What we knew, but never learned

Mike Clancy · 19 May 2020

One feature of any crisis is the unforgiving spotlight it shines on weaknesses in any system or institution.

The last major economic crisis to hit the UK taught us that we lacked robust financial regulation and the ability to manage the complex risks on City balance sheets.

Exposing weaknesses

The COVID-19 pandemic is a different order of magnitude and is illuminating even more glaring gaps in our national capabilities. Who would have thought that STEM skills, manufacturing capacity and expertise were perhaps as important as financial engineering, if not more so?

Many of these weaknesses have rightly received sustained attention in the initial stages of this crisis. We know that we have serious issues in procuring sufficient PPE to protect our NHS staff and other key workers. We know that our ability to scale up testing and get tests to where needed has been found wanting. And despite the welcome announcements of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and the Self-employment Income Support Scheme – advocated by unions and business groups – we know that our welfare system lacks the capacity to quickly respond to shocks on this scale and get lifeline money to everyone needing it.

Labour market infrastructure

But there is another major structural weakness that has been brutally exposed by this pandemic which has received rather less immediate attention, but will be critical to how we manage transition, as we unlock the economy.

This is the lack of UK labour market infrastructure compared to many other European countries. Quite simply, the UK’s economic response is constrained by the absence of formal structures for collaboration and joint working across the economy between government, business and trade unions.

In the last few weeks, in general, trade unions have been engaged in key discussions, and we have had productive working relationships with employers and government, focused on solving problems and helping companies and workers to weather this storm.

But when I say that I have had more conversations with government ministers in the last four weeks than in the previous four years, it is a comment that cuts both ways.

The role of unions

Unions have become part of the solution, not the problem: the regular reference to unions at the government’s daily 5pm press conference and elsewhere shows how we are currently part of the public reassurance strategy. It tells us that Union ‘approval’ in crises matters to generating public confidence in what is being proposed.

All of this stands in stark contrast to the direction of recent decades as the UK has deliberately dismantled almost all spaces where the interests of workers, capital and government can convene to find solutions to problems and create consensus on economic policy direction.

This is also reflected sector by sector and we have seen employer bodies lobby with us on a common agenda as never before during this crisis, whether that be the future of the creative sector or our built and buried heritage. These new relationships must not be squandered and are the basis for a positive engaged, ‘new normal’.

Social dialogue

The crisis hit a largely unorganised economy, where business calls the shots, unions defend their remaining pockets of workers and the government tries to pick up the pieces through the proverbial ‘light-touch’ regulation.

The contrast with Germany, or with Scandinavian countries, where there are tripartite social partnership structures in workplaces, across sectors, and at the highest levels of government, is stark. As a result, while there has been a lot of positive work, the country is currently relying on a muscle that has not seen regular use in recent years. The result is a noticeable lack of match fitness.

It is not just trade unions that are calling for change. The OECD, amongst other international bodies, has recognised the important role played by collective bargaining and called on governments to put in place frameworks that support social dialogue. Even before coronavirus this made a powerful case for social dialogue to manage economic change, boost innovation and to tackle inequality.

This issue is central to the biggest question now facing the country: how, when, and where to ease the lockdown. At Prospect we come at this from the perspective of people in the business of keeping people safe at work.

We have decades of experience of managing risk at work everywhere from nuclear power stations to film sets to chemical weapons testing labs. We are also proud to represent the inspectors at the Health and Safety Executive who oversee our workplace standards and specialists at Public Health England who advise the nation. It is this health and safety approach that we believe should be at the heart of this next phase.

I was interested to read comments from Carolyn Fairbairn of the CBI warning of the perils of a one-size-fits-all approach to reopening the economy, which failed to recognise different challenges in different workplaces.

She is right to issue this warning and right to argue that “regular consultation with staff will help businesses to forge ahead where it’s safe to do so or slow down when concerns emerge.”

Unfortunately, it is not as simple as that. The issue is that in large swathes of the economy, there are no formal mechanisms for consultation with staff, no way of ensuring that this consultation is meaningful, and no system of trained health and safety reps able to offer expert advice to their colleagues.

I am proud of the role the trade union movement has played in the national effort to defeat this virus and safe lives and jobs, and I know we have a lot more to do in the coming weeks and months.

But when we look back at the lessons of this crisis, I hope that business groups, government and others who are currently singing the praises of social partnership and workforce engagement do not revert to their more familiar tunes.

The reality is that we would be much better prepared for this crisis if we had more regular and structured engagement across our economy, and we will be badly prepared for the next one if we don’t act now to rebuild these foundations.

Mike Clancy is General Secretary of Prospect