Thursday, July 24, 2014

The pointlessness of the Labour Party

I am looking at the question of whether it is a good idea to base a political party on the labour/trades union movement at all. This is not having a go at trade unions, which exist to serve their members' interests, and have as much right to do so as anyone has, whether or not it serves the common good - though it often will.

Trade unions exist to win a better and/or fairer deal for their members. Fairer deals must be a good thing, and unions which achieve this are therefore supporting the common good, providing they don't cause disproportionate damage to the industry they rely on in the process.

Can a better deal be unfair? Not if we always juxtapose ourselves with the idle rich, but perhaps if we compare ourselves to the other workers who will be paying for our better deal through prices or taxes. It is of course very difficult to work out what a fair pay and conditions package for everyone in the country would look like, and we are each left to make our case as best we can, which usually means comparison with the idle rich.

There's a wealth of research and debate over the falling labour share of income (and rising capital share), and the possible reasons for this, including the loss of collective bargaining power. Whatever the reasons for the overall trends are, it is clear that future investment relies on the expectation of future profits, so companies and industry sectors where collective bargaining has won a better deal for labour at the expense of capital in the short term, are bound to stagnate and fail in the long term, to the cost of those same workers and their children. And indeed this has happened - industries dominated by the unions in the 1970s have largely collapsed, and unionisation has become largely a public sector phenomenon.

On the other hand if a better deal can be won at the expense not of profits but of prices or taxes then the question becomes whether the worker is more deserving than the average customer or average taxpayer. And they may well be, but this is fighting over share of the pie with other workers.

So, when you try to unite workers in general, as represented by trade unions, into a political cause, what was an expression of legitimate self-interest, that may often serve the common good, becomes a purely destructive battle over share of the pie, either between workers in the present, or at the expense of investment and jobs in the future. In practise, many workers are left out of the "labour" movement, and they could not possibly be accommodated because the share of the pie demanded by the movement has to come from somewhere. Large numbers of working people recognise this and don't vote Labour, which is why the Labour party isn't on 90%+ in the polls.

With the union movement dominated by the public sector, what this often means is demands for higher taxes to support public sector workers, at the expense of workers in the private sector, many of whom may be more deserving. Yes, obviously public sector workers pay taxes too, and provide important services, but this is still the net effect. And this is aside from any debate over whether taxes should rise because the extra public services are worth it. I am likely to be told that I shouldn't pit public and private sector workers against each other. I'm not. I'm just pointing out that this is what the labour movement is doing.

Now of course it is possible to devise policies that serve the common good, that bring about a fairer society and a stronger economy, and seek to win elections to get them implemented. But there is nothing special in this about the role of a trade union; about the emphasis on the interests of one narrow group or another. And aggregating the interests of all unionised workers or even all workers as workers loses sight of the common good in the process for the reasons I've given. All parties should listen to the views of the unions, but none should be dominated by them.

The argument goes that someone has to stand up against the interests of capital which is the cause of most of society's ills. Where trade unions have gone beyond the direct interests of their members in seeking to influence politics, they have typically demanded a very left-wing position against the better judgement of the bulk of their own members as expressed at the ballot box.

Frankly, workers can outvote capitalists by a factor of probably more than a hundred to one; the idea that the large majority of the enfranchised population exists in a state of victimhood at the hands of capital would be pretty ludicrous even if socialism hadn't lost the intellectual argument.

The attitude that the union bosses know best, that their members should be co-opted into a left-of-Labour position whether they agree with it or not, is not healthy for democracy. A Labour party that is defined by this attitude is dangerous. 

To be fair, these days, Labour only flirts with the self-destrcutivism of socialism and the left, but that still somehow defines it, alongside this clumsy aggregation of unseemly narrow self-interests. Why not build your party of choice on something a little more wholesome? Like values.


Sheila Oliver said...

Pot - kettle

Sheila Oliver said...

Pot, kettle

Tom Papworth said...

That “Fairer deals must be a good thing” is tautologies. However, the unions exist to win a better, not necessarily a fairer, deal for their members. In most cases this is at the expense of others; furthermore, while the unions claim this is at the expense of bosses, it is more likely at the expense of consumers, other workers and the unemployed.

It is in fact not “difficult to work out what a fair pay and conditions package for everyone in the country would look like”. It is impossible. Such a pattern does not exist, and if it did exist at any point in time it would be subject to such constant flux and change that it would be impossible to capture (a bit like an “economic Heisenberg principle”).

You are nonetheless right when you point out that workers do not have a common interest, and to the extent that they do it is at the expense of others so that the interests of “the labour movement” cannot be aligned with that of society as a whole. That “the interests of capital … is the cause of most of society's ills” is Marxian nonsense: it is capital that has improved labour productivity and so real wages.

Finally, “whether it is a good idea to base a political party on the labour/trades union movement … which exist to serve their members' interests” can be clarified if you consider an alternative scenario. Imagine a political party that was based on a movement of trades associations, which exist to serve the interests of their members in various business sectors. It would be obviously a tool for promoting special interests and would be treated accordingly. Perhaps the same attitude should be directed at Labour.