Trade Unions and Constitutional Change – Issues we can’t duck

Discussions initiated by campaign groups such as the Electoral Reform Society [1] and Involve [2] about identifying and then remedying the problem of low engagement by, especially, younger people in the political process have a direct relevance and importance for the trade union movement.

First of all, the abstentionism of a majority of young people absolutely affected the outcome of the 2010 and 2015 General Election. There is a clear advantage and indeed necessity in raising the level of engagement in the political process by young people and, of course, that includes young trade unionists.

The second connection is that low levels of engagement do not just appear in connection with political activity – they are also a feature of the democratic process within trade unions themselves. Therefore if we can find strategies that will deal with low levels of engagement in one sphere we should be able to map them across into another.

Even though trade union interest in this area is anything but well-established, there is a very wide range of academic interest in the question of participatory democracy. Plans for two “constitutional convention” pilot exercises (to test the theory and practice of how such conventions could operate) will be run by ERS in Southampton and Sheffield have now been finalised – and there will be some trade union input/participation.



This work is important not just because of the central relevance of voter/member engagement to trade unions.

It is also important because it seeks to address some dominant political issues that cannot be avoided given the preferences of the current government.

One of these issues is the “English votes for English laws” nationalism enthusiastically advocated by the Prime Minister, especially in the wake of the Scottish Independence Referendum last year [3]. This means that the issue of devolution within the UK is not just limited to Scotland and there will be a wider debate. The government has already published its view about the vehicle that should be used to carry forward that debate which it is feared will be a very select form of constitutional convention, both in terms of its composition and in terms of its remit.

It was this particularly that prompted the Electoral Reform Society to call for a genuine people’s constitutional convention to make sure all views in society were accommodated and which seeks to make sure that the way in which the convention works is open, democratic, responsive and meaningful.[4]

The second way in which this issue is unavoidable is that part of the overall devolution debate is the “Devo-Manc” policy that will see first Manchester and then presumably other major centres given devolved responsibility for a greater range of services than has ever previously been the case in modern Britain. [5] This means that there will need to be new models of democratic accountability to provide oversight for those devolved services. If there are new devolved models of accountability that means that all sorts of issues about how they are selected, how they work, what their remit is, come onto the table.

It is clearly important for progressive organisations to recognise this as an opportunity for engagement in order to participate in debate and influence outcomes.

Indeed, with initiatives looming that will significantly change pan-UK politics, (such as Individual Electoral Registration and the consequent re-drawing of parliamentary boundaries), it is more important than ever to be aware of any and every opportunity that exists to make sure our voice is heard.[6]


It is not just within the context of UK politics that the potential importance and value of constitutional conventions can be seen. Two fairly contemporary recent examples also show why this can be an important issue.

First example is the Irish Referendum on Equal Marriage. This was preceded by constitutional convention which many would argue allowed the issue of equal marriage onto the political debate, socialised the issue through debate and then made a major contribution in generating a public momentum for change that the government of the day found irresistible.[7]

The second example is that of the Scottish Constitutional Convention, established in 1981 which brought together a very wide-range of Scottish society – in fact all of Scottish society apart from the Conservative Party and some fellow travelling unionists.

The convention is credited as providing the social and political network that lead to effective devolution in the late 1990s when 20 years previously it had seemed an impossibility.[8]


Most recently, the newly/appointed Labour’s leadership has entered this debate. Last week Shadow Secretary of State for local government, Jon Trickett, announced the Party’s plans for their own People’s Assemblies. These are described at However, it seemed to me that this was open to misinterpretation and therefore criticism and limited success. My response, written in a personal capacity, to Jon’s proposals appears

In the same week, the TUC had its first substantive debate on electoral reform in many years, and is now committed to an investigation into possible forms of alternative voting.[9] However, many unions have yet to debate the issue internally.


The notions of electoral reform and constitutional reform, constitutional conventions and participative democracy have fresh momentum behind them and will be with us for the foreseeable future. It is therefore appropriate and necessary that the labour movement keeps this area under active review, seeking to influence both debate and the outcome.










“Walk Right Back” – The labour movement and young people

In the Labour Movement we are all glass-half-full sort of people.  We need to be and usually our optimism is justified.  But what if we are just being too naive too often?

Because  although  we can point to  a succession of positive steps in the  efforts to  re-energise and rejuvenate both  wings of our movement – from 16 and 17  year old voters in the Indyref,  to  hundreds of thousands of  new supporters engaged by  the leadership election – these exist in the bleakest of contexts. The ongoing reactionary revolution makes my generation pine for the benign blight of Thatcherism.

I would argue that the party and trade unions have yet to find the right approach  to engaging with the concerns of  new workers in  our new  SME-dominated, small state economy.

Sorry to  put a downer on proceedings,  but look at the facts: As Hendy and Ewing(1) reported  coverage  of collective bargaining – surely the driver and barometer of union  strength – now stands at  around 25%,  down  from  82%  in  scarcely a generation. Private sector union density is now below 25%. Union membership is concentrated in older workers on full time contracts, whereas younger members have less secure employment, work fewer hours and pay less in subscriptions.

Union density in SMEs and in the hospitality and related services sector is really low, yet that is where a disproportionate number of young people will be working (2).

TUC research showed  that there were enough politically  disengaged young voters to determine the  General Election  result in almost every  constituency (3) – but the party’s policies on  jobs and training,  or on  macro- economic and foreign policy,  clearly didn’t  motivate  very large numbers of younger  voters  to  support us. Nor did the truly impressive efforts of Bite the Ballot deliver the decisive turnout in young people that was hoped and needed (4). In fact turnout amongst the young was lower in 2015 than five years previously.

So what do we do?  Not give up. Not emigrate.  But not by just doing the same thing and hope that the political pendulum will swing back to us.

I think we start with the objective of creating a bedrock of collectivist ideas on which to base policies that offer the promise of individual economic fulfilment. (And just so we are all clear, individual economic fulfilment is, in my view, impossible, without a surrounding framework of progressive economic and social policies)

So easy to say – but what does it mean in practice?  Amongst ourselves, I suggest that we need clarity and consistency around not just what we mean but how we think. How do we create this collectivism?

The role of the National Curriculum is, I think often overlooked.  Employers have told me that they do not find teenagers “work ready”. Yet we now have compulsory schooling until 18. These two extra years seem to me to  represent a huge opportunity to address the concerns of employers  but in a way that  supports  key  collective ideas –  like  respect,  tolerance, diversity, equality, fairness, reasonableness,  rationality,  rights and responsibilities.

These are all the things needed for a successful economy.  They’re also a part of personal fulfilment.  But for us, crucially, they are the key values of the labour movement.  The pieces of this jig-saw are already in place.  We need a recharged Citizenship Foundation (5) to put the pieces together.

But are we now in a position where we can have this necessary debate like never before? Given the preoccupation with  such matters – from the “English Votes”  debate (7)  to DevoManc (8),  constitutional  reform  is  now a major  issue and  opportunity  for us to engage and  energise young people. Do the Scottish Constitutional convention (8) and other constitutional conventions that followed it (9) show us a way to engage key young stakeholders?

And what should “individual economic fulfilment” consist of?

Building a narrative on individual economic fulfilment is, I believe, an essential ingredient to the hope that characterises successful youth engagement strategies. We need to recognise and embrace ambition, but key into what young people are saying about housing, health and employment. Listen – really listen – to what young people are saying.

The housing crisis – and it is a crisis – offers a hopeful illustration of how young people can become engaged, and how politicians need to outbid each other to offer the most positive and popular policy.  This is surely the key issue for the London Mayoral election next year, so it is an opportunity to see if the levels of engagement and activity are maintained.

Given the importance attached to  housing   by all of Labour’s  large affiliates, all of whose policies  have been driven  by  motions  from  youth structures  within those unions (10), this issue  also shows that  campaigning  on the “right”  issue  not only brings  the  two wings of the movement  together,  but  provides the rejuvenation essential for organisations to  survive.

But all of this must feed through to something deliverable – engagement must translate to a real shift in policy, and that policy must be one that is actioned. Get this right and we create a virtuous cycle of hope, trust and innovation.  Get it wrong and it becomes a vicious cycle of just the opposite.

So the key criteria in all this is how any does any given action, policy or decision either increase capacity or influence or both.  How will this bring us together? If it doesn’t do any of these things, then my advice is simply to stop.(11)

To paraphrase a deservedly acclaimed speech – young people haven’t left the organised labour movement,  perhaps we have left them (12). Even if following the Labour leadership election, some of them have started to return, the achievable challenge now is to bring the next generation close to our heart.

An edited version of this article appears in the September 2015 edition of the Young Fabians’ magazine Anticipations

  1. Hendy and Ewing: Reconstruction after the crisis: a manifesto for collective bargaining,  IER 2013
  10. For example see,,
  11. Weil , A Strategic Choice Framework for Union decision making, Working-USA; Journal of Labor and Society, 2005