Sunday, 16 March 2014

The bankers and the unions

Bob Crow died this week - the union leader described by Paxman as a 'dinosaur'. 

As did old Labour grandee Tony Benn:

Crow the hardline socialist out of time, Benn the real deal from the sixties and seventies. It struck me that the unions fell out of favour, leaving Crow an outlier, because they were allowed to be too good at their job - that is, protecting the interests of their members at all costs. In 70s Britain, the interests of the unions and their members came to dominate the wider interests of Britain.

This is all simplistic stuff, I realize. But it illustrates an interesting point: that to acknowledge the social value of certain groups - special interest groups, for instance - is to acknowledge also that these groups must be kept in check if they are to be of value to society. Unions exist only to protect their members' interests, hell for leather - this is necessary and worthwhile, but as society consists of more than just union members, their power must be held in balance with society's other competing group interests.

If I'd read Hobbes, I'd probably say this is a Hobbesian view. Anyway, maybe we could say that one way the UK came unstuck in the 70s was by losing this balance - which was itself due to an overly close relationship between the interests of unions on the one hand and, on the other, the Labour governments who should have kept them in check.

Interestingly, in this way the unions are exactly like the group Bob Crow detested - bankers. 

They too have a single-minded self-interest - make as much money as possible - which our society can only live with if is curtailed and kept in check (in much the same way, you can only keep a rottweiler in your house if you cut its nuts off first). We came unstuck when - from Thatcher through to Brown - this balance was lost.


  1. All things in moderation... Despite my hedonistic bent, this is probably a better way for things to work. Is there also something about the balance of power that needs to be accounted for here? Unions come about because traditionally, employers have power over their wages/hours/working and living conditions. Whereas bankers wield power over all of us with the control they have over the financial world. So in this sense maybe they are not so similar??

    And perhaps unions have lessened in influence as the workplace has become more of a place of equals (or so we are led to believe). There's not such a stark or obvious social divide between employers and employees, at least not in white-collar occupations. I can't imagine my colleagues seizing the means of production by unplugging all the computers and starting up a picket line on the ring road... maybe because we can see ourselves being the bosses one day?

    1. Yes, I sort of agree - unions need to exist because democratic politics, in the UK at least, evolved as a means of representing middle-class interests. And as middle-class people who inevitably have middle-class interests to some extent still dominate politics, there is a need to make sure working-class interests are represented.

      That said, the power that unions have (or had, maybe) is no minor counter-balance or sop - a general strike could damage us as much as anything the bankers could wreak, though I'm not even sure if a general strike would be possible any more.

      A major difference is that, while we could all guess which way most bankers probably vote, they don't act as a single political whole whereas the unions do. Which is good and bad - the unions are held to the higher ethical standards of politics (whereas bankers just enrich themselves willy-nilly) but they are also thereby provided with guaranteed political cover for their own self-enrichment ('we Tube drivers aren't on the make, we're protecting the rights of the working man' etc.).

      Anyway, thing I was more interested in was the conundrum - how can I have the unqualified, absolute belief that unions are necessary for the good of society, if I believe in them strictly as a complementary and not an unqualified good? i.e. my view that we need a plurality of opposites holding each other in check might be valid, but it's not a politically realistic view given that it would entail holding (in political terms) contradictory views: 'I believe in the protection of union's interests; I believe that the union's need to be opposed.'

      In other words, we've always got to trust to luck that our society will of its own accord strike a balance between its competing forces, because the balance can't be held by any individual political actor(s) acting as overseers and maintaining the balance. An ambivalent, equally two-sided decision made by some political umpire or judge couldn't be plausible because to come to a political decision is to be adversarial / hold conviction etc.

      In which case, disasters like out-of-control unions and bankers are an inevitable danger.

  2. Well, I guess it's worth pointing out that union "barons" are elected, whereas business "leaders" aren't; and when "the balance was lost" in 2008, the City got bailed out, which is hardly "cutting the nuts off" the Rottweiler (compare to the kicking the unions got after the 1970s). Some special interest groups are more special than others?

    1. Seems a fair summary to me. We don't yet know if the banks will suffer any truly punitive regulation, but seeing as they haven't yet it seems likely they won't. That said, I sympathize with any politician who fears kissing goodbye to the enormous tax revenue, and spending opportunities, generated by the city - and I can at least understand the sense of patriotism, maybe vanity, that makes a 21st-century PM reluctant to risk killing off one of the UK's few world-beating assets (i.e. world financial centre). It's got to be tough.