An Interview with Tony Lloyd MP – Chair of the Trade Union Group of Labour MPs.
Currently, you're the chair the Trade Union Group of Labour MPs, please tell us more
about its role - does it serve to build bridges between Westminster and the country at
large, or is its focus solely a Parliamentary one?
Well the Labour Party was formed by the trade unions in 1906, so there’s always been a strong trade union influence on it in Parliament. All of Labour’s original MPs came from trade
union backgrounds - that's the logic of its organization. Obviously, it wouldn’t be true to say
that every Labour MP has always had the same interest in trade unionism. But there’s a strong tradition amongst a very considerable number of Labour MPs. Some of them have
been full-time trade union officials and some have others shopfloor activists at different levels
in a wide-range of industries and sectors.
The trade union group serves different purposes. The main one is to liaise between the trade
unions nationally, the leadership of Labour Party and the Parliamentary Labour Party. A
recent example of this in action is the CWU (Communication Workers Union), who have had
meetings with the trade union group to talk about issues on the future of the post office.
The Group also serves as a good vehicle for behind the scenes lobbying. For instance, I have
recently been involved with the issue of local government pensions; the issue is a major
concern of UNISON’s and the other local government unions. So obviously there is a
dimension of Labour MPs lobbying around it; both lobbying government ministers as well
lobbying the employers- it’s that sort of issue. From time to time we will meet, also meet,
groups like the Scottish TUC or an individual trade union.
What we try to avoid doing is getting involved in individual disputes and we’re not a negotiating body. We can't go along to a company and say to their management why are you
in dispute with this union? That’s a proper function for a trade union itself; it’s not something that we can normally do better in Parliament. Such an intervention could even could make
things worse. Sometimes though, if disputes get very protracted and very bitter you will find
members of the trade union groups raise issues around these in parliament directly.
The biggest single thing that the Group does is to make sure the trade union case is heard
among Labour MPs and also that it is then amplified with government ministers. It covers a
wide range of things beyond that – but that is where the group’s business starts from and where all of those other things lead back to.
You've been involved in the Labour movement all of your life, please tell us about this.
Well, it just comes with the territory really. I joined the Labour party when I was under-age at
14. Then I became active in trade unionism when I went to work. For me, the two wings of the
Labour movement, the industrial wing of the trade unions and political wing of the Labour
Party are indivisible. I have never had any sympathy for those from the trade union movement
who have argued in favour of breaking the link with Labour because they want a ‘purer’
Labour Party. Equally I have never had any sympathy with those in the Labour Party who
want to get rid of the unions because they want a more centrist political coalition. The truth is
that for ordinary people, the Labour Party is, for all its faults, still the best vehicle for making
real change, rather than some fringe party stuck out in the wilderness. Equally the trade
unions need a political voice, and in the Labour Party they have one.
We know you can’t solve everything in Parliament. Some things do need other bodies outside
of Westminster; take the young people who are being denied basic legal rights in the
workplace. Trade unions are far better placed to give them the day-to-day workplace
protection that they need than I am as an MP. So it’s a case of where people can do things
most appropriately within the structures of the Labour Movement. That’s why I believe very strongly that you’ve got to maintain the present relationship. When Jack Jones was once
asked ‘have you ever considered a divorce between trade unions and the Labour Party’, he
quipped ‘murder maybe, divorce never’. For me, that's probably fairly typical of the
relationship today. We don't always like each other but we’re forced to love each other, and
that’s how we have got to get on and make the thing work.
I worked as a labourer mainly and then found jobs for a series of demolition companies. I then
worked in asbestos production for Turner and Newall before going off and getting a degree.
I’ve also worked a bit in the engineering industry and taught a little bit before I went into parliament. So you could say I’ve experienced employment at different levels and met people
from many different backgrounds. I’ve been a member of different trade unions, but the one
that I’ve been a member of longest is the GMB. My biggest association in recent years has
been with the print industry because all my family were actually printers and so it was an
important part of my upbringing.
You've made a great effort to get a fair deal for the victims of asbestosis at Turner and
Newall - please tell us more about this.
My campaigning for fair treatment for asbestos workers is not personal, but it is something I
do know about because I have worked in the industry myself. People have tried to bullshit me
in more recent years, saying that it was such a lovely industry where every manager
personally tucked the workers in bed at night, that’s not true. Even in the late 60s it was
disgraceful, the companies knew exactly what the dangers of asbestos were by then; they
knew exactly, and were not in any doubt about it. They knew that asbestos caused asbestosis,
which is pretty horrible and they knew it caused mesothelioma, which is cancer of the lung
lining and is very horrible. They didn't put in the rudimentary protections for workers in the
industry that could have been there. I worked in a cutting room, occasionally the fans would
break down and you would have an whole aircraft hanger size room full of asbestos dust as
well as the cement dust that you get from asbestos sheeting. The truth is that people from
that cutting room were exposed to the possibility of asbestos fibres in the air and the company
never bothered putting those fans in and keeping them in a decent state of repair. They didn't
care because it really was a case profit before people. What I saw in that one factory in
Manchester was repeated in many asbestos plants up and down the country and in many
other places where people used asbestos and were exposed to it.
This experience has fed into a more general view that I have got about health and safety;
good employers are good employers. It’s true that there are good employers around that take
every possible step. But we can never trust the bad employer and the rouge employer to be
good just because we ask them to be; so we do have to try and create a safety case for better
and better standards. We do have to pursue these rogue employers and use everything at our
disposal. Trying to stop such employers damaging people in the future is the most important
thing; compensation helps in some ways but ultimately is never the right answer – it’s far
better to say to some family that your main earner is living today because we managed to
stop some idiot taking liberties with safety in the workplace. But in the end, of course, people
do have to have compensation when people's lives have been shattered by the lousy
practices of dodgy employers –and that’s certainly the case for many people who’ve lost relatives due to them working around asbestos.
A recent piece of research estimated that over67% of Labour Party funding came from
trade unions. Do you think that union members get good value for money from the
Good value is always a difficult thing. I would turn it round and put it a different way. This is a
relationship – and we are the same thing! Of course you can ask, can the Labour government
do more for ordinary people, to which the obvious answer is yes of course it can. There are
lots of areas where I wish we had gone faster or even gone in a particular way, rather than
the way we have. All of these doubts disappear if you look at where Britain was when Labour
came into government in 1997 and look at the issues that people faced then, particularly in
cities like Manchester. Mass unemployment was the biggest single issue at the time, it
dominated everybody’s agenda. Very few people talk about unemployment now as being a
major issue even though we are still getting the impact felt from all those years ago. If you
look at the advances made, even with all the criticisms there’s still some big achievements.
Look at the health service - people at one time were waiting in corridors on trolleys - you don’t
hear those stories anymore because we don't have waiting lists. There are different problems
now and sometimes the media rightly report things that are not going right. In the workplace
you’ve got measures like the National Minimum Wage - the first time we have ever had a minimum wage in this country and something that both Labour and our friends and supporters
in the trade union movement can be very proud of. Plus you’ve got things like the Family Tax Credit and the increase in welfare provision for children.
So there is a whole range of good things that Labour has done. Arguably the worst thing that
the Party has done in recent years is to let people forget what we did do by not being proud
enough of our achievements: There have been significant steps forward in favour of ordinary
people – steps forward made possible by Labour. We have probably lost some of that debate
now. We need a situation where people recognise that they are not going to get everything,
but they do get substantial progress – that means workers better looked after in the workplace
as well as their kids in school better off, their parents who end up in hospital better off, and so
on and so forth. Despite this frustration I think that we are seeing progress on important things.
Britain is a more prosperous and a more comfortable country now.
Ten years on from our return to power is a good time for a fresh liaison with government. We
still have an agenda of things that ordinary people don’t always feel that we’ve properly
delivered on - and we have to make sure that we begin to address those issues. I can’t
promise anybody anything because obviously, I’m not going to be the new leader, but it does give us all a chance in the Party to say why we’re here, what we’re here for and ask what are
we trying to achieve in future – and it gives us a chance to recommit ourselves to delivering
for the ordinary people that matter.
The proposals around party funding made by Sir Hayden Phillips advocate a limit of
?5000 on donations to political parties. If trade unions fall under this remit, it
would effectively sever the umbilical link between the Labour Movement's political and
economic wings. It's taken as a given that you oppose these proposals - but what are
your views on party funding and trade unions in general and what's your take on
feelings in the wider Parliamentary Labour Party on the subject?
Going back to the Trade Union Group [of Labour MP’s], one of the things it did recently was to organize a meeting about the proposals. Over one hundred MP’s attended at very short notice, all of them making it very clear that they weren’t prepared to accept the direction that
Hayden Philips was going in when it comes to party funding. I’m not against very rich people
giving no-strings attached donations to the Labour Party, it can be millions if they want, I don’t
necessarily have a problem with that, as long as it’s absolutely clear who it was who gave the
money, the circumstances in which it was given, and the circumstances as to what was their
motivation. Because that’s the real issue about the big donors, we don’t know what it is that
they’re after. A couple of quick points need making here. The Tories, I’m told, were ?15 million in debt until recently. In the space of a few months David Cameron has managed to
wipe out that ?15 million by fundraising. Now, you won’t see the details of who has given the funds for that. I’m told that he recently held a (fundraising) dinner priced at ?5000 a head, at
Belenheim Palace in London, very posh indeed…I wasn’t invited! Now at ?5000 a head you’re talking about seriously rich people attending– yet none of those donations would have
appeared as the proposals stand because ?5000 is below the cut off point. The truth is that
the Tories will always be able to pull in millions and millions of pounds from their rich friends
in a way that Labour can’t.
Labour’s dependant relationship is with the trade union movement. It’s one we trust, but also it’s one that the public should trust for a whole host of reasons – when you get a new millionaire coming along, you don’t know who they are and what they are after – yet I know
who and the Transport and General Workers Union are, I know all about AMICUS, I know
who the GMB are and, more importantly, so do the public.
You can check any of Labour’s affiliates. If individual members of any union affiliate want to
find out what decisions have been made they can check the public record. They can do that
because the way that unions operate is democratic and open; and the way that they give their
money is democratic and open – there are no bags of gold being exchanged under the table
in brown paper bags or whatever – it can’t be done that way. So there’s a very open, very
transparent relationship, and that’s what Hayden Philips seems to not understand. There’s a
world of difference between ‘Joe Soap’ as an individual handing over one hundred grand and
a legitimate, democratic union handing over a hundred grand – it’s not the general secretary’s money, and also not the unions money, it’s a hundred thousand pounds on behalf of the
members– the important people who make up the trade union movement. So that’s the fundamental difference. I can’t accept that those millions of members of trade unions are put
on the same basis as ‘Joe Soap’, the millionaire, the billionaire or the trillionaire! All trade
union moneys have been delivered in a way that the public understand and have been for
well over a hundred years now. Of course there will always be people who don’t like Labour’s
link with the trade unions. If you don’t like that then simply don’t vote Labour! We are a party that is linked with the trade unions and the trade union influence is what it is: It’s there at the annual conference; it’s there through the democratic mechanisms etc. There’s no hidden fix around that; there’s no secret deal that you’ll never know about; there’s no peerages for this that and the other. The TU-Labour link is what it is, and we’ve got to protect that.
The alternative is where it gets a bit complicated regardless of whatever level you pick as a
cap for donations to political parties, be it ?5000, or 50,000. Let’s say they pick ?50,000- well that would mean that the amount of money that Labour could raise from the big four trade
unions and its other TU affiliates would be less than a million pounds in total before we hit the
spending limit. For the Tories it would just be a case of finding a thousand donors. I don’t suppose that they can all afford ?50,000 – so let’s just say that they can afford ?25,000- if you can afford to pay ?5,000 for a meal ( like the one I mentioned earlier) you can probably afford
to give the Tories twenty five grand. A thousand times ?25,000 means that the Tories can
raise ?25 million very easily. So there’s no accountability at that ?50,000 limit. Now are
people saying that’s an acceptable situation but Labour’s relationship with the trade union movement is unacceptable? If that was the case I think that even those who are not massive
fans of unions would have every right to say ‘hang on a minute…there’s some fiddle going on’.
They’d ask who would the changes to our party funding rules benefit and conclude that it’s not the Labour Party.
You can rightly say that the job of Hayden Philips is not to look after the Labour Party. That’s true – but what he advocates is not being done in the name of democracy either because in
the end democracy depends on political parties that are properly funded and can properly
fight elections. My concern is that I don’t think that there’s a massive demand amongst the
public for state funding of political parties. They might go a little bit down that way, but they’re not going to want political parties to be getting millions from central government. So I think
what we’ve got to do is look properly at transparency in donations so that every contribution -
not just ones made by the unions on behalf of their members, but also every big cheque-book
donor would be exposed. That’s the first thing. The second thing to put in place is proper caps on spending. That means caps on national spending by the parties and caps on local
spending by the parties. Effectively that means capping expenditure not just around elections
but throughout the whole period of a parliament because otherwise what are you going to
have? If you say OK, we’ll only have spending caps for six weeks around an election. Then any intelligent party with a lot of funds would simply be spending their money three months
before the suspected election is due to take place, they would buy every billboard and just
about everything else. So they’d just fine tune their timing and spend their big money when it
is most effective. You could also fail to cap at a local level. So what you’d find is something similar to what the Tories are doing now. Parties would pick the hundred most marginal seats,
they wouldn’t put it through the books as national spending but they wouldn’t half whack
money into those local seats. Where’s the democracy in all of that? We’ve got to have some
fairness, some equity. So I will happily defend the trade union link to anyone who challenges
it - it’s not an immoral, not a terrible link.
In May, Labour will have been in power for ten years. What's your general assessment
of their record when it comes to trade unions and employment rights?
Well it’s mixed, obviously it’s mixed, there are things that I would like us to do. It’s well worth recapping some of the things that we have done. I said before something like the minimum
wage, it’s really important, especially when put together with some of the other financial
supports we’ve put in place for ordinary working people, I think they’re really important, and then there’s the things for the most vulnerable workers where collective bargaining isn’t
always that strong- those at the bottom end, like young kids in hairdressers. We know that in
the past they often got paid sums like ?1 an hour, which is such an outrage. So we’ve moved
beyond that with the minimum wage. We’ve brought in a range of employment legislation,
which means that for the first time we’ve got things like proper holiday entitlements and
proper limitations on the hours of work- they make a big difference to people in the most
exploited of employment situations where employers would have had people working all
through the night, all through the week and all through the month if they could get away with it.
So for the first time we’ve got those things. Let’s not forget that we’ve also put good things in
place for trade unions and their members - like the right to be a member of a trade union so
you cannot be dismissed for trade union activities.
But we’ve not gone far enough. Obviously I would like to see more done for younger workers
around the minimum wage, and also in terms of issues like agency workers where we’ve seen
more and more workers working in this casual way. In fact there’s a private members bill on agency workers which I will be supporting. Obviously, things like that we need to make
From time to time issues that come up become the major demand. I think the challenge to us
all at the moment is to make sure that we deliver on the Warwick Agreement in this
Parliament. That negotiated agreement between trade unions, government and Labour party
means a lot - and we need to make sure that all of those boxes are ticked and that we deliver
on them all. From then there will have to be another look at the relationship between the
unions and the Party and what we’re all looking for from a next term Labour government. We’ll have to make sure there’s agreement there.
There is another thing that I think the unions themselves have got to do though. At the
moment I think that there’s a gap between what different unions want in different sectors - say
between the private sector unions and the public sector ones. It comes out in different ways.
Now I’m not saying that in the end you’re going to get total agreement because by definition
they’ve got different interests in different sectors. I mean if you’re dealing with a private sector employer you have a different interest to what you would have if you were dealing with the
public sector. Despite this I still feel that a bit more commonality about where we’re all
heading within the unions would probably help a bit. In terms of making sure that we’ve not
only got a common agenda but also an absolute determination that what we’re talking about
will make a real difference to ordinary people and their families.
One of the reasons why we have the trade unions that we do is that the agenda of an ordinary
person isn’t just about what happens in the workplace; it’s also what happens to their kids in the schools, in the hospitals, what happens in just about every aspect of life. So we want the
trade unions to be influential in terms of that relationship as well, not only about workplace
activity. I still feel that there’s still a healthy agenda to keep us all active for another few years.
You rightly point to some of the achievements and progressive measures introduced
by Labour. Despite these, there are other areas that are of great concern for union
members - things like the mass shedding of civil service jobs and the creeping
privatisation of large parts of the NHS. Do you take criticisms like these on board?
Well I suppose it’s different in different areas. I haven’t been happy about the role of the private sector in the health service. Take an example from here in Greater Manchester.
There’s the Greater Manchester Surgical Unit in Trafford. I’m just not convinced that it’s in the interests of patients, it doesn’t do things more cheaply – it’s actually more expensive, and it’s not obvious to me that this sort of private sector involvement is in the interests of the
people that I represent so I’ve always made it quite clear that I’m unhappy. To me, that’s the
fundamental challenge of the private sector, if it gets too big in the NHS it actually does
threaten the ethos of the health service.
Civil Service jobs are a different issue because one of the things is that like everywhere else,
in different aspects of life, and in the private sector, obviously things change. You can’t use
the Civil Service as a job creation process. I’m not saying that willingly, but even the Civil Service unions accept that there will be jobs disappearing there. In an organization as big as
the Civil Service the idea that nobody ever leaves is ridiculous, there’s movement all the time,
there’s huge numbers of people coming and going all the time; now you ought to be able to
manage some of that process in a humane and acceptable fashion, that’s what I think good
trade unionism is about, not saying every job is precious. Obviously in the end it’s about what kind of package you have for the people who go and what framework you have for job losses.
So you can always raise issues around one interest or the other, but we need to make sure
that the public is getting value for money from the Civil Service, that’s one thing. Another is
that we do need to make sure that we give decent career structures to people who go and
work in it. We also need to make sure that there are proper opportunities for those people
who do face redundancy, so that they can be transferred where they want to be and into
equivalent and comparative work - that ought to be possible in a number of ways.
The issues around jobs in the Civil Service and the public sector are a bit different to those
around private sector involvement in the NHS. In the end of course, the big issue around
public sector jobs and non public sector jobs is going to be; does the economy have the jobs
generally? In future an awful lot of people, will spend ten years of their life working as a Civil
Servant, another ten years working for a private company, and so on. People don’t say ‘no, no I can’t do that, I’ll only work in the public sector’ - they want a job and they want a career structure that makes sense. So that’s what we’ve got to look to. Ultimately it’s how we
guarantee full employment - that’s the big issue.
May 2007 will probably see Tony Blair's tenure as Prime minister and leader of the
Labour Party come to an end. What improvements would you like to see from his
replacement when it comes to rights for working people?
The best thing is that the not always good relationship we’ve had between the government
and the trade unions for ten years is replaced by a more productive one. No serious trade
unionist expects to walk into Downing Street and say ‘I demand the following ten things’, and
for a government to say ‘yeah, you’re right, you can have them!’ What you do want though is
that when you go into Number 10 with legitimate concerns these are listened to and properly
calibrated – and together you try and work out what are proper solutions that will work in a
country like this.
For example, when we talked before… we spoke about the Civil Service, one thing that they
got a very good deal on was their pensions – because there was an issue around the
affordability of them. We came up with a very good negotiated settlement. I talked to Mark
Serwotka, the General Secretary of the PCS not long ago. He said to me that he thought they
had got a good deal on those things. So in the end it’s having that decent kind of relationship,
the kind that says ‘yeah, we can translate legitimate demands into practical action, and this is
how we do it’. So it’s the quality of a listening relationship and one where people are
determined to work together to come up with workable solutions. Nobody ever says you’ll get
everything you want, because we all know that we don’t in this world, but what we can do within reason is say what we can do to change the world positively in the interests of trade
unionists and their families.
If you could introduce one piece of legislation to improve things for working people
what would it be?
Well that’s always one of those really difficult questions. It goes back to what I said before;
there is a piece of legislation about agency workers that I will support. We’ve seen this massive rise in the number of people who are no longer directly employed, but are indirectly
employed through different kinds of agencies. Some of this is perfectly legitimate, if you’re a highly skilled oil rig engineer or something similar you will probably do work through an
agency because you’ll be working in the North Sea one month and the West China Sea the
next month. But for an awful lot of people it’s nothing like that, it’s nothing noble, it’s simply
because employers now prefer to use the insecurity of agency structures to hire and fire. We
need to give some recognition to these employees like everyone else and to give proper
rights to people who are often the most vulnerable in the labour force. That’s something that
we can achieve and I will be pushing it with colleagues in parliament.
There’s another thing that I would add though. Trade unionists aren’t any different from
anybody else in this when we’ve got issues around like global warming. Climate change
becomes an issue where ultimately the child of a trade unionist is just as vulnerable to us
screwing the world up as the child of The Queen. If the planet goes down the pan we all go
down together. So if you asked me what is the biggest issue around then I would reply that it
probably is now climate change, and if we need legislation around it then that’s probably the
single most important thing.
The past few decades have proved to be a huge challenge for trade unions. They've
had 18 years spent languishing under an incredibly hostile Tory government and a
total restructuring of the UK's economy that's entailed a shift away from manufacturing
and voluntarist industrial relations. As we enter the 21st Century there are still over 6.5
million people in Britain who belong to a union - making the labour movement by far
the biggest civil society organisation in the country. How do you see things developing
in the future and what challenges do you see emerging?
Well, it’s so complicated, I’m not sure I have all of the answers! I suppose that the first and
most obvious thing to say is that we know that the merger between the T&G and AMICUS is
likely to take place in a few months time. So they’ll be one enormous union at least, and maybe other amalgamations amongst other unions as well. So we’ll have a smaller and smaller number of very big unions and maybe some quite specialist smaller ones. The union
movement itself has to address this issue because what you can’t have is the very big ones
dominating at the expense of the small ones. The ethos of our movement is about collective
solidarity. We look to the big unions to be the good friends and advocates for the smaller
unions; certainly in the labour movement’s dealings with government etc. We’ve got to find a
way of maintaining this tradition in the changed circumstances of the new century.
Another thing that you have seen is that there has been a decline in the number of trade
unionists and along with that there has been a decline of trade unionists in the unions
affiliated to the Labour Party. That’s not insignificant. It’s difficult to know how to argue the
case to change those things. I think the unions have got to get stuck into the recruitment of
the type of person I was talking about before, the young kid who works for an agency, where
perhaps the union link was broken in the parents’ generation. They’ve never had any practical
experience of trade unionism. We’ve got to get back and explain to this generation how trade
unionism is as important today as it was in the past; we’ve also got to outline things in terms
of what it can deliver for them as individuals, and for them collectively as well. So you’ve got
many issues and challenges there.
Then there are the challenges globally, we’re talking now about the global union; the idea that the T&G will link up with some of the North American unions. Or AMICUS might link up with
people on a global basis to look at the companies who work around the world and the
challenges there. That’s important.
I suppose one thing that I would say is that if we could get the International Labour
Organisation held in the same esteem as the World Trade Organisation, then we’d have
made real progress for ordinary people. Because when ordinary people in this country are
finding their jobs being undercut by lousy employment conditions in a Third World country
then they know that’s unfair competition. We have to be careful here and find solutions for people working in the old industrial countries like the UK and also for those working in
developing countries. Some of the more basic manufacturing jobs will never be done here
again because it’s cheaper to do them and more legitimate to do them where people need the work in Asia and the like. But you want to know that you’re not talking about a 7 year old kid
making the footballs for the World Cup, or people being exploited in the factories on the
Mexican border with working hours that are intolerable and in really bad conditions. It doesn’t
help anyone if something like the asbestos trade, which was killing people in Britain thirty
years ago, simply transferred itself and was instead killing people in developing countries.
So you’ve got those sorts of challenges kicking in. In more local terms I think there should be
a determination to ensure that we do have a trade union movement that’s democratic and that
still seeks a relationship with the political system as it did in the past. That is fundamental.
That’s a quick sketch, but I could probably go on for another hour!