Trade Unions and the SNP
A session at Saturday’s RIC conference will consider the future development of the Scottish National Party. In this article I try to tease out some of the issues, if not the answers, to one dimension of this development, the relationship of the SNP to the Scottish Trade Union movement.
Like the SNP itself, that relationship has developed over the years. I recall, back in the nineties, Alex Salmond visiting a Congress held in Dundee. As one of the few SNP members who was also a Congress delegate I had arranged to meet him with a few others on the steps of the Caird Hall.
Such was the anti SNP tribalism within Congress at the time, the steward on the door, a retired trade union activist from Dundee Trade Union Council, actually tried to bar him from entering as he did not have a visitors pass. For some the STUC was Labour and Labour was the STUC.
Less than a decade later things had sort of moved on. Congress was in Edinburgh and the Scottish Parliamentary election was looming, with the Secretariat of the STUC waiting to officially greet the Leader of the SNP.
Notwithstanding, again as a delegate on the inside, I felt it necessary to forewarn someone on Salmond’s staff that trade unionists from Faslane were waiting to “greet” him also. Needless to so Salmond relished the prospect and the resulting televisual media scrum was everything and more that the SNP press office could have dreamed for.
At the 2014 Congress Salmond of course handled a searching Q and A session in front of Congress better, according to some Labour colleagues, than Joanne Lamont handled hers.
Since September the SNP Trade Union Group has grown from a few hundred members to over 12,000. Anecdotally ( the IT membership data dust has still to settle) we already know that trade unionists of every level of activity and none have joined the SNP TUG since September, from full time officers and officials, to individuals joining the TUG because they thought it is actually a trade union.
This new SNP Trade Union Group will face many challenges, organisationally,to be sure and no doubt politically.
The most obvious challenge will be to answer the question that the SNP has itself put to Labour trade unionists for decades. What comes first, the party or the union?
Part of the answer will be in the attitude the SNP takes to party political funding of trade unions. Some in the SNP in recent years, mistakenly in my view, argued for developing some sort of financial link between some unions and the SNP.
Labour trade union activists of course welcomed this development, confident that such measures were highly unlikely to pass at UK conference level but secure in the knowledge that the same SNP activists in their union had accepted the principle of institutional trade union funding of political parties.
That such a naive notion won overwhelming support only a few years ago at an SNP conference show how little strategic thinking the SNP as a party, (as a government it is quite different) had done in relation to its relationship with the trade unions. The same cannot be said about the thinking overtaken by some unions and their relationship to the SNP.
By no means all unions are affiliated to the Labour Party, indeed the loosening of Labour -union ties with some unions over the fairly recent past has masked this fact.
For instance my union, the EIS, Scotland’s largest and the world’s oldest teacher’s trade union, has never been affiliated to any party, indeed the Institute only affiliated to the STUC in the nineteen seventies. At the time, I am told, it was dominated by Labour Party members some of whom wished to affiliate to Labour. However in typically open debate the Institute decided to remain politically independent.
It did of course, during the eighties, establish a non-party political, political fund, another area of misunderstanding even amongst many union members.
The impact of the referendum on the trade union movement is as significant as the impact on other parts of civic Scotland. In terms of ordinary trade unionists the landscape has been reconfigured. In terms of the unions institutionally the impact will take longer to have an effect and the timescale of change will vary from union to union.
Again many misunderstand the culture of Scottish trade unionism. Scottish union culture is multifaceted, each union has its own often unique organization and culture. Some, like the EIS are activists led (at least 9 of my fellow National Executive members voted yes along with me who was at the time, but not now, the only SNP member out of a total of 23).
At the other end of the scale we have USDAW, the shop workers union, which is dominated by its officials. To some extent this is organsationally unavoidable given the industry it organises in USDAW has a membership churn, I believe, of around 200,000 members per year. Developing an activist base in such circumstances presents huge challenges. Inevitably USDAW it has an intimate, if not the highest profile, relationship with the Labour Party. I myself though find it difficult to believe that Jim Murphy had a former career in retail distribution.
However USDAW’s intervention in the independence referendum was politically unfortunate to say the least and potentially damaging from an organizational perspective, if the rumors of a 20% membership drop in response to their “Vote No if not voting at all” leaflet to members is anywhere true.
For some time to come it is almost inevitable that speculation about the development of the SNP’s relationship with the Scottish trade union movement will be viewed through a prism constructed in large part from the experience of the Labour Party’s relationship with the union movement.
Could it be that some elements of the non SNP left’s perception of the SNP rests as much on the pre-packed baggage of their parent’s disappointment and growing cynicism about Labour in the eighties and nineties, as with Salmond’s occasional photo call with the not so great and not so good?
Will the influx of huge chunks of the “45” change the SNP? In my view that and the advent of the Sturgeon leadership suggest that it will. After all the Holyrood bubble had Keith Brown as a shoo in for Deputy Leader and the Holyrood bubble was, simply wrong.