Deborah Orr: Why the Seventies weren't all that bad

If the past were not so demonised we might be able to grasp more clearly what's going on now
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There is, we are told, a terrible ghost hanging over this year's Labour Party conference. Behind the scenes, and occasionally in front of the cameras, the unions are lurking, stirring up trouble, fomenting discontent, demanding mad legislation that will allow calloused-handed neanderthals and greasy-haired layabouts to throw their weight around. Danger is all around. That "terrible ghost" is the Seventies, and no matter how awful things appear to be, nothing is more devastating than a return to that hideous decade.

What signals this Wellsian journey through time?

First, Tony Woodley, the unappealing bluster-monger who leads the Transport and General Workers' Union, has used the Gate Gourmet strike as an opportunity to call for the reinstatement of "secondary action". Second, a couple of other unions, Unison and the GMB, are kicking up a fuss about pensions.

What is lost in this almost primal fear everyone has of returning to the Seventies is that, actually, it wasn't all bad. Okay, so I was a child - power cuts were fun, being sent home from school was fantastic, and bedtime was before nine anyway. But my Seventies childhood also included a huge amount of stuff that was entirely positive.

I had massive independence - walking to and from school by myself from six or seven, or roaming and biking the streets and the fields of my area from morning til night without any concept of what a "play-date" might be. There were cars in the streets, but not many, so they were not the hazard they are now, largely because the streets were not full of parents feverishly chauffeuring their children from one safe encounter to the next.

Throughout the Seventies I attended the nearest appropriate state school, without any parental choice ever being exercised, or any particularly "child-centred" education either. After school, along with at least a dozen others from my year at a bog-standard comprehensive, I went to a top university (tuition fees not an issue, grant gratefully received), something we are led to believe is now a virtual impossibility.

Things may have been awful for adults. but one thing that was not such a pressure, surely, was having a family life. What is this fearful, competitive parenting we succumb to now, which sees us supposedly protecting our children even though they're exposed by the wider culture to adult "themes" by the time they can read.

In the nightmare Seventies, I was shocked on the family terraces by hearing a man shout repeatedly to a player "you big balloon! You big balloon!" Last winter, when I took my seven-year-old to the same ground, I prayed for all the hundreds of men with their sons and daughters to start shouting "fuck" all the time, because that would be preferable to the angry sound of a thousand cries of "cunt".

I'm aware that this sounds like daft misplaced nostalgia, and that in so many ways things are better for people now than they were 30 years ago. But perhaps if the past was not demonised so greatly, then we might be able to grasp more clearly and honestly what's going on in the present.

In his head-prefect-in-waiting speech, Gordon Brown reiterated that he supported the "respect agenda", whereby people have responsibilities as well as rights, and therefore the underlying implication is that there is a lazy, destructive underclass that does not do its bit for society.

Yet, Labour is in fact the party that was set up to represent these very people. How on earth can those we are obliged to call the "socially excluded" understand respect when a movement that defined itself for a hundred years as one that stood above all else for giving respect to even the least powerful and most abject of citizens, now strives to emphasise that this spiritual traffic is now expected to travel in the opposite direction?

I think we all understand that at the height of the power of the unions, small-minded, egotistical people got carried away, in much the same high-handed, selfish fashion, that certain people who find themselves with a bunch of other people to lead and manipulate, always will.

The contention among the management at Gate Gourmet, so recently, is that in this isolated case, an outbreak of the same old trouble has occurred. The management, to take in the rhetoric of head honcho Eric Born, is running something akin to a charity, nobly attempting to bring employment to thousands.

The contention among workers and their sympathisers is that these guys are in it for the money, eager to come up with any scheme that will make them a little cash and keen to exploit every trick in the book to do so.

My own reading, instead, is that there has been a clash between, yes, quite an unusually, chippily, unionised culture at Heathrow (though a low-paid one) and a management that exists in a Gordon Gecko "greed is good" macho world - one that has been encouraged by both US and British government legislation - where the little people are there to be reminded that they are persons of restricted growth. There is indeed no respect here, on either side.

Gate Gourmet contends that a third of its workforce is presently made up of "militants" and these are the people it does not want to re-employ. Yet when a deal similar to the one now negotiated between Gate Gourmet and the TGWU was put to the workers last year, 95 per cent of them, not a third, rejected it. The failure to resolve matters from that point, led to the summer strike. No wonder. Gate Gourmet management clearly disregarded that 95 per cent mandate. That is not respectful at all.

Only a fool would wish to return to the industrial relations of the 1970s. But it has been an awful mistake to capitulate to the idea that the New Labour solution - representing the rights of individuals in the workplace through the agency of government laws and directives (often voluntary or unavailable to part-time or freelance staff anyway) rather than by encouraging people to join unions and engage with their own solutions, and devising tax breaks and benefits rather than taxing the poor much less or raising the minimum wage.

The amazing thing is that so many people take this treatment on the chin, and manage to negotiate it all to make a life for themselves, not that a number of them give back no more respect that they receive. As for those union leaders, as self-importantly pugnacious as they were back in the nightmare decade - well, maybe if there was a bit more respect for those who wished to make working lives fair and decent, then a finer calibre of person might have ambitions in that direction.