The great “Protest the Pope” implosion

It’s been a damp squib so far. Does opposition to the papal visit come only from a liberal metropoli

For the past few days, if not weeks (and sometimes it feels like months), I have had regular email updates from Peter Tatchell detailing his opposition to the papal visit. The latest, only hours ago, informs me that there has been a "Pope cover-up of gay Cardinal Newman".

Never mind that Tatchell is raking over what is by now a very familiar story, and coming up with some rather dubious "proof" for his assertion -- "Newman was not exactly macho. His soft, gentle, effeminate demeanour is typical of what we often associate with some gay men" (!!).

I like Peter, have known him through journalism for around 15 years now, and regard him as a brave man whose one-time militancy has matured into a principled and selfless stance that he has maintained at great personal cost.

Nevertheless, Peter and his colleagues in the Protest the Pope movement do not seem to have enjoyed conspicuous success so far. Areas specifically set aside by the police for demonstrators in Edinburgh were empty when the 24-hour news channels were covering His Holiness's arrival in the Scottish capital yesterday.

The greatest opposition so far seems to have been coming from the Rev Ian Paisley -- and I hardly think he is the kind of ally Peter and his friends want. (In fact, if they wanted to protest against Dr Paisley, I'd join them at the barricades any day. But that's another story.)

Great joy of the faithful

Could it be that large numbers of people, disgusted as they are by the paedophile abuse scandals involving Catholic priests that have been unearthed, are still nevertheless able to distinguish between the evils associated with the Church, and its harsh and inflexible rhetoric on all sorts of sexual behaviour -- and the good that it does, and the comfort and social solidarity it supplies to many people throughout the country?

I merely point out that many of the Pope's most vehement critics, from Polly Toynbee (who wrote a very spirited piece in the Guardian on Tuesday) to Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and, yes, even Geoffrey Robertson in the New Statesman, are all metropolitan liberals. Members of the middle classes, yes -- but more or less in the same way as David Cameron is, which is to say, part of a privileged minority.

Whereas I bet that if I went to any of the Catholic churches I attended as a child -- in which the congregations were overwhelmingly working class and an RP accent stuck out from a mile off -- the view from the pews today would still be of great joy that the Pontiff has come to the country.

Could it be that, even if coffee mornings, lunches, early-evening drinks and dinner parties across Hampstead, Islington, Holland Park, the newly affluent parts of Hackney and the cutting-edge borders of Peckham were cancelled, the protesting crowds would still be thin during the Pope's time in London?

If so, one might be left with the conclusion that almost the only group that is really, bitterly, foot-stampingly furious about the visit of the leader of the world's one billion-plus Catholics is the members of a metropolitan elite.

I may be wrong. In fact, I must hope I am proved so. Because that would not speak very well of the tolerance of which liberals -- and I write as one -- profess themselves to be such earnest defenders. A tolerance that draws its limits so sharply and aggressively is not worthy of the name at all, surely?

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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It's time for Jeremy Corbyn's supporters to take on the trade union leadership

The union support for expanding Heathrow reflects a certain conservatism. 

The government’s announcement that it will go ahead with a third runway at Heathrow seems to have unlocked an array of demons. It has also created some unlikely alliances. Zac Goldsmith, the pro-Brexit mayoral candidate whose campaign was widely condemned as racist, is seeking to re-invent himself as an environmental champion, campaigning alongside fellow Heathrow MP John McDonnell. And the Richmond byelection which he is triggering could yet become a test case for Labour’s progressive alliance enthusiasts.

But perhaps the most significant position is that of the major unions. To the shock of many less seasoned activists on the left, Unite, the largest trade union in the UK and a consistent supporter of Corbyn’s leadership, has loudly called on the government to “be bold and build” the new runway, even now urging it to accelerate the process. Far from being a revelation, Unite’s position on Heathrow is longstanding – and it points to the lasting power and influence of an establishment trade unionism.

In August, the TUC co-ordinated a joint statement from five unions, urging the government to go ahead with the third runway. Like the rest of the unions’ lobbying efforts, it was coordinated with other pro-expansion stakeholders like the CBI, and it could just as easily have been authored by the business lobby. Heathrow expansion will, it says, “deliver at least £147bn to UK GDP and 70,000 new jobs”. “Trade unions and their members”, said Frances O’Grady, “stand ready to work to help the government successfully deliver this next major national infrastructure project”.

The logic that drives unions to support projects like Heathrow expansion – and which drives the GMB union to support fracking and Trident renewal – is grounded in a model of trade unionism which focuses not on transforming the workplace, but on the narrowly-defined interests of workers – job creation, economic growth and a larger share of the pie. It views the trade union movement not as merely antagonistic to employers, but as a responsible lobbying partner for business and industry, and as a means of mediating workers’ demands in a way that is steady and acceptable to the state and the economic system. This model, and the politics that accompanied it, is why, historically, trade unions were a conservative influence on Labour’s internal politics.

Nothing could be more at odds with the political, environmental and economic realities of the 21st century. It is not in the interests of workers or ordinary people to live on a planet which is slowly becoming uninhabitable. To avoid catastrophic global warming, we need to leave the vast majority of fossil fuels in the ground – that probably means shrinking the aviation industry, not expanding Heathrow’s passenger capacity by 70 per cent. All of this is implicitly recognised by Jeremy Corbyn’s environmental and industrial strategy, which aims to create a million new jobs and build a million new homes while switching to renewables and democratising the energy industry.

The gap between Corbyn’s policies and the policies of many major trade unions tells us something deeper about the challenges facing the left. If Corbynism is an unfinished revolution in the Labour Party machine, it is one which has barely started in the wider labour movement.

The gradual leftward shift in many unions’ political allegiances has broadened the alliance around Corbyn and given him strength in numbers and resources, but it is often as much about internal union politics as it is a deep conviction for what Corbyn represents. Unison general secretary Dave Prentis did back Corbyn’s re-election following a ballot of members, but is hardly a left-winger, and the union’s votes on Labour’s NEC are not safely aligned to the left.

The political radicalisation of the unions has been matched, if anything, by a decline in coordinated industrial action. The national strategy that fuelled the anti-austerity movement in 2011 and 2012 is only a memory. The democratic and organising culture in many unions, too, remains bureaucratic and opaque. Trade unions have played a key role in Corbyn’s coalition, but without a significant shift in their internal culture and a shift away from their role as respectable partners of industry, they could easily scupper the project as well. 

The expansion of Heathrow airport is a step backwards for the future of the planet and the interests of ordinary people – and yet, if it happens at all, it will have been made possible by the concerted efforts of key trade unions. This is not an aberration but a reminder that, despite their rhetorical flourishes in support of Corbyn, Britain’s trade unions are also in need of change. Any project that aims to transform the Labour party and wider society must also aim to transform the whole of the labour movement – from the shop floor to the corridors of power.