If Karl Marx spun in his grave every time his name and legacy was defiled, an alternative source of energy would have long been located in Highgate Cemetery. Admittedly after, say, Stalin’s 1932-33 Ukrainian famine, the bar for desecration had been set pretty high. But I can still imagine the giant stone bust of Marx above the Old Man’s resting place at least tutting when Labour’s shadow Education Secretary, Tristram Hunt, crossed a lecturers’ picket line this week to deliver a talk on Marxism.
“Today, class, we’re going to learn about solidarity,” was presumably not Hunt’s opening gambit as the ashes of irony were scattered along the lecture theatre’s floor. Hunt’s excuse was that he was not a member of the striking University and College Union. “Why not?” is a fair question, but in actual fact an irrelevant one.
Continuing to supply labour during industrial action helps to fatally undermine a strike. If there are those willing to work while others lose a day’s pay fighting for the rights of both themselves and their colleagues, then the employer has little reason to even bother negotiating. “We’ve even got members of the Labour front bench keeping the show on the road!” they can boast.
University staff have suffered a real-terms pay cut of 13 per cent over the past five years – yes, beginning under a Labour government – and are having yet more below-inflation pay rises imposed on them. The “Labour” (the clue is in the name) Party should be supporting these workers. Instead, a Labour frontbencher – whose salary places him comfortably in the top 5 per cent of earners, and who is being offered an 11 per cent pay rise – has taken time off from his half-baked opposition to the Government’s education policies to help sabotage a strike.
It is, unfortunately, a revealing insight into the Labour leadership’s relationship with the labour movement. The party may have been founded by the unions to give working people a political voice, but the Tory jeer that the party is in their pockets is laughably baseless. Thirteen years of the union-bankrolled Labour Party in government left Britain with the “most restrictive union laws in the Western world”. Not my words, but those of Tony Blair.
If the unions had been dictating Labour Party policy, there would have been, say, no Iraq war, no scrapping of the 10p tax band, proper regulation of the City, and public ownership of the railways. The current Labour leadership openly snubs the trade unions on a whole host of policies: backing the Tories’ real-terms pay cut for public-sector workers, for example; and pledging to initially stick to George Osborne’s spending plans (or “more cuts”, to give a less clunky description). Just as depressingly – the odd welcome intervention from Ed Miliband aside – the Labour leadership hasn’t been very effective at making the case for what trade unions are actually for. It is perverse that Labour is relentlessly savaged for being funded by the biggest democratic movement in the country, one which represents everyone from supermarket check-out workers to bin collectors. The Tories, on the other hand, get bankrolled by hedge-fund managers, bankers, legal loan sharks – many of those who helped cause economic disaster or now profit from it – and yet the scrutiny is virtually non-existent.
Admittedly, part of the problem is the media. It is owned by a handful of rich people who see unions purely as problems, and who look back at Rupert Murdoch’s crushing of the unions at Wapping in 1986 as a seminal moment. Key journalists tend to hail from privileged backgrounds – the less well-off filtered out by unpaid internships and expensive graduate qualifications – and often have no understanding of, still less sympathy for, unions. The dinner parties of the media elite are more likely to be attended by City types than trade union officials. Union leaders are routinely described as “union barons”, even though unlike barons they are elected, which owners of the press are not.
The case for unions needs to be made. Unions won basic workers’ rights that are too often taken for granted. Through the party they founded, they were instrumental in the founding of everything from the welfare state to the NHS. Wages for many workers began falling long before the financial system went belly-up, even as companies were posting record profits, in large part because hobbled trade unions were unable to stand their ground. Cheap credit was offered as an alternative way of topping up falling living standards, which panned out marvellously for everyone involved.
If Labour wants to deal with the “cost of living crisis” in a sustainable way, giving unions the ability to win a decent share of the wealth their members are creating is pretty fundamental. I’m sure Tristram Hunt would agree that while ex-public schoolboys like himself have their place, Parliament needs to look more like the people it serves. That means more former supermarket workers and care assistants making it to Westminster, which means trade unions making more of an effort to train and support potential candidates, with the support of the Labour Party.
Crossing a picket line is bang out of order, Mr Hunt. But Labour’s failure to make the case that the living standards and rights of working people depend on trade unions is more serious. What a travesty it is left to unelected newspaper columnists like me.