7 September 2020

Beyond industrial action: unions should seek a new role in promoting civic virtue

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Civic virtue – a belief in and a commitment to behaviour and action which serves a common social purpose – is expected to be the moral posture necessary for anyone seeking elected office, especially in national legislatures. The task of developing, debating and voting on legislation which will provide a framework to determine the lives of the governed should be a disinterested passion in getting it right. It’s a quality whose absence in the political class is assumed by the cynical: but the cynical are bad judges of most activities. It exists still: the trouble is, it’s come to be regarded as the preserve of the highly educated.

Yet civic virtue is found as much on the checkout counter and the car assembly line as in a lawyer’s chambers or a consultant’s office. A university education might refine it, but is unlikely to have created it (though it may be discovered there). Men and women with manual, or service, or clerical jobs and with relatively elementary schooling are as likely as those with a highly trained intelligence to be able to judge what is decent behaviour and how it might be encouraged. What he or she lacks in academic references can be balanced by thoughtful observation of human activity, and experience of the pressures of life in modest circumstances.

Most would pay this at least lip service: democratic orthodoxy insists that all should be formally equal to play a part. But increasingly, that’s the only service it gets. The bulk of the population of Western democracies, where everyone participates in the choice of government and everyone can aspire to become president or prime minister, suffers a more or less complete discrimination. That is because most citizens have no university degree: they are not academically ‘credentialed’.

In a recent article, the American political philosopher Michael Sandel writes that a “diploma divide” in North America and Europe has had, over time, the malign effect of cutting lower-class, less educated people – in manual labour, service and clerical jobs – out of elective office. These account for between one half and two thirds of the population in most developed countries. In the US Senate, 100% of members have a university degree. In the Congress, 95% do. Similar ratios are present in all democracies.

History – and contemporary observation – shows little correlation between higher academic achievement and good policy, or good political behaviour. Sandel writes that “The notion that ‘the best and the brightest’ are better at governing than their less credentialed fellow citizens is a myth born of meritocratic hubris.”

In his forthcoming book, The Tyranny of Merit, he writes that a meritocratic order, where merit is validated by academic warrant, “banishes all sense of gift or grace. It diminishes our capacity to see ourselves as sharing a common fate. It leaves little room for the solidarity that can arise when we reflect on the contingency of our talents and fortunes. It is what makes merit a kind of tyranny”.

But how to break through the tyranny of a meritocratic hubris?

Civic virtue may not be the preserve of the highly educated, but it does need to be trained. Those who possess civic instincts and are ambitious to test them in action need to be shown how to argue in groups, speak in public, organise their campaigns, their time and their public-private balance. And it is best done by bodies which disproportionately represent the lower classes.

These bodies exist: they are trade unions. Once at the very centre of national democratic life, trade unions have been pushed to the margins in most of the developed democracies, and are attended to by power and the public only when they take industrial action. That action could be – was often designed to be – hugely damaging to the economy, to public services and to peoples’ lives and livelihoods.

Yet there is another side to unions, one which requires strengthening now. In their period of robust growth in the late 19th and early 20th century, they developed a powerful moral argument for the inclusion in the franchise of poor working men and all women, as well as for their own legal recognition and for a politics which responded to lower class needs.

Trade unions were never only centres of civic virtue (they can be the opposite, as a recent report by the barrister Karon Monaghan into an apparently toxically sexist and misogynistic culture in the GMB union illustrates): but they were constrained to be virtuous, in part, because of the exclusion of most of their members from any influence over the mechanisms of governance. They had a cause, and a great one, which came to be recognised as such across the social spectrum.

To take up the present challenge of an inegalitarian order would make of unions a moral as well as an economic force once more. In his The Last Man, the less famed addition to his End of History, Francis Fukuyama wrote: “If men cannot struggle for a just cause because that just cause was victorious in an earlier generation, then they will struggle against the just cause”. Unions had a just cause in their formation and growth: now, rather than struggle against justice, they need a new mobilisation for a new form of exclusion.

Exclusion is again a feature of our democracies: it’s one validated by academic success, or at least attendance, and the winning of the right to put MA, or MSc, or PhD behind the name. Unions must again represent the need for inclusion: and must do so not by encouraging people to become ‘credentialed’, but by bringing their experience and insights to bear on the political process. This needs unions to add to their present role – the bargaining of wages and conditions – a commitment to civic education, to make a renewed moral case for working people to play a public role in society, bringing an experience largely lacking in democratic legislatures.

They must again teach the virtues of social engagement and the responsibilities of political leadership. The ideal is to do this in a non-party-political way: there should not again be an assumption that all outside the middle or upper middle classes endorse a leftist programme (it has recently been shown to be some way towards the reverse).

Indeed, Margaret Thatcher, a popular punch-ball for the left, sought – in a speech to Conservative trade unionists in 1979, on the cusp of her first election victory – to bring working class values and patriotism into her party’s fold, defining these as residing in the hearts of “members of families, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters who share our values…I know that I am talking to people who cherish the best ideals and values of the British trade union movement… ours is a healthy blend of idealism and realism, the qualities that this country desperately needs”.

Instead, the teaching should stress the necessary diversity of an open society, and show that diversity has not been served by the excising from public roles those who lack a particular kind of training, and who are implicitly consigned to unelectability..

A society like ours, in which religion plays so minor a part and thus whose former moral constraints are progressively cast off, will be open to struggle against just causes unless a new form of human emancipation can be striven for by becoming an ideal. It will be one which addresses itself to what Sandel refers to as “the stark divide between winners and losers (which) has poisoned our politics”, a divide which almost everyone decries and, it seems, no-one can change.

But it can be changed. As unions changed the terms of relationship between masters and workers a century and more ago, so in a society materially much richer but poor in the social esteem paid to the majority, they might challenge the massive inequalities of the time, and even reduce them.

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John Lloyd is a Contributing Editor to the Financial Times, ex-editor of The New Statesman and a co-founder of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.