Let’s start talking – Why we need to reboot the partnership agenda between government, unions and employers

25 June 2024

In this joint article, Nita Clarke , Director of the Involvement and Participation Association (IPA) and Mike Clancy, Prospect General Secretary, write that any labour market reforms by a new government must be accompanied by a new spirit of cooperation between government, unions and employers.

There has been much discussion about the wide-ranging reforms to working lives embodied in Labour’s New Deal for working people. Taken with other much needed reforms of the labour market, including skills policy and a serious commitment to return to work strategies, this package of measures will require detailed and collaborative implementation should Labour form the next government.

We also need to build a consensus around establishing good work principles and policies if these reforms are to have an impact. It will require central government and trade unions working alongside business leaders and other stakeholders, such as training providers and sector leaders such as the CBI, Make UK, the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, Hospitality UK, our creative industries, and many others.

However, at present, convening spaces and joint forums for capital and labour are few, and skills of negotiation and consultation have atrophied. In many sectors, industrial relations expertise has retired along with its practitioners. New generation HR, whatever its many strengths, is for large part inexperienced in industrial relations and practitioners often find it difficult to cope with trade union relations at a local level. This deficit of hands-on knowledge, and this lack of architecture for social partner engagement, must be addressed or it will generate tension, anxiety about how to engage and exacerbate fear of the unknown, and thereby delay economic recovery.

CIPD and other potential providers including the TUC (particularly if the Union Learning Fund is reconstituted) may want to think about how they can support HR professionals in how they engage with trade unions as the world of work evolves.

At a national level tripartism – formal cooperation between government, employers and trade unions – needs a reboot and we should think about how to develop some additional institutions. In particular, we must reclaim the legitimacy of partnership and cooperation between trade unions and leaders at company and organisation level. It’s not cosy or somehow ‘incorporation’ or a roll-over by the forces of labour – it’s a long-term strategy, requires ongoing commitment and a willingness to learn from experience. It is hard work, involving joint problem solving, based on reciprocal obligations.

In Prospect’s experience it’s an approach the workforce wants to see its representatives follow at a company level and as a national approach, and many other unions agree. Not a continual threat of industrial action, and a refusal to engage in the realities and headwinds facing business today, but a partnership for success.

In fact, a partnership approach is alive and well in some key areas, for example with the NHS social partnership forum that has endured since 2008, and with the recent legislation promoting social partnership across Wales. Other parts of the public sector need the same commitment to a joint approach from unions and government and public sector employers. Unions have a role in industrial peace and stability, not just conflict generation. And as a key national stakeholder, representing millions of working people, we need to act on that principle. However, that also needs a rethink and commitment from employers, not a knee jerk rejection of good work proposals or a retreat to old hostilities.

On a practical level ACAS need proper resourcing, particularly if it has a renewed duty to promote voice and collective bargaining. Moreover, we need to consider how conflict, when it inevitably does arise, is resolved and where possible avoiding a trade dispute, which should always be a last resort. This means reflecting on the value of independent arbitration, mediation and conciliation from a contemporary perspective and enabling understanding of what such an approach would offer to employers, workers, and unions.

Other tripartite bodies such as the Health and Safety Executive may need strengthening; and new tripartite institutions might be needed – for example a national skills council to replace the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, abolished by the government in 2017. The Low Pay Commission may be absorbed into a Single Enforcement Body, but this must be established on a tripartite basis too.

Any national or sectoral industrial strategy should be accompanied by an employee relations strategy which focusses on collective voice, productivity, and skills. This can be a crucible for unions and employers to answer strategic economic questions facing the country. They can be examples of best practice for others to adopt.

This all needs a long lens perspective. If history and polls are any guide we may be on the brink of a two-term, decade long change in government. There are exceptionally difficult issues now facing the workplace which will require  employers, unions, and the employee relations commentariat to recognise that change and renewal needs patient implementation, as well as leaving behind the deregulation that drives insecurity and undermines productivity and growth.

Our route to economic prosperity requires a new deal for working people but it will flounder if we sit in ‘camps’ with one issuing demands and the other stuck in rebuttal. The headwinds our economy faces require us to find common solutions if we are to succeed. Above all, we all need to recognise that we will not improve productivity, and secure economic growth, without the full participation of people at work, and their representative institutions at the same time as businesses who want to invest in the UK.

Nita Clarke is the Director of the Involvement and Participation Association (IPA), and trade union liaison officer for Prime Minister Tony Blair 2002 – 2007. IPA is Britain’s leading organisation delivering workplace support for good employment and industrial relations.

Mike Clancy is General Secretary of Prospect trade union, representing more than 155,000 professional, technical and creative people in both public and private sectors.