In his Ralph Miliband lecture, Len McCluskey said unions "first job is to organise workers and secure a better deal for them at work." However, I'm not sure this is anything like sufficient to provide the alternative to our current crisis-ridden capitalism.
Let's assume - heroically - that unions do find the strength to push for higher wages. Would this boost the economy?
History suggests it could. In the 50s and 60s, a degree of wage militancy was compatible with full employment and decent economic growth. But I doubt that those circumstances apply today, for two big reasons.
First, high wages are quite consistent with full employment and high investment as long as those wages are returned to capitalists in the form of higher consumer spending. If this happens, capitalists will tolerate a squeeze on profit margins because they will anticipate that low margins will be accompanied by high sales volumes, and thus a decent return on capital.
But I'm not sure that higher wages would be returned in this way. For one thing, they might leach overseas in the form of spending on imports. And for another, if households use their extra incomes to pay off debt or student loans, then consumer spending won't rise as much as wages rise. That'll be a net loss to capital, and hence cause a fall in profit rates.
It's no accident that the post-war settlement was sustainable as long as the household savings ratio stayed low, but eventually fell apart in the 1970s as savings propensities increased.
Secondly, capitalists increased their investment significantly in the 1950s and 60s, thus contributing to high aggregate demand and full employment, even though profit rates were declining; investment rose 5.3% a year between 1948 and 1973. But there were two reasons for this, both of which are obviously absent now:
- In the 50s and 60s, most people thought governments had the will and know-how to maintain aggregate demand at a high level. They agreed with Tony Crosland's claim in the The Future of Socialism that "Demand has proved to be malleable, and in a broadly predictable manner, by fiscal policy." This reduced the fear of downturns, thus increasing the motive to invest. Again, though, this factor is absent now.
I fear, therefore, that McCluskey's call for greater workers' power will not give us wage-led growth.
This, however, is not to dismiss his lecture. He rightly quotes Ralph Miliband approvingly: "All concepts of politics, of whatever kind, are about conflict──how to contain it, or abolish it.” If class conflict cannot much improve workers 'living standards, the alternative is abolish such conflict. Sadly, however, this form of "one nation" politics is not yet a practical option.