From the Morning Star, January 28th
After a conciliatory promise to keep anti-strike laws but strengthen union recognition, Blair backtracked â€” and many accused him of colluding with big business. New evidence shows that indeed he was, reveals Solomon Hughes
Newly released papers from the New Labour government elected in 1997 show how Tony Blair sold out the unions on the key issue of recognition, overruling his own ministers to side with the CBI in a move that stopped a key reform dead.
Labourâ€™s 1997 manifesto said â€śthe key elements of the trade union legislation of the 1980s will stay â€” on ballots, picketing and industrial action,â€ť so Thatcherâ€™s anti-union laws would stay â€” but he also promised that â€śpeople should be free to join or not to join a union. Where they do decide to join and where a majority of the relevant workforce vote in a ballot for the union to represent them, the union should be recognised.â€ť
New Labour offered the unions a compromise: continued restrictions on strikes, but a big prize in legally enforceable union recognition, which would have been a game changer.
But when the new Fairness at Work proposals emerged in 1998, the Labour government said unions had to do more than win a majority in a ballot. They had to win at least 40 per cent of the entire workforce, whether they voted or not.
This killed the proposal stone dead. No political party could become a government if it had to win 40 per cent of the entire electorate rather than a majority of actual voters. Blair himself won his 1997 â€ślandslide electionâ€ť with a result of 43 per cent, but even with the high voter turnout of 71 per cent, this only translates to 31 per cent of the entire electorate.
Everybody â€” employers, the press, Labour members and unions â€” thought the manifesto promise meant winning a ballot, not the unachievable 40 per cent of the entire workforce.
The National Archives released Cabinet Office files covering the first years of Blairâ€™s government on New Yearâ€™s Eve 2021. The â€śmeetings with unionsâ€ť file details the sellout.
On March 27 1998 a Number 10 adviser wrote a note to Blair recording a meeting between the â€śminister without portfolioâ€ť Peter Mandelson and TUC president John Edmonds which he â€śsat in on.â€ť
The note tells Blair, â€śMuch of the conversation was taken up by Johnâ€™s recital of how there had been collusion between people around you and the CBI to undermine the manifesto commitment on union recognition. He claimed the unions had been completely unaware that the words in the manifesto could mean anything other than how they are now interpreted by the TUC.â€ť
There is plenty of evidence of Blair colluding with the CBI in the files. They also show he overruled his own ministers to push through the CBIâ€™s anti-union plan. In particular he overruled Margaret Beckett, the Cabinet minister supposedly in charge of employment rules.
An April 16 1998 letter from Blairâ€™s home affairs secretary Andrew Lapsley says, â€śThe prime minister called the president this afternoon to talk about union recognitionâ€ť â€” meaning Beckett, who was president of the board of trade â€” the old-fashioned name for business secretary.
Beckett was the Cabinet minister in charge of union recognition. According to the letter, â€śThe president [Beckett] said that she had two reservations about 40 per cent. First, it was objectively just too high to be practical. Secondly, it was the same level which at which the threshold had been set for the unsuccessful referendum on Scottish devolution in 1979. This sent a very discouraging signal.â€ť
Beckett wrote a paper recommending a lower threshold but, â€śthe prime minister said that he had looked at the paper,â€ť and, â€śhaving considered it further did not believe that the government should move from a position of 40 per cent of the workforce of a company supporting recognition in a ballot.â€ť
Beckett tried to persuade the prime minister: â€śUnion recognition remained the touchstone issue,â€ť she wrote, arguing that inevitably â€śinitially employers were not going to like itâ€ť but they would get used to it. Blair was firm, saying he â€śfelt that 40 per cent was still as far as the CBI could go now, or that he could present to the public and the media.â€ť
A May 12th 1998 note says another minister tried persuading Blair: Scottish secretary Donald Dewar phoned Blair on â€śunion recognitionâ€ť to â€śwarn himâ€ť on problems with the 40 per cent threshold. Dewar said he â€śwould rather not be in the position of defending 40 per centâ€ť and â€śfeelings were running high on the back benches on this issue.â€ť
Dewar backed Beckettâ€™s point, saying, â€śSuggestions the government had plumped for a 40 per cent threshold for union recognition were causing a major stir in Scotland with both the unions and the SNP strongly opposed. The 40 per cent figure had difficult connotations in Scotland because it was on this hurdle that the 1979 devolution referendum had failedâ€ť â€” in Scotland the feeling that 40 per cent of the total electorate was a cheat was well established. According to the note, â€śThe prime minister reacted robustly,â€ť saying, â€śit was crucial that the government did not alienate business support.â€ť
The files show that, as the TUC claimed, Blair was colluding with the CBI. For example a Note for the Record marked â€śrestricted â€” personalâ€ť records how â€śthe prime minister spoke to Adair Turner [head of CBI] on the telephone last nightâ€ť about â€śtrade union recognitionâ€ť written by then policy secretary Jeremy Heywood.
Heywood says, â€śthe prime minister said that he wanted to tell Adair â€” completely off the record â€” where the government now was,â€ť telling Turner â€ś40 per cent of the workforceâ€ť was the â€śrequired ballot majority.â€ť Blair added, â€śhe knew the trade unions would be disappointed by the outcomes,â€ť but that it was â€śimportant that the CBI was supportive.â€ť
The New Labour government did bring in new workersâ€™ rights reforms â€” including the minimum wage â€” but they tended to be individual rights. Union recognition would have been a collective right and a game-changer, a real shift in power. Increased union membership would have also created a more solid voting base for future Labour governments, instead of the stagnating union membership and the alienation of working class votes for Labour we saw in the 2000s.
In the 1930s Rooseveltâ€™s New Deal government in the US introduced the kind of majority-vote union-recognition rules that Blair promised then undermined. It genuinely changed US society and created a new grassroots force for progressive reform across the board. Blair rejected this for an ultimately short-lived and shallow friendship with the CBI.