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Contrary to expectations John Kelly’s (1998; 2005) analysis suggests that the election of a Labour government in 1997 caused trade union membership in Britain to stagnate. Discuss`

In the introduction to his work Kelly argues that "…late twentieth century industrial relations are passing through an historic transition" (Kelly, 1998). An effect of this transition, it would appear, was a dramatic decline in membership and influence, and furthermore, its failure to perform its expected renaissance in the more fertile conditions under a Labour government. This essay seeks firstly to assess the existence and extent of stagnation, and having established it, will attempt to explain it in terms of continuity and change. Continuity in terms of economic restructuring, demographic shifts and political zeitgeist, and change in terms of new challenges presented by Labour's election since 1997. I would like to then turn to the future of the Trade unions, briefly assessing in turn the argument for optimism and a new approach to studying industrial relations by Kelly, and the more pessimistic assessment of Metcalf and Fernie. This will lead to the conclusion that the Trade union movement's stagnation since 1997 is indicative of a bleak outlook.

When assessing the existence of stagnation, the only possible answer is a simple and stark confirmation. Between 1997 and 2000 membership remained at 7.8 million, with twenty-six fewer Trade Unions ( By 2005, this had shrunk to 6.4 million members, a two percent decrease since 2004. This stagnation, moreover, occurred in an era of relatively low unemployment, economic growth and after unprecedented decline in the twenty years which preceded it; there were 5 million fewer members and over 200 fewer Trade unions in 1997 than in 1979 ( This despite, as Metcalf and Fernie have argued, far more benign conditions than in recent decades.

It also asks serious questions about the future of mass union membership. Crucially, the legislative base of this more benign atmosphere has been a focus on individual worker's rights, not union influence. This might help those at the bottom of the pay scale, but it has not motivated them to join a union. While a third of over 50s are union members, only a quarter of 25-34 year olds are (Ludlam and Smith, 2001, 116). Fernie and Metcalf (2005) argue the unions are held back by their own rigid structures, and threatened by the trend toward firms giving worker representation without allowing unions. Their pessimistic analysis appears to be supported by the failure of young and migrant workers to enthusiastically unionise, despite the fact they have none of the negative associations created by awareness of events in the late 1970s.

It would appear, therefore, that the combination of New Labour's continuity with long term detrimental factors, and the double edged sword of the benign new climate of greater worker welfare, has left membership to stagnate and the union's very future to be called into question. Kelly (1998) argues for a more optimistic approach, suggesting the right conditions are apparent for a surge in membership and influence. Moreover, he feels current methods of analysis and structures of assessment "...cedes priority to the employer's agenda of labour utilization and control" (Kelly, 1998, p131). His optimism and rejection of an (in his eyes) post modern analysis which suggests the decline of organised Labour is not shared by Fernie and Metcalf (2005), who feel the inability of unions to sufficiently modernise, and/or effectively penetrate the private sector firms which increasingly dominate the British economy bode ill for its future. The election of a Labour government in 1997, so long sought after by organised Labour as its moment of resurgence has, through a combination of continuity and change, put a further nail in the coffin of its mass membership and influence.

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