chapter  4
20 Pages

Trade unions and democracy: can the ‘third way’ recast the link?

WithIan Roper

This chapter examines the relationship between the apparent ‘crisis of democracy’ and a parallel decline in the fortunes of unions. More specifically, it traces the rise of union influence in society coinciding with the rise in participative democracy in the first half of the twentieth century; and the subsequent decline in union influence coinciding with the seeming antipathy towards representative democratic institutions at the dawn of the twenty-first century. These developments in the fortunes of unions and democracy are closely linked to the economic and political programmes put into place by governments inspired by the ideologies of – what we would now call – neo-liberalism. Principally, these ideologies are based upon the belief that society was under attack from an increasingly bloated public sector, fed by overloaded public expectations promoted by overly powerful interest groups – chiefly trade unions. The concern being raised now is that the apparent success in suppressing these expectations has led to widespread apathy; that people’s expectations of government are now so low that government may face a legitimation crisis equal and opposite to that identified by radical observers in the 1970s (Gough 1979; Habermas 1975; O’Connor 1973). Thus, rather than there being a crisis based on too many demands being made on the state, there may now be a crisis of legitimacy on the continuing existence of democratic institutions at all. Against this background, the ‘third way’ has recently emerged as the self-proclaimed champion of the centre-left, claiming to be able to revive the fortunes of participative democracy. This strategy is based upon a retreat from all the associations that its social democratic predecessors had with ‘big government’.