The International Handbook of Labour Unions
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The International Handbook of Labour Unions

Responses to Neo-Liberalism

Edited by Gregor Gall, Adrian Wilkinson and Richard Hurd

Since the 1970s, the spread of neo-liberalism across the world has radically reconfigured the relationship between unions, employers and the state. The contributors highlight that this is the major cause and effect of union decline and if there is to be any union revitalisation and return to former levels of influence, then unions need to respond in appropriate political and practical ways. Written in a clear and accessible style, the Handbook examines unions’ efforts to date in many of the major economies of the world, providing foundations for understanding each country.
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Chapter 6: Britain: How Neo-liberalism Cut Unions Down to Size

John McIlroy


John McIlroy INTRODUCTION Neo-liberalism in Britain evolved through four broad stages. It developed after 1945 as an ideological critique of the Keynesian social-democratic consensus. Distilled in the work of Hayek, it penetrated the political class, reaching state agendas with the proto-monetarism of Callaghan’s Labour administration after 1976. Stoked by the crisis of oil and profitability this second period of practical influence developed after 1979: the Thatcher governments broke gradually, tentatively, cumulatively, decisively, with the post-war settlement (Harvey 2005). By 1990, neo-liberalism structured the policies of state and capital. The neo-liberalisation of the Labour Party facilitated by Conservative success produced a third stage: the ascendancy of neo-liberalism, reflected in a new consensus. In government from 1997, New Labour purveyed a more sophisticated, populist neo-liberalism. It maintained the core of Thatcherism, marginalised social democracy and exposed ‘Third Way’ nomenclature as cosmetic (McIlroy 2009a, 2009b). A fourth period of crisis, financial turmoil and recession commenced in 2008. It saw defeat for New Labour and a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition after the 2010 election. There was no return to Keynesianism: the platforms of all major parties remained neoliberal, cuts in state expenditure to rescue the system remained common ground. Alternatives remained weak: candidates of the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) received on average 371 votes. Recomposition rather than unravelling of a damaged British neo-liberalism appears most likely (Harvey 2010). My conceptualisation of neo-liberalism is elaborated in my earlier writing. Neo-liberalism expedites tendencies to global economic integration pushing markets towards deregulation, privatisation and subordination to...

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