As the Levenson inquiry is the latest to show, and the MPs expenses scandal proved earlier, we have an out-of-touch, self-satisfied, mutual back-scratching elite who look after themselves while ignoring ordinary people as much as possible. Maybe we could put up with that if this elite took the right decisions on behalf of us. But they don’t.
Everything from the criminal error of the Iraq War to the disaster of neo-liberal economics, recent times have seen both front benches united in one blunder after another, for which the people pay the price. So… cynicism might be understandable. But it is wrong.
The fact is that trade unionism cannot achieve its objectives without political action. Much of what we celebrate from the minimum wage to limits on working time began as a union campaign – but ended up as legislation.
Let me quote Marx here – since I have been called a slab-face militant by my friends in the media they’d be disappointed if I didn’t. When asked what his programme was, he said it was: ”the economic emancipation of the working class through the conquest of political power.”
We speak for people who have ambitions that go beyond what are normally regarded as trade union, bread-and-butter, issues. Who want to live in a peaceful world which looks after its young and its old, which has values that go beyond profit. If trade unions like Unite do not give voice to those aspirations of working people, then they will go unheard.
That does not make us a political party. But it gives us a political responsibility. If we shrug and walk away, the only effect will be to make politics still more the exclusive preserve of a small, rich and powerful elite ruling over us but not for us.
Without power, organisation and engagement by ordinary people, universal suffrage means nothing. If voting stops changing things, people stop voting. Only the status quo prospers. That’s why the elite have always been so eager to break the connection between trade unions and politics, between the movement and the Party it created.
We need to understand these arguments. Next year, Unite will have to hold the ballot required under Tory laws to maintain a political fund. We need to convince Unite members that, whatever their own opinions and whatever their view of the Labour Party, they have a stake in their union keeping its political voice.
But we also have to be clear that the status quo is not an option in our political work anymore. I share the frustration over the fact that the last Labour government simply took trade unionists’ money – our members money – while treating us with disdain.
We can’t forget the fact that the anti-union laws introduced by Thatcher were all still on the statute book when Labour left office, the industrial playing field just as slanted in favour of the bosses as it was when the Tories left office in 1997.
And I am frustrated that talk of “reclaiming Labour” was just that – talk. So your union is now setting about our political work with a new sense of purpose. At the end of last year the Executive Council adopted Unite’s political strategy after much thought, debate and discussion.
What are we aiming for?
- Proper debate and democracy in the Party, including a conference that is more policy and less showbiz.
- The selection of far more trade unionists with our values as parliamentary candidates.
- We want a PLP that looks like the Labour electorate in class terms, as well as gender and ethnic terms.
- We want a Labour front bench that understands trade unionism and speaks up for us when we are under Tory attack.
- And above all we want a party that offers a clear and compelling alternative to the electorate, a radical alternative that doesn’t try to split the difference between workers and the City of London, and that will govern in the interests of working people when it returns to office.
I believe Labour has started to change. We have in Ed Miliband a decent man and an increasingly powerful leader, (we have our differences of course), but I believe he is leaving much of what millions of people liked least about “new Labour” behind.
Not everyone in the Party agrees with the direction he is heading in. The public seem to like it, yes, but there are still the New Labour diehards looking to the past before 2008 and the crash. They have a right to their views, of course.
But it is clear that the only future for Labour is by moving further and faster along the path Ed set out in his two conference speeches as leader to date. The fact is that a vacuum has developed in left and progressive thinking. We know that the course followed up to 2008 – let the market rip and hope to pick up some crumbs for the NHS – has failed.
But what comes next?
A gap has opened between our aspirations and our thinking in the last 25 years.
That is why Unite has taken the lead, alongside other trade unions, in creating the movement’s own independent left think-tank – CLaSS (the Centre for Labour and Social Studies)- to contribute to the rethinking needed and to bring together the best minds on the left to work out the alternative which the current situation – and the public – are crying out for.
It held its first successful event just last month, and I believe that with our continuing support it will play a still greater part in the renewal of Labour’s political compass.
Ed Miliband has already taken important steps in the direction of developing the alternative.
The local election results showed that he is striking a chord, much to the metropolitan media’s apparent surprise.
I hope the Labour Party policy review under its new management will now go further in radical thinking.
The review could start by looking at the results of CLaSS’s opinion polling which shows big majorities of British people supporting the measures which swept Francois Hollande to victory in the French presidential election this month:
- Publicly-owned banks driving investment.
- Earlier retirement for those who have worked 41 years or more.
- More teachers in our schools.
- Much higher tax on millionaires.
- Building 500,000 new homes a year.
That’s the sort of agenda we could do with here – I would only add that if we could have French standards of union and employment rights too, it would be almost perfect.
If you wanted to make the case for the importance of trade unionism today, I would point to just one image. It’s not even something we’ve done.
It is the image of unemployed young people being forced to sleep under London Bridge before getting up to work for nothing on the day of the Jubilee celebrations. Even in the 1980s. Even when Thatcher was at her worst, I do not recall such naked slave labour being used.
That is the world you get if business and the super rich have all the power. And if trade unionism is attacked and reduced. Our society is unjust and unequal not by chance. Not because things just developed that way. Not because it’s the natural or inevitable order of things. It is that way because those in power wanted it that way.
They worked through the 1980s and 1990s to create a state of affairs in which the bosses get bumper pay rises and bonuses year in and year out, regardless of results. And in which the only line of defence working people have ever created against unbridled capitalism – trade unions – are weakened to the point where workers are forced to labour for nothing, and to sleep out in the cold before doing so.
This government will never lift a finger against that system. In fact they want to go further. Many of their supporters want new attacks on trade union rights. And just look at those supporters, the people behind the so-called Trade Union Reform Campaign:
- Aidan Burley MP, who paid the bill at a Nazi-themed stag party in France.
- Pritti Patel, whose career before entering Parliament consisted in promoting the image of the dictatorship now killing its own people in Bahrain.
We need no lectures on democracy, freedom and decency from people like that.
But let me make one thing clear. Governments of both parties and judges have combined in recent times to make some of the basic functions of trade unionism all-but illegal in Britain. If they wish to go further, and put the basic union freedoms which are normal across the rest of Europe and most of the rest of the world beyond the law then we are not going to submit to that.
To protect, above all, the right to take proper industrial action, Unite will take whatever steps are necessary to support our members come what may. We will no longer lie down before injustice, like that displayed in the High Court last week when London Bus Companies got another injunction on spurious grounds to stop our members going on strike. As Bob Dylan once sang:
to live outside the law you must be honest”.
So, I will be honest and tell anyone in government thinking of putting unions effectively outside the law – beware what you wish for. I hope ministers listen. At times, when it comes to working together to save British manufacturing, they sometimes do.
But most of the time this is a government at war with much of the British people. A cobbled-together coalition government united on only one thing – that the poor must pay for the bankers’ crisis through lost jobs, a destroyed welfare state and falling living standards. A government that sits and watches as another forgotten generation of young people proceed straight from school to the dole queue.
More than a million of our kids facing a future without hope. That is nothing short of shameful, conference. A government which has changed almost everything in its own budget – except the plan to cut taxes on the richest. A government that did not hesitate to stoke up a phony panic over petrol supplies to try and give themselves a “miners’ moment” at the expense of oil tanker drivers and Unite.
This is a government forfeiting the right to rule. And the TUC’s demonstration on October 20 is our chance to tell them so, in our hundreds of thousands.
This is an abridged version of Len McCluskey’s speech to the Unite conference in Brighton yesterday. You can read the full version here.