Owen Jones: Tristram Hunt was bang out of order to cross a picket line…and his party is guilty of not standing up for workers’ rights

Labour is savaged for being funded by the biggest democratic movement

Share

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.

 

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page

 

Ed Miliband's conference speech must show Labour has a head as well as a heart

Patrick Diamond
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments