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Practical Progressives: more policy deliberations from a humanist think tank

By Simon Bowden

Simon is a co-founder of Dorset Humanists’ Practical Progressives group which has been formed to consider a range of practical policy proposals to make the UK a better and fairer place and to inform humanist thinking about politics. Last month, we published their deliberations on electoral reform, the National Health Service, and democracy and equality. This month, Simon presents their deliberations on trade union powers and responsibilities.

Our group session on the powers and responsibilities of trade unions was led by a lovely man called Gareth Jarvis, a local Dorset campaigner for the Socialist Workers Party. He is an unrepentant Marxist and he explained to us that the laws of history would lead INEVITABLY to the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. This would be the final happy state of human society. The End of History! Gareth is not a regular member of our group, which is mainly centre left, so I am presenting our findings that night. Gareth started with the background of the trade union movement and the enormous social improvements it had achieved – from the days when children as young as five years old worked 12-hour days or more for six days a week in the factories, or were sent up chimneys to scour them out. We all know the story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. They were a group of highly moral Methodist men who were essentially framed in court in order to terrorise other working men who might try to form groups for collective bargaining. But the question for us now, in the 21st century, is whether ever-increasing trade union powers are the best route to social prosperity, higher productivity or a real change in the balance of wealth and power in our society. And also whether some powerful trade union leaders, who in the past had far-left views and believed in a struggle to the death between the classes, had the right to encourage industrial conflicts to force through political change in society.

How did the Practical Progressives group vote on six trade union proposals?

  • Do you think there need to be some limitations on the right to strike? (After a look at some essential services, for example doctors and nurses, firemen, the police)


  • Do you think that trade unions should have some representation on the managing board of their company, so that they can better understand the management strategy and any pressures for change? 

7 YES, 1.5 NO

  • Do you agree with the old Labour Party Clause IV, calling for “the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange”?  (This was written by Fabians Sidney and Beatrice Webb in 1918 and was essentially a Marxist blueprint for a command economy.)

6.5 NO, 1.5 YES

  • Do you agree with the new Labour Clause IV (adopted under Tony Blair in 1995) calling for a community “in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many and not the few…”? 

8.5 YES, 0.5 NO

  • Do you think it is good to encourage workers to believe that they are part of an exploited proletariat who are the natural class enemies of the bosses, and that they should unite to defeat them? 


  • Do you think that a return to the union powers and mass membership of the 1970s is the best way to bring about the aspiration expressed in the new Labour Party Clause IV? 

5 NO, 3 YES

My personal view is that I love trade unions – for their historical role and for their ability to give individual workers some protection against the much greater powers of company managers. But they do always reflect a sectional interest – and if strong unions use their power excessively, it can \idamage the prosperity and smooth running of the whole society. it may also have the side effect of making their own industry unsustainable, as arguably happened to large parts of the British motor industry. So I feel pleased that the majority votes from our group were, to my mind, sensible and reformist rather than utopian. And they reflect the desire to see a flourishing private sector alongside better public services and strategic investments directed by the government. The way I see it, the way forward to a fairer society needs to be based on a spirit of generosity, trust and cooperation, recognising people’s different skills and abilities, not class war! And also that we share a common humanity with everyone – Jews, Muslims, Jamaicans, Albanians, Jehovah’s Witnesses even. So we should have nothing to do with the politics that stirs up anger against any whole group of people. We shouldn’t be OTHERING any group of people.

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