Saturday, 14 May 2011

Unions and the union

The need for change while avoiding the danger of over-reaction to the seismic shift in party control in the Scottish Parliament was well recognised by UNISON’s Scottish Committee meeting in Glasgow on Tuesday.
Given the unions were the only voices really promoting a ‘better way’ than cuts in jobs and services, it wasn’t hard to focus on ‘business as usual’ in maintaining that campaign irrespective of who was in power. We’d have had to do it even if Labour had won.

But that didn’t mean there was no room for change. How we organise, how we recruit and how we engage activists – not least Scottish Committee members – in leading forward policies and action, were all part of the discussions.

UNISON Scottish Organiser Dave Watson helpfully outlined some of the post-election implications of SNP policies (see ) including the dire future for local government with huge ‘efficiency’ savings and no extra revenue (council tax freeze), the latter in itself leading to 3,300 job losses.

He quoted the Centre for Public Policy for Regions' prediction in a theme raised in UNISONActive’s immediate analysis of the election result:
“At present it looks like whoever forms the next Scottish Government will be passing on much of the accountability and responsibility for making these decisions to other bodies. This would appear to be in the hope that, by avoiding taking the lead in such unpleasant deeds, national politicians will also avoid taking the blame.”

That’s one tactic. The other will be – rightly in this case – to put the blame on the ConDems at Whitehall. But a majority government will find it hard to pass the buck on everything, especially when local council elections approach and SNP councillors start to get a bit squeaky in their seats.

Obviously we must engage proactively with the new government. We’ve plenty experience of that. But we will need to approach that from a new perspective.

Health activists have been largely positive about how the SNP dealt with the NHS. Cuts there were, but there was also a no compulsory redundancy pledge and a ‘living wage’ implemented.

Aside from the devastating cuts and wild privatisation plans of SNP/coalition councils, even Local Government activists had something to take from the engagement with ministers, especially on social work issues.

But these were in the context of a minority government. One that needed support from many quarters to get things through. One that could ditch things it had promised but couldn’t (or hadn’t intended) to deliver, and blame it on the opposition.

Now there is an absolute majority, what changes will we see in policy and approach? Will they be still as keen to engage?

One policy is clear enough. A referendum on independence. As a union we need a ‘Plan B’ for that and for the possibility of an independent Scotland.

In Breaking up Britain: Four nations after a Union  Gregor Gall debates how unions are placed to organise across new national boundaries.

“Dealing with employers which operate north and south of the border of an independent Scotland will require unity in collective action between different unions and amongst different workers”. But it wouldn't have to be in different English and Scottish unions, he adds.

Since the great part of UNISON members’ pay and conditions in Scotland are now negotiated at Scottish level and influenced by Holyrood spending decisions (albeit within the overall Westminster allocation), UNISON has already much of the infrastructure and experience to manage the situation.

The union in Scotland already has to manage a separate and much different government, legal and media system. We still have to ‘tartanise’ some ‘national’ UNISON publications to make them relevant, but progress has been made nationally on understanding the devolution agenda, perhaps without full recognition in terms of devolved power and resources.

The union in Scotland has remained strongly committed to a united UK union – not a federation - and playing its full part in that. If independence is possibly what the future holds, then it is time now to start addressing how we maintain that unity across borders.

In fact, it’s time to be looking how we can build on the existing work across borders beyond these islands. Because the future is unlikely to be just about Scottish and English authorities and employers. Indeed, it is not just about that now. Outsourcing, privatisation, partnerships and so on have UK and global employers. We need the organisation to address that.

On the broader political front, Gall also examines the varying approaches and flirtations of left parties with devolution and independence. He argues that the SSP found success in 2003 through showing that a popular and ‘more militant fusion of traditional left radicalism and national identity’ was possible. He also acknowledges that the SNP has managed to marry a neo-liberal economic base to some socially progressive policies along with that national identity.

An interesting debate because the way Scotland has voted in general elections since the 1950s (when Tories had 50% of the vote, sliding to 16% last year and just one seat) suggests a general move to a more or less pro public service community-oriented consensus. It is by no means universally radical with big differences between the central belt and elsewhere.

But more than that, since the Thatcher years, Scotland has merged that left-leaning spectrum of views with a national identity that is probably more anti-Westminster than pro anything. If that is the case, with the bogie out of the way, there is no guarantee that an independent Scotland will necessarily bring progressive governments.

What is certain is that Labour in England would struggle for a majority without Scotland voting Labour en masse. But even without independence that vote is at risk unless we organise within Labour to create a real alternative. Many hope that the previous pattern of voters returning to Labour at a general election will be repeated but there is no guarantee. The messages are clear that the UK party machine struggles to understand the Scottish context.

Chris Bartter’s ‘Grumping with the Captain’ blog has an interesting take on what happened at the Scottish election.
“The Scottish electorate is now very sophisticated. They know how to vote tactically to deliver their message. This time the message has been primarily aimed at the LibDems (and also at Labour), last year it was aimed at the Tories. Who is next in the firing line?”

In many ways, the rise of the SSP to 2003 was a protest at Labour. Its electoral fall was much to do with internecine warfare but also to do with the electorate choosing a different alternative - the SNP - to Labour’s inability to connect and the LibDems’ fall from credibility.

If that is what it is really about, then the referendum when it comes may still only get the 30% of votes that the polls say back independence.

But with few predictions last week suggesting an overall SNP majority, it would be best to be prepared.

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