The Ghent system isn’t likely to be a concept many people are familiar with – at least certainly not in Britain. Yet while this seemingly obscure policy implementation is not widely known in the UK, it has been standard practice in Scandinavia and various other locations throughout Europe, including Belgium (the city this tripartite policy is named after is in Western Belgium) and Czechoslovakia. It was a product of the rise of mainstream social democracy throughout the continent in the 20s and 30s to contrast the rampant fascism and perceived communist threat – to mediate society and promote harmonious relations and tensions breaking out. It’s a wonder, then, why it was not – in plain sight – ever promoted as a policy option by any prominent members of the Labour Party at the time. However, this does not mean it’s unviable to consider its implementation in the 21st century. In fact, on the contrary, this oft-neglected policy could be argued to be a key, potentially and desperately needed policy to help make a better Britain in an increasingly broken one.
The Ghent system, despite its longevity elsewhere, would be regarded in the UK as a revolutionary overhaul – not just of the employment benefit system but as trade unions as a whole and its impacts vast and wide-ranging: transcending political debate and, in some cases radically transforming people’s lives. But what is the Ghent system? In essence, the Ghent system is where employment benefits for jobseekers are paid by their respective trade unions. On the face of it, this somewhat alien concept may seem nonsensical, but the benefits of the Ghent System, upon analysis, are laid out. Given Britain’s intrinsic link with the rise of guild socialism in the early 1900s (guild socialism being the advocacy for worker-control of their respective industries via trade-related guilds/unions in a contractual relationship with the public), it may be somewhat surprising to hear that, as far as can be ascertained via Google, there’s been virtually no advocacy for this as a policy in British political discussion – even the USA has provided more thought and attention to this policy. Though these benefits would not necessarily come from guilds (although if guild memberships were encouraged in the same way, it certainly could), providing benefits via these organisations would undoubtedly encourage and potentially strengthen the relationship between industry and the wider public – without further involvement from Westminster.
Firstly, if it were to be applied in the UK, it would save the central British government a considerable amount of money. What its application would look like practically in Britain isn’t a very well-researched topic, so unfortunately, there aren’t any easily quotable statistics detailing any reliable estimation of how much money this would save Westminster. It also would not remove the need for the British government to provide any benefits. For example, disability benefits and benefits afforded to the elderly would likely not be applicable or appropriate in this circumstance. However, the fact of the matter is that this would be essentially a nullification of the necessity to pay unemployment benefits for virtually all trades and members of society. Even without any specific numbers to hand to back this factor up, it is clear that this would be a near complete removal of an entire aspect of government spending, enabling Westminister to reduce the budgetary deficit and refocus their priorities on issues such as the funding of the NHS and international aid.
Secondly, the Ghent System allows the trade union to determine the actual needs and support its membership requires as well as how much of a budgetary constraint this would be on each specific union. Currently, the Universal Credit system is, as one can guess, a universal system: one size fits all. There is little accounting for the differences in job sectors and the different needs that other types of workers have. When this responsibility is delegated to the trade unions, their focus can be much more finely attuned to the specifics and needs of the individual trade. Whilst it could be argued that this leads to more wealth disparity between different professions, the reality is that the disparity of the benefit provision between trade unions in nations which have adopted the Ghent System is relatively small. In addition to this, it only deals with unemployment benefits, meaning that income between the classes remains relatively unaffected: the difference being that the trade union that argues in favour of the working rights of its members sets its benefits – a union that acknowledges and recognises the needs of its members is inherently more likely to act in the interests of its members, rather than a government-funded benefit system, funding to which is either diluted or cut due to the influence of corporations (the interests of whom are often at odds with the interest of the workers employed by them.
Lastly, the Ghent system would increase trade union membership in the UK massively. Britain has one of the lowest trade union membership percentages throughout Europe at c.15%. However, as trade unions provide employment benefits in Ghent System nations, trade union membership routinely exceeds 80%. Even in Sweden, a nation which has seen the Ghent System slowly being eroded over time (as has Finland), trade unions remain influential, at approx. 68% of workers being a member of a trade union relevant to their profession. The reason for this is straightforward: if you would like to get such benefits to avoid finding yourself in a precarious financial situation if you lose your job/see your workload significantly reduced, you must be in a trade union. As the numbers prove, this is a no-brainer for the majority of people, not least because it helps give more of a say to the ordinary person about their demands for changes to their industry, not just being provided with unemployment benefits. And whilst it could be argued that trade unions are just as prone to corruption/having their interests distorted by external financial influence, the fact remains that their membership is fee-paying and wields more influence over the union than virtually any wealthy individual or company can. Especially if money is taken out of politics, this is no longer an issue or significant threat to the integrity of trade unions or politicians/governments.
The Ghent System is a method of tripartism that has been utilised for over a century in nations with social democratic foundations to install more harmonious relationships between the government, the people/trade unions, and the corporations. By eliminating much of the negotiations and bureaucracy, each union would have to have with the government to advance its own agenda and promote more financial support for its memberships, as well as doing away with the counterbalance influence of large corporations and their desires and lobbying attempts to try and influence national governments. It ensures that workers’ rights and financial futures no longer have to be juggled or jeopardised by the government in the manner we see today. More substantial and concrete financial protections for the working class would be seen, empowering unions to advocate the rights of their workers further and ensuring each individual member of each union is adequately supported, both in the workplace and outside it financially. In such times of financial strife and uncertainty, it isn’t implausible to suggest this century-old policy may help to rebuild a broken Britain better than before.