I grew up in a typical working class household during the 70s and 80s. My dad was a docker, my mum a dinner lady and then became an advisor at the jobcentre. I joined the Department for Employment in 1984 and was a CPSA/PCS union activist during the turbulent ‘Militant’ v ‘Moderate’ battles of the 80s and 90s. We were a politicised, unionised household but none of us were members of the Labour Party. Even during the Wilson and Callaghan era, there was a suspicion that the Labour Party was filled with armchair insurrectionists and academic careerists with no gut feeling for the ‘working man or woman.’
The historical orthodoxy that the unions were all powerful during the 70s and held the Labour Party and the country to economic ransom is a dangerous myth perpetuated by the Thatcherite free marketers. If anything the winter of discontent only highlighted how weak the unions were and how disconnected they were from a Labour government that betrayed workers rights in the name of ‘economic prudency.’
Ah, Dear Prudence, the mantra of both right wing small government cranks and Puritanical Pseudo-Socialists such as Gordon Brown. This prudence always seems to be the responsibility of the lower orders, never the corporate or political elite. Tighten yer belts, pull yer socks up, knuckle down, work is its own reward and work will set you free.
Instead of thinking ahead of the game - what will be the impact of a digital, technologically accelerated economy and culture, a truly ‘free’ market where old national and political borders and ideologies are obsolete? - Miliband and McCluskey are still playing the power games of the 70s. No doubt ‘Red’ Ed’s strategists have convinced him to fight the next election firmly on the centre ground which is why they’ve neutralised any of the usual Tory accusations of being unpatriotic or in hock to the union barons.
The media storm following the Falkirk selection story, was inevitable as it plays both into Miliband’s hands to distance himself from his main benefactors (a bit like Kennedy distancing himself from the mafia once they’d secured his election) and also Len McCluskey’s policy of demanding more political bang for his members’ bucks.
I’ve been a member of Unite’s Liverpool ‘Casa’ community branch since January 2012 and it is these ‘community branches’ that I believe point towards a new future for the union movement. They are one of McCluskey’s best ideas but he is under pressure both from traditionalists who want to keep ‘trade’ unions within the framework of industrial guilds and progressives who want to expand both the brief and reach of Unite and other unions.
Community branches offer low cost membership of 50p per week to the unemployed and those on benefits, students and the retired; people who still have skills and talents to offer not only to the union movement but to their own communities. Instead of wasting millions on a political party that refuses to act on behalf of its core supporters, maybe those millions would be better spent on actually building grass roots services and support for the poor and struggling families who genuinely need help to survive this despicable regime.
Unions need to be thinking ahead of the game not simply reacting to immediate pressures and sticking to archaic ‘point of order’ rituals. In the era of austerity and the mobilisation of the right via the BNP and EDL, it is the union’s duty to re-engage and motivate those left behind by the Tory/New Labour One Nation mirage.
Old unionism and old capitalism is dead. My dad was made redundant in 1985, then worked in a succession of porter jobs. Although he belongs to that generation who did best from the post-war ‘good times’ with a decent pension and a house of his own (yes, he was one of those who bought his council house in the 80s), he still believes that my generation has had it easy. I was made redundant in 2001 and despite a pay off, have little to show for 30 years of work. My 22 year old daughter has worked on the minimum wage since she started work four years ago. Her boyfriend works in a call centre. My youngest daughter has just left secondary school and is about to start college.
Unions means nothing to them. They have accepted the way it is; low pay, low skill, non-unionised work places, non-existent rights, poor conditions, no pension plan, no paid holidays or sick pay. The ‘flexible market’ Utopia of the Tory social engineers has had unforeseen consequences. These kids don’t have economic security but then again, they don’t owe any allegiance to either company or community. It is this generation who unions need to appeal to more than ever instead of digging their trenches in the battlefields of 50 years ago.