General election 2010: The impact on industrial relations

As the general election approaches many in the world of HR will be wondering what it will mean for industrial and employee relations if Labour remains in power, if we have a new Conservative government, or even a Liberal Democrat-empowered hung parliament.

Most may feel that it will make no difference who is in office, that the over-riding factor in how the next two or three years will pan out will be the economy and how the new government handles the tricky journey out of recession. Nonetheless, the trade unions will play an interesting role between now and the election.

It might seem odd that with many unions, although by no means all, being contributors to the Labour party, there is such an atmosphere of unrest. Action by TSSA in some of the rail companies, unrest at Royal Mail, Unite grappling with BA, and PCS civil service members striking, illustrate that no quarter will be given, even if it means Labour losing the election because of the action.

However, before we hear cries of ‘union power’ echoing throughout the land once again we need to put this into context.

With fewer than 25% of workers now trade union members power is one thing they don’t have. Power to embarrass and disrupt, possibly, but not to really change anything.

Union influence, however, is far-reaching – just consider their role as pension trustees – and whichever party wins they will need to tread carefully so as not to unleash a wave of unrest and confrontation.

The idea that any of the major trade unions will engage with meaningful intent with a Conservative government is a fanciful notion and it is just not going to happen. This will mean that the relationship between government and unions, which for the past 13 years has seen discussions constantly taking place behind closed doors, will simply not continue.

What will change significantly under a Conservative administration is the macro relationship between government, employers and trade unions – underpinned by the parlous state of the economy. I predict that political confrontation will be rife, so trade unions will seek alternative and more militant ways of expressing the concerns and anger of the workforce.

If Labour were to win they would be forced to get back to their roots. Donating unions will expect – and may demand – some recompense for the very real and significant investment they will have made to Labour’s election effort. This view would be supported by many Labour MPs and therefore shape any future government policy.

Many companies today have good experiences of partnership-led employee relations in getting through the recent tough times, so whatever the hue of the next government, those relationships will continue, in general terms, to work.

The mood-music generated by government, however, has an impact, encouraging unions to be more bullish perhaps under Labour and employers to be more confident under the Conservatives.

Either way unions will adapt quickly to ensure their effectiveness. You would think that having been through the deepest recession since the 1930s union membership would be growing – but it isn’t in anything like the numbers you would expect, given the state of the economy, the banking crisis, unemployment and spending cuts.

Whatever the outcome of the election, the economic climate will be the only real determinant and in that, how employers handle the fallout will be crucial. Feeling ‘gung ho’ in the shadow of Conservative government could be a costly error, just as fearing ‘favours’ to trade unions if Labour win would also be.

More importantly, HR should look at what strategies and policies it needs to develop to keep organisations vibrant, relevant and successful. The colour of the government really should not make any difference to how employers run their businesses.

Rory Murphy, HR consultant and former union general-secretary

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