The Eighties are back. As Gene Hunt hits our TV screens for one last hurrah in the final series of Ashes to Ashes, so Britain’s trades unions are on the warpath. As British Airways cabin staff began a series of walkouts over changes to their working conditions, railway signallers announced their plans to heap misery on the travelling public with a national strike. Meanwhile, teaching unions threatened industrial action if parents and voluntary organisations were given more of a say in how schools were run.
In the trade union movement, old habits die hard. In 1979 a Labour government, trailing the Conservatives in the polls, was held to ransom by the unions which were bankrolling it. The then villain of the piece, Arthur Scargill, commented that the unions “are entitled by virtue of their sponsorship to tell their MPs which way to vote”. Of course 2010 is hardly 1979, but the parallels are hard to ignore. Just as in 1979 the trade union movement was the primary donor to the Labour Party, so it is today. The Unite super-union donated no less than £11 million to the Labour Party last year. And just as Scargill thought his National Union of Mineworkers could call the shots thirty-years ago, so Unite do today. The influence they wield is staggering: a total of 148 Labour candidates at this election are sponsored by Unite, among them thirteen cabinet ministers. As Labour’s former General-Secretary Peter Watt said, “it is absolutely fair to describe the Labour Party as the political wing of Unite. It influences Labour more than any other organisation.”
This would all matter somewhat less if it wasn’t for how the unions are using their influence. On reform of the public sector, they remain bitterly opposed to attempts to transfer power from Whitehall to the public. When John Prescott memorably said “If you set up a school and it becomes a good school, the great danger is that everyone wants to go there”, he was echoing a philosophy shared by the Labour Party and the unions – that individual choice is bad, and government control good. In healthcare, Labour and the Unison trade union bitterly opposed allowing NHS cancer patients to buy drugs that the government wouldn’t fund: cancer sufferers were threatened with having their NHS funding withdrawn if, in addition to their publicly-funded treatment, they paid for potentially life-saving drugs themselves. The argument of Labour and the unions was that to allow such a practice might “create a two-tier health service”. Silly me, I thought the NHS was there to treat patients, not serve the needs of state planners and ideologues.
Labour may have mocked David Cameron as a Gene Hunt figure, intent on taking Britain back to the 1980s, but it is the Labour Party who are in the pocket of the most reactionary force in British politics. They must think it’s still the 1980s.