Reassessing regulation: productivity, wage costs and trade union ‘power’ in the dock: Dan Coffey
There are signs of a restoration of public confidence in a positive role for the regulation of labour markets, and for an extension of collective control, by consumers and workers, over the production and distribution of marketed goods and services. Britain’s trade unions are similarly enjoying a revival of confidence and of public approbation. At the same time, positions taken today in debates over the future of regulation and collective ownership and control necessarily reflect present beliefs about past reasons for economic failure or conflict. In this respect, the predispositions of ‘new’ Labour, as with earlier Conservative administrations, remain biased towards the notion that ‘private’ somehow equates with hard-headed economic ‘efficiency’, while the anti-trade unionism of the 1980s and 1990s has mellowed only to the extent that some limited input from organised labour is accepted provided labour markets remain ‘f lexible’. The roots of what remains, at government level, an essentially defeated view on the efficiency of public ownership and the merits of organised labour might be traced, at least in part, to the set of perceptions engendered by the Thatcherite political reaction against both, a reaction which developed and gathered pace in a period of economic conflict and social uncertainty. In this chapter we make the case for looking back to look forward. We do so by means of a concrete industrial example that effectively highlights the gulf that can exist between today’s received accounts of past inefficiencies and abuses wrought by ‘excessive’ regulation and trade union influence, and the infinitely more complex realities suggested by the historical data.