Saturday, 22 January 2011

How Trade Unions Can Fight The Coalition and Avoid The Dance of Opposition.

I cannot help but feel somewhat responsible for events as I watch the car crash that is the coalition, unfold. I tend to watch the news whilst peeking from behind my hand these days, and I usually watch Question Time with a pronounced feeling of distaste in my mouth, and a grimace on my face.

I have to admit that I was one of those people who believed in the Liberal Democrats during the run up to the general election. I was taken in by Clegg and co when they made their empty promises, and I was taken in by the progressive facade of a party that was looking ever more popular in the face of a Labour party that had lost its impetus, lost its impact, and in far too many areas of policy and conviction, lost its way.

I was pushed towards the Lib Dems by a multitude of issues, including the 10p tax debacle, the continual erosion of worker’s rights, the blind lust exhibited by Labour towards big business, and the ‘parachuting in’ of party apparatchiks from solicitor’s practices in leafy London suburbs and into some of the most disadvantaged and forlorn constituencies in the land, including my home city of Hull.

What’s more, I even worked as a local organiser for the Liberal Democrats, liaising with the press and co-ordinating many electioneering activities within my former constituency of Littlehampton & Bognor Regis, and also leading online efforts to increase the Lib Dem vote. All this in front of the backdrop of ultimately false promises from the party leader, and a rising feeling that my natural habitat, the Labour party, had pushed me away, like so many others, as it lurched and lunged away from the very people it was formed to represent.

That said, I offer no excuses. I feel as if I have gunpowder on my hands as bullet after divisive bullet is fired at the working classes and the vulnerable by this ‘coalition’

I can only begin to clean my hands of that gunpowder by joining the struggle to turn Britain away from the abyss that is essentially a right wing pact that will, ultimately, choke off any last gasp of aspiration, protection, or advancement that sustains the most optimistic of organised, and unorganised workers alike.

It is obvious to me that the only sector that can realistically put the brakes on the downward slide of the ConDems, is that of the trade unions. I can’t help feeling though, that we are missing a trick here.

During the election campaign, Cameron called on the nation to join his ‘big society’ to become involved in the administration of the local communities and begin organising together in order to achieve local goals etc. We all know only too well that this is nothing but a cynical tory attempt to provide neighbourhood services (that we all pay ever more extortionate council tax for) on the cheap.

What many people are failing to appreciate however, is that Cameron and co are switching on the neon signs that are directing unions toward a massive opportunity that could trigger a resurgence in union membership and organised, community events that can only succeed in putting across our agenda to people who have never held a union card. And what is more, the tories created the very void that they are now calling on us to fill!

Think back to the days of Thatcher and Tebbit. The advent of the ‘right to buy’ scheme caused a seismic shift in the thinking of many within the British working class, putting to an end the self-identification of many as working class, and making some much more unwilling to withdraw their labour as a result of quite understandable commitment to servicing their mortgages, something which hitherto had not widely been an issue. This, combined with the systematic demonization of the trades union movement by the British press, the face-off between Thatcher and the NUM, and the inception of the anti-trade union legislation (instigated by the Tories, and sustained by Labour) ushered in an era of decline for organised labour within the United Kingdom.

Fast forward from the mid 80’s to 2011, and the void left by this era of decline is being made larger by the short sighted and damaging actions of the ConDems, and this constitutes an unprecedented opportunity for the trades union movement to reclaim lost ground, and also to inspire, agitate, educate and organise new generations of activists, members, officers, and ultimately leaders.

I believe that we are taking precisely the wrong decisions when it comes to fighting the ConDems. I believe that, instead of shunning the big society, and viewing it entirely as an object of ridicule, we should engage with it.

The TUC should be showing tangible leadership on this issue, preparing to work in communities, and giving the disadvantaged, vulnerable, and unorganised labour a reason to join us. The plans of the coalition include credit unions, community projects, local TV operations, library syndicates, employment services and many, many more functions that would previously be within the remit of local government and the civil services.

If we are to truly prosper for the long term, and increase our ability to educate workers against exploitation, against low wages, and against the very worst ravages of the globalised market, and once and for all move on from the climate within which low paid workers see themselves as helpless victims with no recourse to justice and fair conditions, we have to hold our nose, and do what most of us would find to be unpleasant work, keeping our eyes on the prize, and seeing past the fact that we are having to rub along with those who have either betrayed their promises to the poor and vulnerable, or simply fail to register their presence in the first place.

We need a network of community based bids being lodged to step into the void that was created by the worst excesses of Thatcherism, and which is only being made larger by the ‘big society’ rhetoric of Cameron and Clegg. The TUC needs to be organising member unions, co-ordinating resources and strategies and targeting these areas where once we may have been organising at foundries, factories and railway yards, and instead working with the local people to set up credit unions, help save local services, and give those hard pressed and forlorn communities something to believe in.

We cannot inspire people by rhetoric alone. In the hard times that are here, and which are set to get worse, people need action to inspire them. They need results and they need change, where it matters most, within their communities.

If we can be strategic, locally minded, and relevant to people in these poor communities we can help restore local pride, improve community services, reduce the feeling of disenfranchisement that so often leads to anti social behaviour, and provide a new link between the huge numbers of unorganised workers, and a trade union movement that can, once again be a true vehicle for change.

To achieve these new links, and greater opportunities for the recruitment and education of these people who desperately need a voice, as well as a cause to galvanise them, we need to look past basic tribalism and naked ideology, and be visionary.

The only realistic alternative to toryism is the Labour party. The jury is still out on Ed Miliband as leader. It is early days for him, but if he fails to inspire as Labour leader, the problems presented by the ConDemNation will only get worse by way of the Tories and Lib Dems solidifying their position as the governing parties, and that is something we all want to avoid!

We need to do what is right for the people for whom the trade unions were formed to defend and serve. We need the TUC to show true leadership, and not the usual horse trading and glad handing style of leadership that we usually have to make do with, and we need to seize this unexpected opportunity to reconnect with the poor, vulnerable and the unorganised labour within communities all across this great nation.

More importantly, we need to be grown up about what needs to be done, to resist the urge to retreat into the safe territory of protest banners, burning bins, and another generation of opposition politics, watching yet more of our young and exploited being thrown on the scrapheap by Cameron’s millionaire cabinet.

We need to work smarter as well as harder, and build community links, taking the opportunity to educate the young and the disenfranchised in a way that will inspire them to join the trade unions, and then ultimately join and progress through the ranks of the Labour Party ,to re-establish its identity as a political voice for ordinary, hard working men, women and children, for the vulnerable and for the exploited. To continue the fight against the very worst that Cameron and Clegg and their successors have to offer.

Most importantly of all, we need to wake up to the facts. We have a tory government. It may have a pale yellow fig leaf covering its intimate areas, but it is essentially tory. We can continue in the same historical vein of protests, slogans, and strikes. Or we can be aware of the world in which we are operating.

The court of public opinion is an important one, and we as trade unionists would do well to remember that. We need to play the ConDems at their own game, creating goodwill as well as new opportunities within communities.

Only when we have laid down roots in communities, and organised and educated those within them can we cement our own position as a movement, and as a foundation stone upon which the Labour party was founded.

The alternative is to continue to wave the banners, chant the songs and fill the streets with protest. Whilst there is nothing wrong with that at all, it completely misses the best opportunity we have had in generations. The coalition was brought in by deceit on the part of Nick Clegg. But it was also brought about by a thirst for change on the part of the public.

We need to be grown up about the challenge that faces us. We need to recognise that some things simply must be done differently if we are to achieve our aims as trade unionists and as progressives.

We need to realise that things do not always get done in the best way because they have been done the same way since 1880.

We have to adapt, to advance, to be strategic, and to change in a way that will allow progressive politics to set the political agenda in Britain rather than spend the next generation protesting about it.

Opposition creates fantastic folk songs, but it doesn’t make for a fantastic country. We need to stop writing lyrics, and start writing a more vibrant, democratic, open, inclusive and progressive future for this great movement, and more importantly for this great nation.

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