From the TUC

Can an exercise of will effect political change?

12 Jun 2015, By

Apologies, but it’s been very hot and muggy all day, and I find that makes me less active and more thoughtful. So it was a good time to read this blog by Kemal Dervis, former economics minister in Turkey, ex-head of the UN Development Program and one-time World Bank Vice President. It suggests a way to make society fairer in an era of globalisation; growing inequality of wealth and skills; and declining union influence.

He does maintain that “unions will still be needed to defend their members’ interests” (thanks!) but proposes that inequality should be overcome primarily by fiscal transfers from rich to poor – basically, redistribution, but in new clothes whose novelty might make them more marketable than the traditional forms. He writes pessimistically that:

“the fragmentation of production (whether in goods or services), together with intensifying fiscal pressures, militates against these [centre left] parties’ traditional reliance on collective bargaining to create systems and policies that insure citizens against shocks and misfortune.”

And it’s the last part what worries me. Because if collective bargaining isn’t around to transfer wealth from the employer to the worker, I really rather doubt that political parties will be able to transfer wealth from rich to poor, either.

Traditionally, the equation works like this. Trade unions are created by workers – often one workplace or enterprise at a time – to bargain collectively for a higher proportion of the wealth their labour creates than their employer or market forces would otherwise provide. The process of collective bargaining creates powerful and well-resourced institutions outside the firm (what we traditionally think of as trade unions rather than staff associations!), and gives working people a sense of their own power to influence their own lives and, therefore, the lives of others in their community. Those communities can be quite broadly described – from a local village to ‘workers of the world’.

Those trade unions, and the sense that economic rules (for instance wages being determined solely by supply and demand) can be manipulated, create the potential for progressive parties to win elections, form governments and implement transformative economic policies – such as redistribution. Without those unions and the sense of power which their success instils, I’m not sure how Kemal Dervis thinks politicians will be able to secure and defend the democratic mandates to effect the changes he proposes.

Except by the sheer exercise of political will.