.  But what I have to say about today’s programme is what I would have said even if had I got my shot on air.


The programme was determined to focus on the teachers, who are a minority, and to some degree an unrepresentative minority of the strikers. They are a comparatively well-paid group, with average earnings in excess of the average UK wage, with long holidays. It was abundantly clear that the programme producers had decided that this made them an easy target, and that this would produce a good debate, within the parameters that such programmes set for debate – not to illuminate to issues or the topic, but to produce lively airtime by feeding prejudices. In other words, the modus operandi of the tabloid press, now under national scrutiny.

Of course, Kaye Adams couldn’t entirely control the agenda – and doubtless would say she wasn’t trying to – and token recognition was given at various points to the wider issue, but when the a caller did manage to escape from the straightjacket Call Kaye wanted to keep them in, it was in spite of the rigid agenda.

The callers fell more or less evenly into two groups – those who predictably supported the strike totally, comprising actual strikers and or public service workers, or trade union officials or Labour MSPs, and those who were vociferously against it. The debate was entirely lacking in any nuanced comment.

Those who were against the strike seemed to harbour a generalised resentment of teachers – of their salary, their promotion prospects, their pension – and many seemed to think that the teaching profession was actually a child minding service to permit parents to work full time.

At one and the same time, they managed to disparage teachers and their worth to society while screaming blue bloody murder about the insupportable hardships even one day of withdrawal of teaching services did to their child minding expectations and to the children’s education.

They were talking about professionals, graduates in the main, to whom they entrust their children or their grandchildren to daily, who are in loco parentis, and who will have a profound effect on their children’s entire life, during and after their school years – on their understanding of life, of society, in their basic skills, in their capacity to earn a living, in their ability to function as members of a complex, deeply uncertain society in the challenging times ahead.

Yet they managed to believe that teachers were overpaid, greedy and selfish in bringing sharply to that society’s attention how much they needed them. Shame on these people, and to the plummy-voiced lady who mounted her vociferous attacks on striking teachers.

The conspiracy of wealth, power and unelected privilege that is the UK’s apology for a democracy, represented by the party of wealth and greed, stuffed with obscenely wealthy men and women, the Tory Party, and their compliant puppets, the supine, expedient, ineffectual Liberal Democrats, appear to have done a bloody good job of divide and rule, of setting a stereotype of the greedy public sector against the hard-working, virtuous private sector in the minds of ordinary people, or at least those who attacked the teachers on this programme.

Thank God, they do not appear to be representative of the public at large, if recent polls are anything to go by.

A society that is grossly unequal, resting on the commitment of all the major UK parties through three incompetent governments in the last thirty years or so to the market principle of free bargaining, of the naked pursuit of wealth and wealth creation any price, a society that allowed bankers and spivs and speculators to bring the United Kingdom to the bring of economic collapse by reckless gambling has been brought sharply to an awareness of what the public sector really means, and their response has been to protect their friends – the wealthy – and attack the poorest and the most vulnerable.

The Labour Party and its apparatchiks are deeply ambivalent about the whole affair, because they brought this about by failing in government, by failing the people they were elected to serve, by offering up their Great Leader, one Anthony Lynton (Call me Tony!) Blair,  a man with an untold fortune and an annual income assessed at £15m as a shining example of what unrestrained pursuit of wealth can do for a sharp political operator, a lesson well-learned by New – and Old – Labour politicians.

The trades union officials manage to do very nicely, thank you, out of their version of democracy and remuneration structuring, not to mention a route to Westminster on a gravy train of Labour patronage that offers even more loot, and eventual ennoblement to the lucky ones. No where is this more evident than among the Scottish Labour Party and the Scottish Trades Union hierarchy.

But in Scotland we have a party in Government committed to the ordinary people, to a vibrant private sector and to an effective, well-resourced public sector. The only thing standing between them and the full ability to realise a truly balanced society with human values is the structure of the UK, the Palace of Westminster and the self-serving venality of the Labour Party and its friends. (The Tories and the LibDems are now politically irrelevant to Scotland.)

This strike, valid and proportionate - and legal – was the right thing to do in England. It was the wrong thing to do in Scotland. It hurts Scotland to no purpose at a time of maximum economic vulnerability. It hurt a government and a society that – despite Call Kaye’s callers - values and supports its public servants.

That was the issue Call Kaye – and the rest of the media – should have addressed, instead of setting the teachers up as an easy target. The Scottish media, not for the first time, have failed in their role of telling the truth to power by superficial and glib analysis of issues. I can only hope against hope that they don’t do it again, because there’s more to come …


S4M-01440 John Swinney: Public Sector Pensions—That the Parliament recognises and appreciates the valuable work done by Scotland’s public sector workers; notes the importance of pensions that are affordable, sustainable and fair and believes that long-term pension reforms must be taken forward with consent and in partnership; registers its strong opposition to the UK Government’s decision to impose a general levy on pension contributions and considers this to be a cash grab for the purposes of deficit reduction rather than a move to secure the long-term sustainability of public sector pensions; regrets the fact that UK ministers appear to be relishing the prospect of strike action, which will cause major disruption and inconvenience to ordinary members of the public across Scotland; condemns the UK Government’s threat to cut Scotland’s budget by £100 million next year alone, on top of drastic cuts to Scotland’s budget, if the Scottish Government does not implement the UK Government’s immediate levy on pensions contributions, and calls on the UK Government to reverse its short-term pensions cash grab.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

The St. Andrew’s Day trade union folly

Scottish trades unionists - you are being manipulated for party political purposes into striking against a Scottish Government that supports you but is powerless under the UK grip to help you. Why strike against your own people? It won't mean anything to the brutal Tory/LibDem Coalition, but it will hurt Scots, vulnerable Scottish working mothers especially. English trades unions have no choice but to strike and they are right to do so - but your strike has no logic and no meaning to it. Re-think now!

Peter Curran

moridura Peter Curran

The teachers' strike on 30th Nov. won't hurt the UK government or dent its manic resolve - but it will hurt Scottish working mothers. STOP!

Peter Curran

moridura Peter Curran

Scotland has two governments - one that works for Scots - the SNP - and one that doesn't - the UK. Why strike against your own side, unions?

Peter Curran

moridura Peter Curran

The 30th Nov. strike in Scotland will hurt Scotland and Scots, but not the Coalition. This is a perversion of Scots trade union principles .

Peter Curran

moridura Peter Curran

There are two anti-Scottish Coalitions: Cameron's Tory/LibDem one and Curran/Moore/Mundel's Coalition. They are using Scottish union members

Peter Curran

moridura Peter Curran

Think of the political impact a delegation to Holyrood of Scottish Unions that refused to strike would have had. This strike harms Scots ...

Peter Curran

moridura Peter Curran

Scottish union members are being manipulated by Labour FTOs for London party objectives. This strike harms Scotland and Scots only - folly.

Peter Curran

moridura Peter Curran

Why are Scottish unions striking 30th Nov. Because their Labour FTOs demand it. Hurt a Government on their side, and other Scots - for what?

Peter Curran

moridura Peter Curran

Renfrewshire teachers are defying the strike call on St. Andrew's Day. They were on holiday anyway ...

Sunday, 26 June 2011

The Public Sector strikes - a re-run of the General Strike? Lessons that won’t be learned …

I said all of this over a year ago, in March and April 2010, before the lunatic ConLib Coalition got their hands on the levers of power and did more to alienate the trades unions than Maggie Thatcher did in a similar time frame. At least Maggie knew what she was about - this lot don’t, anymore than the feeble and contradictory Labour Opposition does.

In the unlikely event that anyone in this benighted UK government reads this, they will completely ignore it. I offer it to those who want to take time to understand what lies before us, in the hope that Scotland can avoid the worst of it, and demonstrate the common sense - and humanity - that is now possible from our government since the SNP decisive win on May 5th 2011.



“One of the eternal conflicts out of which life is made up is that between the efforts of every man to get the most he can for his services, and that of society, disguised under the name of capital, to get his services for the least possible return.

“Combination on the one side is patent and powerful. Combination on the other is the necessary and desirable counterpart, if the battle is to be carried on in a fair and equal way.

“The fact that the immediate object of the act by which the benefit to the unionised workers is to be gained is to injure the employer does not necessarily make it unlawful, any more than when a great house lowers the price of goods for the purpose and with the effect of driving a smaller antagonist from the business."

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes – 1896

A dissenting judgement in the case of Vegelahn versus Guntner, an 1896 labour law decision from the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts.

Although it took several years to make its full impact, this dissenting judgement was a seminal one in determining the course of American labour relations and collective bargaining in the 20th century, and its influence was felt throughout the industrialised world.

Its central argument carries the same force today, as we approach a series of public sector strikes that may involve the largest number of workers since the General Strike, and may only be the start of something even bigger.

Americans are much more realistic about labour relations, sometimes brutally so, but after a century or more, attitudes in Britain remain naive and ill-informed, and the reaction of government and media commentators to strikes is remarkably consistent, and raises the question – Why are the unions always the bad guys?

Why won't Government and companies learn these lessons?
Keep your lip zipped in public comment through the media when there is a chance of averting the dispute. A strike threat is a negotiating tactic - until the workers actually hit the street. It is a way to stiffen a negotiating position against an otherwise all-powerful management negotiating team.

Some hard facts -


Employers, both private sector and Government, don’t recognise trades unions unless they are compelled to do so – by law, by union muscle, or in very rare instances, because they are driven by some other ethical or strategic judgement.

Recognising a trade union for any purpose, from representing employees for grievance and disciplinary purposes up to full-scale recognition for collective bargaining on terms and conditions, implies a restriction of the employer’s freedom to act, and this is not a freedom that any employer should surrender lightly.

Unions, especially craft unions, have very ancient roots in the medieval guilds, however, the main impetus to the organisation of labour in trades unions came from the industrial revolution.

The entire history of trade unionism has been a struggle to secure representation rights against the hostility of employers to granting such rights, and that struggle has often been a violent one, especially in the United States of America in the 19th and early 20th century, notably in the automotive industry and mining industries. Lest anyone in the 21st century think that violence was always initiated by the trades unions, the most extreme examples of violence, often lethal violence, have come from the employers. (Henry Ford and Andrew Carnegie had particularly bloody records in attempts to suppress trades unions.)

The law has played a strange part in this, tending to see-saw between granting rights then reversing the judgement in a later court. But the overall direction in the Western world has been towards granting legal right to trades unions and their members to organise, to represent, to bargain, and vitally, to withdraw their labour by striking. The greatest legal restrictions on trades unions were imposed in the 1980s by Margaret Thatcher, and their two greatest defeats were in the newspaper industry by Rupert Murdoch and the mining industry by Margaret Thatcher


Once an employer or government department has granted full representation and collective bargaining right to a trade union it becomes very difficult to end that relationship - to de-unionise – without major conflict and disruption.

There have been relatively few examples in Britain of full frontal de-unionisation – union busting, to give it its pejorative term – but probably quite a few where union recognition has withered on the vine because it wasn’t strongly rooted in the first place.

Why would an employer want to end the relationship with a trade union?

The answer almost always relates to a pressing need to achieve changed working practices and reduce the paybill in times of recession or in the face of severe competition. Quite simply, the management’s right to manage the business and react to market conditions is being unacceptably constrained by their inability to negotiate change with employee representatives.

This was Maggie’s dilemma – to achieve her change objectives for British society, employers had to be able to successfully negotiate change with their workers. If they couldn’t, because of what they defined as union intransigence, then government would stiffen their backbones by legislation and by example, e.g. in the coal industry, and if the unions went on strike except after following due process, they could be sued.

From the union perspective, the failure to negotiate change lay with the employers and the negotiating stance they adopted. Unions are there to protect the jobs and the terms and conditions of their members, and their instinct is to resist any change that threatens these things, but unions can and do accept the need for change and have negotiated change – quite radical change – when they are convinced of the rationale for that change and have recognised that the alternatives to it are even more unacceptable - for example, failure and closure of the business.


When there is a failure to negotiate a vital change agenda with a trade union, the roots of that failure can usually be traced to the nature of the management/union relationship over many years, and serious deficiencies in the company’s employee relations practices.

I have worked with a very wide range of U.K. and international companies and organisations over the years, both as a employee relations specialist and as a consultant.

Most of those organisations have successfully negotiated the change agendas demanded by the exigencies of the business, the marketplace and technological change, and the successful ones, with negligible exceptions, always displayed certain positive behaviours in their relationship with their employees and their representatives. The ones that failed tended to consistently display certain negative behaviours.

1. In successful companies, directors, managers and supervisors at all levels accepted the legitimacy of the trade union’s role and functions and respected them, not just because they were required to comply with the law, but because they had freely entered into an agreement with the union, and were bound to honour that agreement.

2. Successful companies, whilst accepting the representational and negotiating role of trade union representatives, both internal (e.g. shop stewards) and external (full-time officers of the union), insisted on management’s direct relationship with employees and their absolute right to communicate with them directly. The managers did not channel vital communications through union representatives to employees, e.g. “Tell your members this …” but “We will be telling our employees and your members this …”

For example, the best companies - in terms of employee relations communications – would give trade union representatives an advance briefing on important relevant matters, and would then brief employees in groups with the union representatives present, would answer questions, then would turn the meeting over to the trade union representative and leave to permit them to address their members in private.

Under no circumstances would the company knowingly permit or offer facilities to the the union that resulted in employees hearing an important management message from their union representative before they had heard it from a company representative.

This principle – of management’s absolute right to communicate directly with their employees – was constantly emphasised and practised, and the company would sustain a strike rather than breach it. It rested upon the legal fact that the contractual relationship existed between the company and each individual employee, and the recognition that the union was not the agent of the employee in that contract but their spokesperson. The nature of collective bargaining often creates strange apparent anomalies in relation to this principle, but unless there is absolute clarity on it it, trouble inevitable follows.

In my experience, companies who hit major difficulties in negotiating change agendas had been breaching this principle for years, effectively abdicating their right to communicate directly with their employees, and were now reaping the whirlwind.

The ironic fact of the matter also tended to be that the companies that clearly were unhappy with unions and did not, in their heart of hearts, accept their legitimacy were also the companies that had abdicated their right to communicate with their own workers.

3. Successful companies never cried wolf about change agendas – they told their employees the truth at all times. The companies that had failed to communicate the seriousness and critical nature of the current economic pressures driving the urgent need for change had been crying wolf for years, in situations that were not critical, simply as a negotiating tactic, one that was profoundly misconceived . Consequently, they were not believed when the real threat came along.

4. Successful companies had a strong human resource function, represented at board level, and understood and fully accepted the role of HR. The companies that failed (in my experience) were invariably deeply ambivalent about their human resource functions, failed to understand their role and often impeded their ability to discharge it. They also tended to blame the human resource function when things went wrong. In the worst cases, managers at all levels regarded the HR function with either resentment or contempt. Managers in unsuccessful companies were strong on blaming behaviour and weak at accepting responsibility for their policies and their actions.

5. Successful companies, while always willing to offer negotiating concessions to reach agreement, never compromised core principles, and were willing to sustain strikes to protect them. Unsuccessful companies had a long track record of caving in to pressure expediently, usually after a failure to compromise when valid concessions were possible.

6. Successful companies understood the nature of trade union democracy, hierarchy and communications procedures. Unsuccessful companies drew false parallels with their own management hierarchical, non-democratic structures, and could never understand that a trade union is an inverted pyramid, with all the bosses at the top – its members – and their subordinates – the shop stewards and full-time officers at the bottom.


It is vital that the directors and managers of a company or governmental organisation clearly understand the nature of their relationship with the trade union and its representatives. Most  would say that of course they do, but scratch the surface, and crucial misconceptions become evident in many companies.

A fully recognised trade union, that is to say, one recognised for grievance representation and collective bargaining on terms and conditions is not the agent of the employee at contract – each employee of an organisation has an individual contract with the employer, and the union representatives, in negotiating on behalf of employees who are also union members simply reflects the collective wishes of those employees.

An agreement on terms and conditions with union representatives therefore must be expressed in each individual contract of employment and accepted or rejected by each employee.

In practice, employees who are union members express their acceptance or rejection of the offer in mass meetings or by union ballot, and the minority, for or against, usually bows to the will of the majority as expressed by the vote.

(Complex legal situation can arise from this contractual relationship in collective bargaining situations - I have been part of them on several occasions – but it is beyond the scope of this blog to examine them in detail.)

The union is not a contractor for the supply of labour to the company, and therefore should have no role in the recruitment, selection, assignment of duties, overtime etc. of employees. Difficulties nonetheless can arise in all of these areas with unions, and in the specification and qualifications of candidates for posts within the company.

The above is a general statement of good practice, but historically, in the United States of America, the UK and elsewhere, unions have had - and probably still have - a voice in, and sometimes control of these areas.

(For example, in many industries in the USA, all labour was recruited through the Union Hall, i.e. the union HQ. This was true of parts of the rubber industry in Akron, Ohio, to my personal knowledge, up to the 1970s and perhaps beyond.)

In the newspaper and printing industry in the UK, the Fathers of the Chapels (shop stewards of the print union branches) controlled recruitment, entry qualifications, allocation of overtime and many other aspects that should properly be management’s prerogative until the great watershed of Wapping and their crushing defeat by Rupert Murdoch.

A central concept in good management is the company’s right to manage, that is to decide what is in the best interests of the company, its customers and its shareholders, indeed, it is better expressed as a duty to manage.

But that right is qualified by realities in every aspect of a company’s operations – the law limits it, it is limited by the nature of its supply chains, its distribution networks, by its customers, by its shareholders, by public opinion to some degree, and by the relationship it has entered into with a trade union or trades unions. The company cannot do as it pleases, although it must seek the maximum freedom of decision making within the constraints imposed.

For example, the management of a company must change working practices when required to by the business environment or the need to innovate, and such changes can change the duties of existing employees and may result in a need for fewer employees, i.e. redundancy. But the company is bound by the law of contract to either negotiate these changes with employees, or, if it unilaterally applies them, to face potential problems under employment law with individuals or groups.

That situation applies whether the company has a recognised a trade union or not, and a union’s role in these situations is to represent the employees, individually and collectively in matters relating to their contracts of employment, which will include elements that were collectively negotiated and agreed by the union.

Unions were formed principally to deal with inequality in that contractual relationship between powerful, monolithic, essentially amoral employers and vulnerable individual employees. Before the existence of trades unions, employers in many cases – perhaps most - rode roughshod over the employees contractual and legal rights – which were initially very limited. We return to Oliver Wendell Holmes and his seminal judgement that I quoted in Part One and Part Two of this blog topic.


Unions and employers in the public sector negotiate in a significantly different context to those in the private sector, and the dynamics of their bargaining and the implications of withdrawal of labour by striking reflect this difference. It is beyond the scope of this blog to examine that in detail, although certain aspects of it will be covered later. Suffice it to say that the nature of the work and the services of public sector workers makes a breakdown in relationships damaging to society in a fundamental way, and strikes in the public sector in vital services tend to impact on the widest range of the general public.


Changes in working practices for existing employees fall broadly into two types – those that are expressly or implicitly covered by the existing contract of employment and those that clearly involve a change to the contract.

(It should be noted that what constitutes the contract of employment is not always clear, and it may have to be determined by a legal judgement. All employees are required by law to have a written statement of their main terms of employment after a specified period, but in itself, this is not the contract of employment, and many other aspects of employment may be relevant to the contract.)

If, for example, a contract of employment explicitly contains a requirement for employees to be mobile in terms of their normal place of work, a change to the normal place of work would be required of an employee, and refusal to accept the move would be a breach of contract by the employee.

On the other hand, if no mobility or flexibility on the place of work was in the contract, a unilateral change to the place of work by the employer would constitute the offer of a new contract of employment, and the employee would be free to reject the offer. What follows from such a rejection can be complex, and issues surrounding alternatives, compensation, redundancy, selection for redundancy etc. are raised by the change.

What is clear is that the employer has the right to make such a change, and if other avenues of consultation and negotiation fail, to terminate to employee and hire someone else.

Most conflicts over change agendas by companies arise over such situations, whether they relate to place of work, duties performed, pay and other remuneration elements, qualifications, and to the deadlines for implementation of the changes. Such conflicts always have a legal dimension – the contractual dimension – but they play out the drama as a power confrontation if trades unions are involved.


A hard-nosed management might well approach change by simply announcing it, then implementing it. They might well get away with this in a non-unionised company, or one where union organisation is weak. Leaving aside the obvious impact on human relations and morale in the company, not to mention cooperation with the changes, the main risk of such an approach is of a legal challenge from one or more employees.

But for the majority of employers, this would be a last resort, after many other communications approaches and conflict resolution methods had been exhausted.

What are these methods?

The first approach by the management of a company is briefing the employees and their representatives of the nature of the planned changes and the timescale for implementation.

Briefing would usually be accompanied by a question and answer session to provide clarity on the detail of the changes. If in addition the reaction of the employees and their representatives is also sought, which is good practice, then this is described as consultation – eliciting views on the acceptability of the changes and listening to alternatives presented by the workforce and their representatives.

(Requirements are placed on companies by employment law in relation to change agendas, and these must complied with.)

If management accept the alternatives  presented by the employees and their representatives, then agreement can usually be speedily reached. (Alternatives can range from outright rejection of any change to modifications to the changes and the implementation timescale, and compensation issues for acceptance of change.)

If management reject some or all of the alternatives presented, then their options are to either implement unilaterally or negotiate. In a unionised company, negotiation may be required by previous agreements, and again there may be legal implications.

So we see the potential sequence of the process -



Implement or negotiate



All negotiation takes place against the possibility of failure to reach agreement. In most commercial negotiation – buying and selling of goods and services – failure to reach agreement results in abandonment of the negotiation by both parties – the walk-away – and the search for a new agreement with different participants. The company seeks another supplier, the salesperson seeks another customer.

Employer/employee negotiations take place in a different context, one that I call the locked relationship, where the parties to the negotiation cannot easily seek other partners. In theory, the employer can terminate the contracts of the entire workforce and re-hire, and each employee can resign and seek a new employer. The inherent inequality in these possibilities is what gave birth to trades unions. The employers call it a free market for labour – for the employees, it used to be freedom to starve. We’re back again to Justice Wendell Holmes.

Some employers have taken the extreme route, and it has worked for them, e.g. Rupert Murdoch. His success was undoubtedly aided by the British publics distaste for the prints unions of the time – their PR was disastrous, little sympathy was extended to them, and Murdoch became a kind of industrial hero.

(My personal view is that it had to happen, and if it hadn’t been Rupert Murdoch it would have been someone else. But my distaste for Murdoch and his print empire far exceeds any negative feelings that I had for the print union chapels and fathers of the chapel and their featherbedding and restrictive practices.)

Almost all negotiations experience one or more periods of deadlock, when one or more negotiating items cannot be resolved, and neither party is prepared to move. Deadlock, if unresolved, leads ultimately to breakdown of the negotiations, but deadlock must never be confused with breakdown, and when it is, premature and needless breakdown can occur.

Deadlock is simply a negotiation that is becalmed – motionless in the sea of discussion, compromise and concession. It usually indicates that the parties, for the moment, have exhausted their capacity to move, to concede, to modify.

But significantly, deadlock can be a negotiating tactic, when one or both parties actually have the capacity to modify their position but are testing the resolve of the other party. Deadlock can be a form of brinkmanship and may be a bluff, albeit brinkmanship and bluff with risks attached.

(John F. Kennedy called Nikita Khrushchev's bluff in the Cuban Missile crisis. Khrushchev backed down – his bluff was therefore called. Was Kennedy bluffing? Thank God we’ll never know …)

In a commercial negotiation, deadlock implies a walk-away from the table permanently – breakdown. But in a locked relationship between management and union, what is threatened by deadlock and breakdown? Almost certainly not a permanent walk-away, but a temporary breakdown, one that will hurt both parties to the negotiation.

That temporary walk-away is called a strike, and sometimes a lock-out. It is designed to hurt – a power play – but it is also designed to end in an agreement.


Management initiates the change agenda, attempts to justify it by the business need arguments available to it, and sets out its planned timescale. If the change agenda has no negative implications for employees, then all that is required is to ensure understanding, co-operation – then implement. But change agendas almost always do have significant negative consequences for employees, and it is their trade union’s job to prevent or at least ameliorate the impact of the changes.

The critical element in the employee and union response is lies in the answer to the $64,000 question – do they believe the company when they state the rationale for change and the consequences of not accepting it?

Faced with a clear-cut, convincing case that the alternative to accepting change is closure or radical contraction of the company’s activities, unions are rarely obstructive. But if the argument is weak, or simply not believed, or the negative impact of co-operating with the change seems as bad as the alternative, then the union will fight the change.

The power balance in the negotiation is then as follows – the company has the power to implement unilaterally and the union has the power to strike. It has always been thus, and no one looking at the history of industrial relations should be surprised at this stark reality.

The underlying dynamic of that reality is that unions have a vested interest in delaying unacceptable changes indefinitely by protracting negotiations and management have a vested interest in bringing the negotiations to a close by implementing on a deadline. When negotiation is exhausted, the parties have reached the point of freedom to act, in negotiating parlance.

(An analogy is diplomacy designed to avert conflict between nations. When the talking stops, there is an act that provokes war.)

So why are the unions always cast as the bad guys in this old, old game?

Well, let me offer a little parable -

A man is locked in a cupboard, and it goes on fire. Outside the door is another man with the key, and the man inside demands that the cupboard be opened. The man outside refuse to unlock the door, but carries on talking. The man inside, threatened by the smoke and flames, finds an axe and smashes down the door. The man outside remarks to observers that the man wielding the axe is a destructive bastard – why couldn’t they have kept on talking?

This can be interpreted in two ways, and dependent on your political view of trades unions, you can cast the roles either way, but reflect on these points – talking cannot continue indefinitely and at a certain point, action, however destructive, is preferable to inaction.

There must be an alternative to force, you cry! Yes, there is, or rather, there are several alternatives. They have been available in various forms throughout the entire history of employer/employee disputes.

The first is to deny one of the parties any rights at all to resist and/or compel change under law, backed by force. This was the model for many generations before more liberal labour laws began to be enacted.

The second is to involve a third party, acceptable to both of the disputing parties to mediate, that is, help the parties resolves their differences by advice, bringing clarity to the issues, and removing the heat from the dispute.

The third is non-binding arbitration, an extension of the mediation role, where a third party considers both argument and gives a ruling, which nevertheless does not bind the parties to acceptance.

The fourth is legally binding arbitration by a third party. The disputing parties have in effect surrendered their freedom to decide to the arbiter.

For several decades now, we have had in the UK a body that specialises in these roles, and which is backed up by legislation. It is called ACAS – the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service. (It has been alleged that it was to be called the Joint Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service until some prescient soul realised what that particular pronounceable acronym came up with …)

Although it advises, mediates and conciliates, strictly speaking it doesn’t arbitrate – it appoint arbiters (or arbitrators, if you prefer).

Why in hell don’t management and unions go to arbitration in major disputes? You may well ask …

Well, sometimes they do, but often only after a lot of blood has been shed by both the warring parties. It would seem sensible that, in our vital industries and services at least, that legally binding arbitration should be the norm rather than the exception, but perhaps stopping short of a legal compulsion to arbitrate.

Why don’t they do it?

The answer seems to be that they want to retain their ultimate right, be they employer or trade union, to choose their battlegrounds and fight their wars at their own discretion, rather like countries going to war without the approval of the United Nations.

Now, who would be stupid enough to do that?

I spent most of my employed working life dealing as an industrial relations specialist with trades unions, and a large part of my consulting practice - from the late 1980s up to about 2004 - related to industrial relations and the training of directors and managers in negotiating skills and collective bargaining on terms and conditions and change agendas, including analysing the dynamics of employer/trade union disputes and their escalation from deadlock through strike threats to strikes or other forms of industrial action, e.g. working to rule, sit-ins.

I was a staff union member (ASSET and ACTSS) for brief periods in my early career, and I was a staff representative and was once on strike for recognition of a staff union against my American employer of the time, Goodyear. (I was in the Personnel department at the time!)

So I can reasonably claim some expertise on these matters.

There are a few golden rules and principles for dealing with escalating crises in labour relations negotiations, and for actual strikes.

1. A strike threat is not a strike, even when it is accompanied by a ballot for strike action and a deadline for its commencement – it is a bargaining tactic.

2. A strike is an action of last resort for a responsible union, when all other avenues for agreement seem to be exhausted, just as is unilateral implementation of change by management.

3. An offer made and rejected is an offer that is off the table, e.g. if one party makes an offer, and it is rejected and followed by a strike, the party that rejected the offer cannot regard it as still extant while a strike threat is extant or after a strike ends without agreement. It can only be a reference point in recommenced negotiations.

For example, if management makes an offer that is rejected, the union cannot claim that it is still on the table after the rejection unless management chooses to regard it as such. Conversely, if the union offers a settlement and it is rejected by management, the same applies.

4. During the lead-up to a strike, i.e. before employees actually hit the street, both management and union should embargo any comments to the press, other than the most anodyne, e.g. “we are still hopeful of a settlement and negotiations are continuing.” Negative comments, attacking the intransigence and sheer bloody mindedness of the other party are particularly damaging.

5. The interests of the media during crisis periods in negotiation are not those of either of the parties to the negotiation – media commentators are usually simplistic in analysis, and deficient in understanding of the most basic facts of negotiating dynamics, politically biased, and their reporting is aimed at sensationalising the impending conflict.

It can be argued that the media brought down the Heath Government in early 1974 by wilfully misunderstanding – if not misrepresenting – the nature of the miners’ union opening demand, one that they never remotely expected to achieve. Heath was fool enough to believe the media, rather than the experienced managers dealing with the negotiations. The figures on the costs of settlement were also deeply flawed.

6. A strike is created by two parties, not one. It takes two to tango – a deadlock is never one-sided. One party is refusing to meet the other party’s terms – both create the deadlock and the ultimate breakdown.  Experienced negotiators and mature organisations accept this reality.

Does that mean that both parties’ demands are justified? Not necessarily, but if one party lacks realism – or compassion, or values –it is the job of the other to get them to see reason by dialogue. If they fail in this, then the strike, providing it is legal, must be accepted as the necessary cost of bringing about a more balanced view. So it is in conflict between nations, even though the conflict may destroy both sides. (The UK is now prepared to talk turkey to the Taliban after a decade of war. You don’t make peace with your friends.)

7. Once the strike commences, the gloves are off – in comment terms, in media publicity, in exerting legal pressures on the other side, etc. but during this period of the strike, a critical consideration must be - what terms will be necessary to secure a return to work, and how can open channels of communication be maintained?

Friday, 1 April 2011

Rotten boroughs - Glasgow City Council

Private Eye runs a feature called rotten boroughs. Quite how Glasgow City Council has escaped its notice of late is puzzling. Or maybe I missed it.

This Labour-controlled council has gone through scandal after scandal in the last couple of years, of which I need only mention Purcell, the ALEOs, the PTA, the Ccommonwealth Games clearances and the Jaconelli outrage.

A quivering, noxious, sticky web of questionable relationships and behaviour that embraced drug dealers, media, gangsters, PR firms, property developers, etc. has been regularly probed by those media channels who were not themselves enmeshed in it in one way or another, but to little avail.

Are there honest men and women in Glasgow City Council and the Glasgow Labour Party? Of course there are, and in significant numbers. But they are either impotent or timid - or downright afraid, with honourable exceptions.

I despaired of Glasgow Labour a long, long time ago but retained a blind loyalty to the Party until Iraq and all that followed. That kind of blind loyalty was challenged by what can now be seen as the false dawn of the Glasgow East by-election, when for a brief moment the voters of Glasgow East took the blinkers off and rejected the party that had crushed the heart and soul out of them, only to revert to the reflex Labour vote at the 2010 general election.

The Glasgow North East (Springburn) by-election was the most obvious example of this kind of voting-against-reality syndrome, when, following the ignominious resignation the the Speaker of the House of Commons - their MP Michael Martin - and the unfolding criminal behaviour of Labour MPs and Lords, they returned yet another Labour MP to Westminster.

Labour, especially Glasgow Labour, has systematically betrayed the interests of trades unions, their main party funders. To be more accurate, they have betrayed the interests of trade union members, but advanced the interests and political ambitions of  some trades union officials, who have never doubted where their unswerving loyalty lay - not to their members, but to the Labour Party machine that was going advance their ambitions.

Today, we have the latest manifestation of this in a Herald story, headlined Council chief under fire for perks as staff lose their jobs.

Even the unions found this a bitter pill to swallow - although swallow it they will as the Glasgow Tammany Hall persuaders and patronage promisers do their rounds. But the acceptance of lavish hospitality from the successful bidders for lucrative council contracts and sub-contracts that the unions claim are at the expense of in-house council workers, by the man at the eye of the storm, Robert Booth, head of GCC’s roads, parks and environmental health , will not easily be explained away by full-time union officials to their members.

Glasgow City Council’s feeble explanations for this are too laughable to repeat here. Even Eddie Izzard, an English comedian who chose to make a celebrity intervention in the Springburn by-election might find difficulty with them.

But this latest debacle, which will be speedily ended by George Square if they can get away with it, is only the tip of a big iceberg floating unstoppably towards the golden brown marble staircases of the City Chambers, and may even cause some of those on the lower decks of this Titanic to stop singing Rule Brittannia and voting for the Unionist Nuclear WMD Labour Party in Scotland.

Who knows, even the trades union officials may be roused from their torpor and actually act in the interests of their members.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Scotland’s independence and the role of political parties

Counting today, there are 95 days to May 5th.

No time for irrelevancies, for digression, for sports celebrities - time to focus. A joyless dictum? Maybe, but in a world where the power of information may free subject peoples from decades of despotism but throw the Middle East - and therefore the world - into chaos, where the UK slides inexorably towards economic disaster while the rich and privileged feather their nests, and the Scottish people face perhaps the most decisive choice since the 1945 General Election, frivolity and self-indulgence must be postponed, in my view.

Here’s what Scotland is up against:-

the insidious return of inherited wealth, privilege and the values of a self-serving oligarchy to government, alien to 93% of the people

a return to elitism and selection based on money and influence in education masquerading as a move towards meritocracy

an attack on the living standards of the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society through the tax system, and by attacking their public services, their jobs and their incomes

a commitment towards perpetual war as the operating principle of the state, together with the generation of a state of paranoia about external threats, and total commitment to irrelevant weapons of nuclear mass destruction to the detriment of conventional defence forces, with the dominance of the ‘values’ of the military/industrial complex

a blatant attempt to dismantle the NHS in the name of reform with the hidden motive of profit for the friends of Government

an attack on the trades unions, perhaps the last bulwark against the attack on ordinary people, through attacks on their democratic procedures and balloting percentages, blatantly suggesting the application of majority voting levels that apply to no other democratic organisation.

an insidiously growing intent to erode the devolutionary settlement for Scotland, and an attack - masquerading as fairness - on the Scottish Government’s progressive social policies, through the use of highly selective and distorted benchmarks of comparison

a growing hostility to Europe and the European Union, combined with a slavish dependency on the imaginary special relationship with the United  States and a growing insularity as the ‘nation’ of the United Kingdom.

The cynical creation of new members of the House of Lords, essentially ennoblement as an anti-democratic act - the creation of voting fodder - at a time when a reduction in democratically elected MPs is being actively pursued.

A shameless network of influence and cronyism extending into anti-democratic press empires, inimical to the freedoms of the people, and almost above the rule of law

All of the above is actively or tacitly supported by the three opposition parties in the Scottish Parliament, supine adjuncts to their London and Westminster-based masters - Labour, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats - and their puppet ‘leaders’, Gray, Goldie and Scott. If any of these three establishment parties, singly or in coalition, gains power in Scotland until 2015, then the grip of the anti-democratic forces detailed above will be consolidated, and the levers of power will be held by people virtually immune to the force of democracy and the law.


What defines the SNP? What distinguishes them from the other large parties in Scotland and the UK?

A total commitment to achieving Scotland’s independence

An anti-nuclear stance that includes not only nuclear weapons and the policy of nuclear deterrence, but also nuclear power, the latter tempered - I hope - with realism about the present nuclear power capacity, and an open mind about the future of nuclear power developments.

A total commitment to Scotland in the European Union, but internationalist in instinct, as Scots have always been, at least until the Union.

A commitment to Scotland, undiluted by UK considerations, with no ambitions to pursue a political career outside of Scotland. (This is tempered by the unpalatable reality that, while Scotland remains within the UK, the SNP - and Scotland - must be represented at Westminster.)

A commitment to a true defence policy for Scotland (as opposed to international aggression masquerading as defence that characterises UK - and US - policy) with conventional - i.e. non-nuclear - forces

I endorse and support every one of these policies, and therefore the SNP is the only party with a realistic chance of power that I can vote for. I respect the ideals of the Greens, as I respect the ideals and practical action of the Scottish Socialist parties - in spite of their self-destructive factionalism - but I do not believe they will ever represent anything but a useful minority voice.

But within these principles, I must be realistic about the strengths and the limitations of political parties as a vehicle for achieving justice and equity in a democratic society.


I would love it if an ancient ideal of democracy could be practised, the concept of individuals, elected by their peers, clustering and re-clustering around issues, vigorously debating, forming temporary alliances on issues, and reaching consensus by civilised discussions.

In short, my ideal would be a Parliament of Margo Macdonalds and Dennis Canavans, and maybe Henry McLeishes and Partick Harvies, independent in thought if not yet independent of party. (I realise that for some people, that would be their worse nightmare made flesh.)

But it never existed, not even in ancient Athens, and faction and party have been the uncomfortable and often untidy reality of politics since democratic politics began. The choice remains the same, between dictatorship and democracy, however flawed - and that means political parties.

Nothing gets done without a party - or parties - that can form a Government. But governments and parties do not operate in a power vacuum - there are forces in society, some democratic, some not, that claim a right to influence in that society. They are multifarious, but I must confine my thrust to the ones that appear to me to be the most significant - the Churches, the Law, the Armed Forces, Big Business, the Press, the Trades Unions and, for lack of a better description, the power elite based on wealth, privilege and class - The Establishment.

Where does The Monarchy fit into this? Easily, if superficially answered - they are part of the power elite, at one and the same time manipulating it and being manipulated by it. It has ever been thus, as any reading of history will confirm.

Of these, only two make a claim to a higher ideal or concept than democracy - the Churches and the Law. (We can ignore the claims of the monarchy to hereditary, God-given rights: their natural ally in this claim is the Church). The rest, whatever their pretensions, are power elites that, while theoretically subject to democracy and the rule of law, will circumvent and covertly or even frontally attack both when their  interests are threatened. The Press in this context is best considered as Big Business, although ideals of freedom of information and the higher ideals of journalism and objective reporting regularly challenge this big business dominance.

For me, only the law must stand outside the control of democracy, and the difficulties and contradictions inherent in this vital distinction are beyond my limited abilities to analyse.

(The recent BBC Four programme on the UK Supreme Court, fascinating in its description of the undemocratic processes that result in the appointment of judges, exemplifies the problems of selection, of age, class and sex in this process, yet the concept of the independence of the judiciary has been central to civilisation since the emergence of society from tribalism. The first attack of dictatorship and totalitarianism is always on the independence of the judiciary.)

Scotland, with a population of some 5m people, has within it the same range of opinions and views as the rest of the United Kingdom, although I believe that these views have a very different distribution from England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Politically, we Scots are manifestly - and dramatically - different from the rest of the UK, as the 2010 general election demonstrated so powerfully.

We have the SNP, of course, but the Labour vote was the most egregious evidence of the existence of two nations, politically speaking. I can only speculate at the reasons for this disparity, as indeed can anyone, without the benefit of a complex, focused demographic analysis, and there isn’t one to my knowledge, although the pundits, the pollsters and the politicians will claim to know the truth.

As someone who spent well over six decades of his life in Scotland (a total of ten years in England) and was for most of that a Labour voter and supporter, I think I have some idea of the reasons, but I am highly aware that age is not a guarantor of wisdom, nor of accurate perceptions of the mindsets of the two generations other than mine that constitute the Scottish electorate.

But here goes

The Labour Party was born in Scotland, and in its early decades was the only recourse for the poor other than the churches, who were riven by their own ancient feuds. It is easily forgotten that, for example, about the only thing that kept Catholics and Protestants from waging religious, and to some extent, ethnic wars against each other in the late nineteenth and early decades of the 20th century was a common membership of the Labour Party.  I grew up in the later manifestations of this climate, a child of a poor family of Irish extraction in the east end of Glasgow, living in extreme poverty in a slum, with little in the way of social policy support services - no NHS, no welfare state - and with institutional bias affecting every aspect of life, including employment, education and policing - and football.

The only thing apart from intellect and popular culture that bridged this religious gap, and the ghetto mentality it bred, was the Labour Party. Involvement with the Party, its ideas - its concepts of egalitarianism and internationalism and the brotherhood of man - was the only real unifying influence. Of course, corruption and graft, ambition and elitism were present in the party then, but they were not endemic as they are today. The Tories were the class enemy, the SNP were quaint characters in kilts, and the Liberals were an irrelevance.

As a child, I had adult relatives and friends who pre-dated the Labour Party, who were articulate, and possessed a burning personal knowledge of injustice. Some of them had experienced Red Clydeside and the revolution that never was around the  time of the General Strike. They remembered the tanks in George Square, and they had a visceral hatred of Churchill, and nothing he did in the Second World War made any difference to that memory and that hatred. (They also remembered Gallipoli.)

To highlight the difference, the following link is to a piece by a man loosely of that generation (born 1906) who viewed Churchill as a hero. He is an Englishman and probably accurately reflects the views of most English Tories, and a lot of Labour people as well, as Brown and Blair made clear.

A personal memoir of Churchill and the general strike

While few Scottish Labour supporters today remember such history, they do remember the Churchill of the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher, her destruction of Scotland’s industrial base, the poll tax and Maggie’s little war, the Falklands conflict. (That, however, is bound up with their respect for the Scottish service personnel involved in the conflict, reflecting the split mind many Scots have about Scottish soldiers, even when they are used as the instruments of imperialism and in unjust wars, a dichotomy sedulously exploited by the UK Establishment.)

These memories, covering a century or more, are passed through generations of ordinary Scots, especially in Labour’s industrial heartlands, and have resulted in almost a conditioned reflex to vote Labour, a muting of criticism of the party, almost a denial of reality in the face of feelings of instinctive loyalty, and the conviction that to vote for a party other than Labour is a betrayal of class and family. This syndrome is rather like religious belief rooted in a specific church, which however corrupt in reality, is perceived through a fog of ancient idealism and lost values.

But there are other factors at work, mainly those relating to long indoctrination of Establishment values, values that inculcate servility and  deference, exploit feelings of hopelessness and dependency, lack of self-belief, and foster contempt for the essence of their true Scottish history, culture and language, substituting a sentimentalised, tartanised, Sir Walter Scott version, and exalt sport and celebrity television icons  to the status of a surrogate belief system.

The above factors, in combination, have permitted Labour to successfully airbrush out the contemptible record of the last 13 wasted years, the greed, venality, corruption and lethal ambition of the Party’s ruling elite, and the supine co-operation of the party rank and file.

As for the Tories and the Liberal Democrats - well, as parties they have become an irrelevance, but the views of Scots who hold conservative and liberal democratic values and ideals are not irrelevant, representing as they do a substantial strand of thought and belief in Scotland. The ultimate irony is perhaps that conservative and liberal democratic views exists within Labour’s traditional support and indeed within the Scottish National Party, and it must be said, even extreme views at both ends of the Left/Right spectrum of political belief, including revolutionary totalitarianism and neo-fascism, with a latent racial and religious bias.


I am a Johnny-come-lately to the politics of independence, and those for whom it has always been a self-evident proposition - a no-brainer - have my admiration for their clarity of vision and, in many cases, decades of work and support for the party and the cause.

But to achieve the tipping point in popular support for independence, not just for an SNP government within a devolved Scotland, it is necessary to achieve a quantum shift in attitudes and values among people like me as I was before 2007.

First, to the immediate and pressing need to get re-elected on May 5th.

The SNP won an historic victory in 2007 significantly because of their vision, their passion and emotional appeal. There were of course other factors, notably Iraq and the manifest failure of Labour to deliver the promise of 1997.

The SNP today seems to me to have lost that vital spark under the appalling pressure of governing in the most challenging economic times the UK has experienced since the 1930s.

Worse, they are beginning to display the kind of timidity and wish to be all things to all men and women that drains the life from political parties close to the end of a term. They have ceased to be a great freedom movement and are slipping towards a reliance on the undoubtedly vital traditional campaigning skills at the expense of the essential spirit of the party.

This is accompanied by a reluctance to make bold statements, to drive their standard into the ground and take stands on great issues. Now, I am not close to the centres of party campaign strategy or policy - I can only judge as a voter with a keen interest based on what I see and hear. It is entirely possible that a great, explosive, dynamic campaign strategy is being held in reserve for exactly the right moment - but 95 days before the election?

The only thing that may save them is the total and utter absence of any coherent strategy or vision from Labour, a party whose negativism and expediency are now almost complete under Iain Gray and Ed Miliband. (The Tories are irrelevant, and the LibDems close to extinction as a political force.)

The SNP’s social media strategy seems to be predicated on the very strategies that failed Gordon Brown and David Cameron - that of attempting to establish a niche in celebrity culture - with the X-Factor and Strictly being sedulously tweeted on while the world burns, the economy crashes and the NHS faces brutal demolition.

The voters are supposed to say - these politicians are just like me, instead of  - these are people I trust to grapple with the forces that threaten my hopes and dreams and my family.

I think false lessons have been drawn by some from Alex Salmond’s undoubted charisma and popularity, something natural and not crafted, the product of a real personality rather than a PR and media construct.

But it is by no means too late to rectify these shortcomings, if my analysis is correct and there is no master plan waiting to burst out of Party HQ.

The bravura performances of First Minister at FMQs in Holyrood are seen by a tiny percentage of the Scottish electorate. If they were, things would be very different, but the Party has taken no imaginative steps - and there are many they could have taken - to ensure that they are.

The Party’s website, to put the criticism at its lowest level, is not representative of the best in web design. It is probably too late to rectify that before the election. The traditional branch structure, the bedrock of party, is not responsive enough to the times. In this, it is almost certainly no worse than any other political party, but that is little consolation from a party that aspire to radical political change.

The approach to the trades unions, intimately woven into Labour Party power structures and finances, appears to lack imagination, indeed among those to whom I have spoken about it, there is a kind of fatal defeatism about the potential for change, yet there has rarely been a better point in UK history to approach this imaginatively.

There will undoubtedly be those who will say that  I have no right and indeed no competence to make such criticisms, especially at this time. I respect that view. I did think long and hard about these factors, but time is not on my side, nor is it on the Party’s side.

Be bold and be outspoken, SNP - it’s now or never, as Elvis once said …

Monday, 23 August 2010

Could I return to the Labour Party?

I am a former Labour voter and supporter, with  fifty years of voting Labour now behind me. The watershed was Iraq, and after several years of doubt about New Labour and the Blair Gang, I shifted my allegiance and my vote and joined the SNP as a party member.

As a converted sinner, that may make some long-term faithful party members uneasy that I might shift my allegiance back to Labour. Some of my blogs where I have discussed the need to convince loyal Labour supporters who are nonetheless in favour of Scotland’s independence that a vote for independence is not necessarily a vote for an SNP government – a very real aspect of the need to persuade Scots of other political persuasion to vote for independence in a referendum – have perhaps added to that unease.

So let me make my position clear. My primary objectives are now to achieve an independent Scotland and a nuclear-free Scotland, and nothing will now ever change those objectives. I currently see the SNP as the best political party for achieving these objectives, indeed the only party.

What circumstances could make me return to Labour?

1. The abandonment by the SNP of a firm commitment to independence and a nuclear-free Scotland. I have no inherent objection to gradualism in the strategy for achieving independence, since I don’t want the Party to get it wrong in a premature referendum, and effectively remove independence from the table for a generation. (I don’t have a generation left to me!)

2. That the Labour Party in Scotland severed its link to the UK party and committed to independence and a nuclear-free Scotland. (I would hope that the trades unions would do likewise.)

Since both these criteria are as likely to be met as Alex Salmond being made Lord Salmond of Lithgae, there is little danger of apostasy.