Time to talk to the Taliban

Lord Malloch-Brown has hit the nail on the head

I have a piece in the magazine tomorrow on Gordon's "goats" - the acronymic offspring of his "government of all the talents", announced with great fanfare by Brown prior to entering Downing Street in June 2007 - who have, in recent months, slipped their ministerial tethers to graze in pastures new. Lords Jones (Trade and Investment), Darzi (Health) and Malloch-Brown (Foreign Office) have all resigned from government. The latter fired a parting salvo at his soon-to-be former bosses, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, in an interview in this morning's Daily Telegraph, in which he claimed British forces in Afghanistan were under-equipped: "We definitely don't have enough helicopters. When you have these modern operations and insurgent strikes what you need, above all else, is mobility." He has since been forced to backtrack, issuing a rather embarrassing clarification in which he said that there were "without doubt" sufficient resources in place in Afghanistan.

But whether or not there are enough helicopters in Helmand is a distraction from the bigger issues at stake - for example, why are we still in Afghanistan nearly eight years after 9/11? What is the current mission? What is our exit strategy - if, that is, we even have one? Can we actually 'win' in Afghanistan? Don't expect such questions to be put to ministers, though, as Britain's lobby correspondents have a notoriously weak grasp on foreign policy (in fact, on any aspect of government policy outside of their narrow, Westminster-based, politician-focused remit.)

The media-generated row over choppers for our boys has overshadowed the real significance of Lord Malloch-Brown's frank remarks on Afghanistan in the Telegraph. The Foreign Office minister responsible, and former United Nations Deputy Secretary-General, acknowledged that, in the long run, "the definition of victory [in Afghanistan] includes allowing elements of the Taliban support group back into the political settlement".

His controversial admission come hot on the heels of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's own plea to Western governments earlier this month to develop a new strategy for his country which involves talking to the Taliban at the highest levels - even to their top leader, Mullah Omar.

In the past, the Brown government has hinted that it would consider engaging in negotiations with the various insurgent groups across Afghanistan, including the Taliban, but, as far as I can see, nothing meaningful ever came of it. So will we now see a new push for peace? Fat chance. Those on the right and the pro-war left (dare, I presume, my neocon friends over at Harry's Place?), who wrongly argue that to even talk to the Taliban is "appeasement", still seem to sadly dominate this debate. But former U.S. Secretary of State under George Bush Snr, James Baker, said it best: "You don't just talk to your friends, you talk to your enemies as well...Talking to an enemy is not in my view appeasement."

Hawks often provocatively ask those of us who oppose the war in Afghanistan: what would you do instead? It's time to turn this question on its head. As even President Obama's own National Security Adviser acknowledged last year, in a report for the Atlantic Council, "Make no mistake, Nato are not winning the war in Afghanistan". So I ask the hawks: as we sink further and further into the Afghan quagmire, and as defeat stares us in the face, what will you do instead? In order to "win" in Afghanistan? Or even to turn the corner? Simply send more helicopters or finally acknowledge the Churchillian adage that to jaw- jaw is better than to war- war?

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Our trade unions are doing more for women than ever before

You don’t have to look far to find examples of unions not just “noisily fighting for”, but actually winning better pay, terms and conditions for women.

Reading Carole Easton’s article on women and unions was puzzling and disappointing in equal measure. Puzzling because it paints a picture of trade unions which bears little resemblance to the movement I know and love. Disappointing because it presents a false image of trade unions to women readers just at a time when women need strong trade unions more than ever.

While it is right to say that too little progress has been made in closing the gender pay gap or tackling the scourge of zero hour contracts, it is wrong to suggest that trade unions have been twiddling their thumbs.

Like our friends at the Young Women’s Trust, equality is at the heart of what unions do. This work isn’t measured in the number of high-profile women we have at the forefront of our movement – although we’re not doing too badly there, as anyone will attest who has seen Frances O’Grady, the first female general secretary of the TUC, speaking out for ordinary women workers.  

Trade unions contribute to equality for our 3 million women members every day. For us, that’s about the thousands of workplace reps supporting individual women facing discrimination or harassment. It’s about health and safety reps negotiating for protective clothing and better workplace policies on the menopause, terminal illness and many more issues. Our work is unions taking employment tribunal cases on behalf of women who could never afford the tribunal fees without us. And always, at the heart of everything, our work is about the collective power of workers joining together to bargain for fair pay and decent work.

You don’t have to look far to find examples of unions not just “noisily fighting for”, but actually winning better pay, terms and conditions for women. Several unions have successfully organised cleaners, supported them to take strike action for better pay, and won. The RMT is just one example of many. Unite is busy organising London’s low-paid and often exploited hotel workers. Unison organises teaching assistants, fights for better pay and conditions, and even runs a Skills for Schools project to help TAs develop in their careers. Unison and the National Union of Teachers – both unions with over 75% female membership – organise childcare workers and fight not just for better pay but also for training and development opportunities. Over in the retail sector, Usdaw and GMB are fighting the good fight for their women members in supermarkets and shops, not just on pay but on pensions, health and safety, carers’ leave and protection from violence at work.

Women have much to gain from trade union membership. Male union members are paid 7.8 per cent more than men who aren’t in a union – but women union members are paid 30 per cent more than non-members. A recent EHRC report on pregnancy discrimination found that employers who recognised unions were less likely to discriminate against their pregnant employees.

Yes, it’s true that too few young women are union members. This summer, the TUC and our member unions will launch a new organising and campaigning effort to spread the benefits of union membership and attract a new generation of women (and men).

But starting new women-only unions is no form of progress. That’s where we started out over 100 years ago. Now women workers are at the heart of all our unions, across all sectors. Women’s concerns at work are trade union concerns. And every day we make practical progress towards women’s equality at work through patient representation and negotiation and active campaigning to challenge bad bosses. Young Women’s Trust should work with us to get more women the benefit of union membership.  

Scarlet Harris is women's equality policy officer at the TUC