A secret weapon to help UK plc embrace change? It’s called a union

More trade union membership will boost the British economy, says the IPPR. Yet unions themselves also need to change

If a report last week by the IPPR thinktank could be packaged as an energy drink, it would certainly put a spring in the step of every trade union leader in Britain. With Labour party wrangling filling their inboxes as they head to Manchester for the TUC annual conference this weekend, they could do with a lift.

From recommending a wider role in the workplace, including places in the boardroom, to a greater role on national bodies shaping Britain’s economic future, the thinktank’s report put trade unions centre stage.

And why not, given that this thinktank, which came to prominence in the 1990s as the intellectual force behind New Labour, believes the Thatcherite agenda of unfettered markets, deregulation and individualism has run its course. Words such as partnership and collaboration are in again. Old-style command-and-control decision-making by government, the City and business are out.

The archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, one of the IPPR commissioners, endorsed the message that trade union membership should double, and more industries should embrace dialogue with their workers via unions.

Labour shadow chancellor John McDonnell likened the IPPR commission’s final draft to a second Beveridge report. He tweeted: “The report sets out the long-term challenges facing our economy and the radical policy initiatives needed to transform our economy as Beveridge did for welfare.”

It’s a great victory for TUC leader Frances O’Grady, who was also an IPPR commissioner. She must have looked round the meeting table on her first day, at the 21 other commissioners, many of them senior business people, and expected to make little headway integrating unions into a concept of modern capitalism – even a more caring and sharing one. That she did it without the report including one sentence of criticism of her fellow union leaders or their narrow survival tactics of the past 30 years must count as another victory.

The report argues that there is a direct correlation between the decline in collective bargaining –from covering more than 70% of workers in the 1970s to just 26% in 2016 – and a deterioration in working conditions. It make a positive case for unions, which it says “can be a way to harness the energy and creativity of the workforce for improving their firms”.

The commission seeks to establish a new social partnership body, Productivity UK, with a council that includes trade unions. Its remit would be to drive businesses to higher levels of productivity.

A plan to automatically enrol workers in a union, much as happens with pension schemes, and make it easier for officials to recruit in industries that have shut them out, would be coupled with around £10m of cash that unions can bid for to develop IT systems and facilitate auto-enrolment.

This is an unprecedented endorsement of unions, viewing them as institutions that can embrace change and support governments and businesses through what are likely to be difficult times. Automation and artificial intelligence may not be as disruptive as many fear – according to a recent PwC report – but they will affect millions of jobs.

Yet, before any government can support measures to increase union membership, the unions need more reform from within. Too often, they have sought to translate concern about retirement income into a common cause across their members, at the expense of campaigning for better conditions and pay for all staff. Most industrial disputes in the past five years have been about pensions, while pay has stagnated.

O’Grady needs to lead the calls for reform, even if that means being critical of union leaders who fail the test. It is her next mountain to climb.

Grayling: usually on the wrong track.
Grayling: usually on the wrong track. Photograph: Victoria Jones/PA

Rail review could be useful if Grayling pays attention

It is not difficult to raise pertinent questions about the running of Britain’s railways. Onthe list might be the extraordinary overspending at Network Rail; the collapsing franchises; the peculiarities of financing and regulation; the smoke and mirrors of accountability and blame; and the gravy that flows through the likes of Crossrail and HS2, where public servants earn top whack.

That’s without mentioning the humdrum business of actually transporting passengers – such as the poor souls who have been stranded, north and south, to a spectacular degree this year.

A rail review could have value. But that will depend on its purpose and direction. If, as some suggest, Downing Street envisages a root-and-branch review of structures that could change rail as radically as privatisation did, it must proceed in a spirit of genuine inquiry.

But there are good reasons to fear what might emerge. Although transport secretary Chris Grayling has been in post long enough to form a meaningful view on rail’s problems, his ministerial legacies in jobcentres and justice hardly inspire confidence. Rarely does he proceed with the humility of deferring to expertise and experience.

Undoubtedly, this review will have a political flavour, as a response to Jeremy Corbyn’s beating the drum for nationalisation, by tapping in to voter discontent at rising rail fares and sometimes failing services.

But it would be a travesty if the review were an exercise in posing a question to which the government already knows the answer.

As with Brexit, neither party has a position on rail that stands up to scrutiny. Whoever owns it – and it’s the state, by and large, that does – issues will need to be tackled.

Rail is costly and necessary; but if the country or commuters can no longer afford it, there are some tough decisions ahead.

Viagogo blamed its failure to turn up at the Commons on a fraud lawsuit against Ed Sheeran’s promoter.
Viagogo blamed its failure to turn up at the Commons on a fraud lawsuit against Ed Sheeran’s promoter. Photograph: Clemens Bilan/EPA

Viagogo needs more than a slap on the wrist

Viagogo, the controversial ticket resale company used by touts to ply their trade, has displayed scant regard for the low esteem in which it is held by many fans, as well as artists and MPs.

It failed to show up to a select committee hearing last year, and most who follow the Switzerland-based firm doubted whether it would attend a second session held last week, despite its promise to show up.

They were proved right: the snub was announced in a letter that reached Damian Collins, chair of the digital, culture, media and sport (DCMS) select committee at 11pm the day before.

To miss two parliamentary hearings looks like carelessness – or perhaps total contempt. The company cited legal restrictions linked to proceedings already brought against it by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA). It also blamed its own fraud lawsuit against Ed Sheeran’s promotion company, Kilimanjaro Live, which was launched on the eve of the hearing.

Collins dismissed these reasons as baseless and, in the company’s absence, berated Viagogo for its “gross discourtesy” and urged consumers not to purchase tickets from the company.

But these are empty gestures directed at an empty chair. Warnings from MPs come across like the feeble admonitions of a dog-tired parent to a naughty child. Tell them to stop all you like, but until there are consequences, they will continue kicking over sandcastles.

Most ordinary ticket buyers do not hang on every word uttered by the chair of the DCMS committee. They search on Google, which is only too happy to place Viagogo at the top of its search rankings, for a fee.

The CMA’s legal action is long overdue. But while the watchdog is baring its teeth, the government has done next to nothing to protect consumers milked on a weekly basis by resale firms and their allies in the parasitic world of ticket touting.

Fans deserve better.

The GuardianTramp

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