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

Oracle DBA (Database Administrator, 10g, 11g, PL/SQL)

£45000 - £50000 Per Annum + £5k shift allowance, 12% bonus, benefits: Clearwat...

Oracle DBA (Database Administrator, 10g, 11g, PL/SQL)

£45000 - £50000 Per Annum + £5k shift allowance, 12% bonus, benefits: Clearwat...

Cover Supervisor

£45 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Chester: Job Opportunities for Cover Sup...

IT Teacher September strt with view to permanent post

£110 - £130 per day + Competitive rates of pay: Randstad Education Reading: IT...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Members of the community farming group at work in their community fields near the town of Masi Manimba, Bandundu Province, DRC.  

The five biggest myths surrounding overseas aid

Billy Hill
 

Colour changing nail varnish isn't going to prevent rape, or the vicious culture of victim blaming

Chloe Hamilton
Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?
Rachael Lander interview: From strung out to playing strings

From strung out to playing strings

Award-winning cellist Rachael Lander’s career was almost destroyed by the alcohol she drank to fight stage fright. Now she’s playing with Elbow and Ellie Goulding
The science of saturated fat: A big fat surprise about nutrition?

A big fat surprise about nutrition?

The science linking saturated fats to heart disease and other health issues has never been sound. Nina Teicholz looks at how governments started advising incorrectly on diets
Emmys 2014 review: Can they genuinely compete with the Oscars

Can they genuinely compete with the Oscars?

The recent Emmy Awards are certainly glamorous, but they can't beat their movie cousins
On the road to nowhere: A Routemaster trip to remember

On the road to nowhere

A Routemaster trip to remember
Hotel India: Mumbai's Taj Mahal Palace leaves its darker days behind

Hotel India

Mumbai's Taj Mahal Palace leaves its darker days behind
10 best pencil cases

Back to school: 10 best pencil cases

Whether it’s their first day at school, uni or a new project, treat the student in your life to some smart stationery
Arsenal vs Besiktas Champions League qualifier: Gunners know battle with Turks is a season-defining fixture

Arsenal know battle with Besiktas is a season-defining fixture

Arsene Wenger admits his below-strength side will have to improve on last week’s show to pass tough test
Pete Jenson: Athletic Bilbao’s locals-only transfer policy shows success does not need to be bought

Pete Jenson: A Different League

Athletic Bilbao’s locals-only transfer policy shows success does not need to be bought
This guitar riff has been voted greatest of all time

The Greatest Guitar Riff of all time

Whole Lotta Votes from Radio 2 listeners
Britain’s superstar ballerina

Britain’s superstar ballerina

Alicia Markova danced... every night of the week and twice on Saturdays
Berlin's Furrie invasion

Berlin's Furrie invasion

2000 fans attended Eurofeurence
‘It was a tidal wave of terror’

‘It was a tidal wave of terror’

Driven to the edge by postpartum psychosis