Saturday, February 25, 2017

With friends like these...

As someone who is standing aside from UNISON positions in part with the intention of becoming more active in the Labour Party (of which I have been a member since 1980) I suppose I should be particularly interested in the advice which the General Secretary of my trade union has for the Leader of my Party.

Or then again maybe not.

Much of the commentary which can be read about the outcome of the Copeland by-election is utterly predictable. The right-wingers who abandoned Labour’s core supporters in the North over many years (and lost Scotland completely) conclude that Corbyn is to blame. Those who (like myself) support Corbyn blame the treachery of Blair and Mandelson.

These predictable conclusions are predictably uninfluential. Those who are most determined to remove a socialist leader of the Labour Party look to those who have supported Corbyn in the past to move against him. 

UNISON’s General Secretary, speaking with the authority he only has as leader of a trade union which has twice backed Corbyn, denies that the Leader should be solely to blame and goes on to advise that the Leader draws in “the best talents from across the party to rebuild Labour”

This is difficult advice to decipher, both because the Parliamentary Labour Party is hardly a brains trust, but also because so many “leading” Labour Parliamentarians have shown nothing but contempt for the democratic decision of Party members twice to elect our Leader.

I don’t, in this brief blog post, intend to intervene in the debate about who is to blame, or what the Party and its left (both of which are far more than our Leader) should do now (although these are indeed vital questions).

I simply want to make some observations about what our General Secretary has had to say, in the light of the role of the leadership of our trade union in bringing this country into its current state.

Had UNISON not persuaded our members to accept shabby compromises on public service pensions in 2012 (which, with the partial exception of the Local Government Pension Scheme, offered us nothing more for our strike action on 30 November 2011 than had already been offered at the beginning of that month) we might have inflicted a defeat upon the Coalition Government, rather than handing them a victory.

We might not have won, but as it was we did not try – and having led our forces up and down the hill over pensions our General Secretary then found it impossible to lead a meaningful fight against the pay freeze which has reduced the living standards of our members since the economic crisis that preceded the election of that Government.

Our approach as a trade union, since we launched the ill-fated “Million Voices” campaign at the end of the last decade, has been to let our members know that we feel their pain, giving the impression that we are fighting its causes whilst actually battening down the hatches in the hope that the institution of the Union will weather a storm from which we fail to protect those members.

It was therefore with some interest that I read the words which our General Secretary addressed to our Leader, in support of a fallacious argument that the left don’t want to win elections;
 “if you’re a homecare worker earning less than the minimum wage with no respite in sight, you need an end to austerity and a Labour government.
If you’re a nurse working in a hospital that’s constantly trying to do more with less, you need an end to austerity and a Labour government.
And if you’re a teaching assistant, social worker or local government administrator you desperately need an end to austerity, and an end to this divisive government.”

I think that there is another perspective worthy of consideration;
If you’re a homecare worker earning less than the minimum wage with no respite in sight, you need a trade union which can organise you and fight for your rights.
If you’re a nurse working in a hospital that’s constantly trying to do more with less, you need a trade union which will enforce your rights and campaign in your interest.
And if you’re a teaching assistant, social worker or local government administrator you desperately need an end to capitulation from your trade union.

We had a Labour Government from 1997 until 2010 and (whilst it is true that the worst day under a Labour Government is better than the best day under a Tory Government) UNISON members found that to be a Government which privatised our jobs and held down our living standards.

Whilst it was a tragedy that our opposition as a trade union to New Labour was so weak and ineffectual, it is a farce that, having failed to confront the far worse Governments which have succeeded New Labour, we are now invited to place our hope exclusively in the election of a Labour Government.

I suppose at least there is some honesty in the acceptance that the impoverished home care worker, the overworked nurse (or any of the other UNISON members cited by our General Secretary in his “friendly advice” to our Leader) should not place hope in our trade union.


--> I hope that the Labour Party Leader will weigh the advice he receives from his friends, taking account of their experience and achievements.

1 comment:

Bec said...

As both a Labour Party member and a Unison activist and branch officer, I cannot disagree with one single word of your post.

I live and work in the North East. There's few job opportunities other than the public sector or the armed forces so if you have a job you hang onto it regardless. My union is more bothered about protecting the paid full-time officials and not getting their hands dirty with a fight, rather than actually providing leadership to our members who are demotivated, disengaged and generally just defeated. Our employers can do what they want because they know there is no realistic opposition. The branches can and do put up a good fight but it's without the backing of our national union. There's no support for us as activists.

The worst thing that could have happened for our union was to 're-elect' the Gen Sec. And the least said about that 'election' the better, otherwise I will be here all night!