Tuesday, November 21, 2006

John Monks on capitalism today

Shortly after John Monks became general secretary of the TUC, I interviewed him for Tribune. Unlike some occupants of that role, he actually had a discernable personality. Unlike most politicians, he gave straight answers to straight questions.

As our meeting took place after working hours, he even cracked open the Congress House reserves of Scotch for the occasion. The blended stuff rather than the single malt, true. But much appreciated, nevertheless.

His political viewpoint, even then, seemed to be mainstream left social democratic. But as a TUC leader, he performed much as the job description presumably requires. During his tenure, which stretched from 1993 to 2003, he proved himself an outstanding fighter for the working class. Not.

So I am slightly surprised at an article in today’s Financial Times, written by that paper’s management correspondent Stefan Stern. It is based on a speech delivered by Monks – now working in Brussels as head of the European Trade Union Confederation – at a recent Nye Bevan memorial lecture in London.

Stern postulates that Monks has moved to the left since taking over his new job. I’m not so sure about that. But perhaps he feels better able to state his true opinions from a public platform.

Stern writes:

‘No one in the audience would have been expecting Bevanite rhetorical fireworks from Mr Monks. That has never been his style. Between 1993 and 2003, he led the British trade union movement with modesty and distinction.

‘He was the moderate's moderate: avoiding confrontation wherever possible and advocating partnership at work between management and employees. Business leaders were happy to do business with him.

‘They would not have found this lecture so easy to deal with. Confronted by today's turbo-charged capitalism, Mr Monks cast off his former moderation. He even seemed to be on the verge of recanting his commitment to the partnership model. "Partnership with who?" he asked. There has been, he said, a "disintegration of the social nexus between worker and employer - a culture containing broad social rights and obligations. The new capitalism wants none of it."

‘Mr Monks contrasted businesses' healthy profitability with the ruthless way some have treated their staff recently, whether through large-scale redundancies or the constant threat that jobs may be sent off-shore or outsourced. While median wages have stagnated, record executive salaries are legion.

‘He admitted that he had possibly been a bit naive in the past. "I did not fully appreciate what was happening on the other side of the table," Mr Monks said.

‘While he sympathised with business leaders for the relentless pressure they find themselves under - "It cannot be easy running a firm . . . when you are up for sale every day and every night of every year" - he was appalled by the increasingly "shameless", short-termist behaviour of overpaid corporate executives. "More and more they resemble the Bourbons - and they should be aware of what eventually happened to the Bourbons."’

Monks also reportedly hit out at the actions of management under what he called ‘casino capitalism’, a term that I haven’t heard used since the early eighties:

‘Their actions are "dangerous to economic stability, traditional industry and jobs", he said. "I would like to see the City pages of the press more challenging and less respectful on these matters . . . Our future - the world's future - is too important to place in the hands of the new capitalists."’

As critiques of capitalism go, this is more prawn korma than chicken vindaloo. FTSE-100 bosses are surely thick-skinned enough to be able to take such stick.

But it a token of just how far the Labour Party has moved to the right when such mild sentiments left of centre sentiment on the part of a union leader is deemed worthy of a full third of a broadsheet page in the FT.

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