Tony Blair: there's no moral decline in this country

Former PM challenges left and right to think again about the riots.

Tony Blair makes a rather thoughtful contribution in today's Observer to the debate about the riots that began two weekends ago in Tottenham in north London. Those who suspected his populist instincts would lead him to endorse the response of the law-and-order right to the disorder (that it was a matter of "sheer criminality") will, I suspect, be surprised. "We are in danger," he writes, "of the wrong analysis leading to the wrong diagnosis, leading to the wrong prescription."

Tougher, punitive prison sentences of the kind currently being handed down by magistrates across the country aren't the answer, Blair argues. But nor are "conventional social programmes" of the kind that the left routinely supports. I think he means by that attempts to mitigate the effects of "social deprivation" that are held to be the root cause of the violence. And as for the question of causation, Blair is briskly dismissive of the idea that Britain is in the grip of some far-reaching "moral decline". Thinking that it is just leads to "muddle-headed analysis".

So if it isn't moral decline that's fanning urban discontent, what is it? The man who once told Jeremy Paxman that "It's not a burning ambition for me to make sure that David Beckham earns less money" acknowledges that entrenched and deepening inequality has something to do with it:

I do think there are major issues underlying the anxieties reflected in disturbances and protests in many nations. One is the growing disparity of incomes not only between poor and rich but between those at the top and the aspiring middle class.

That last reference to the gap between "those at the top and the aspiring middle class" suggests Blair has been listening to what Ed Miliband has been saying about the "squeezed middle". But he says we should be wary of drawing together, as Miliband has done to considerable effect in recent days, "the MPs' expenses row, bankers and phone-hackers in all this" (though he says he agrees with the Labour leader on "the theme of responsibility"). And his Panglossian remarks on "corporate social resonsibility" suggest he still hasn't grasped the scale of the calamity that befell the global financial system in the autumn of 2008 nor the extent to which the City of London remains a source of untamed, unaccountable power:

I agree totally with the criticisms of excess in pay and bonuses. But is this really the first time we have had people engaged in dubious financial practices or embracing greed, not good conduct? If anything, today's corporations are far more attuned to corporate social responsibility, far better in areas like the environment, far more aware of the need to be gender- and race-balanced in recruiting.

But at least Blair thinks, as Iain Duncan Smith said last week (directly contradicting David Cameron), that you can't arrest your way of deep-seated social problems:

[T]hese individuals [involved in the rioting] did not simply have an individual problem. They had a family problem. This is a hard thing to say and I am of course aware that this, too, is a generalisation. But many of these people are from families that are profoundly dysfunctional, operating on completely different terms from the rest of society, middle class or poor. ... This is a phenomenon of the late 20th century. You find it in virtually every developed nation. Breaking it down isn't about general policy or traditional programmes of investment or treatment.

We should be grateful, I suppose, that Blair doesn't think, as the current Prime Minister seems to, that jerking the knee suffices at moments like this.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

Trade unions must adapt to the gig economy in order to survive

We can’t allow the story of UK trade unionism to just be about managing decline.

While the world around trade unions has rapidly changed, there is an impression trade unions have remained stuck in the past with antagonistic rhetoric, outdated governance structures and an inflexible approach. Yet trade unions remain as vital as ever in an insecure jobs market, and do have the capacity to protect workers and inspire support when they use positivity in place of hostility.

The future of the UK trade union movement has long been a matter for concern. Trade union membership has been stagnating for the last 30 years and structural changes in the UK economy have led to trade union density in the private sector dropping below 14 per cent. 

The most worrying aspect of this decline is that – despite work being increasingly less secure, growing wage inequality, and workers’ rights being slowly rolled back since 2010 – trade unions, or more precisely trade union membership, appears not to be a relevant choice for millions of workers.

Polling suggests that too many people who would be interested in being a member of an organisation that offered independent advice and protection at work are put off by the tone of voice and confrontational language they hear from union leaders, usually only during an industrial dispute or power struggle within the Labour party. If unions used to be angry, now they’re furious, and it is not helping.

Trade unions face serious challenges, but if we adapt, we can survive. The rise of self-employment, freelancing and the "gig economy" means more and more people are in need of the services and support that unions offer. But our benefits and services must be responsive to the needs of workers today and be flexible enough for change when it comes. 

We do not talk openly enough about our successes. We shouldn’t be embarrassed when we make something happen whilst working in partnership with decent employers. Nor should we shy away from championing successes achieved through industrial strength, but we need to be more sensitive to how we frame this to a wider audience.

But tweaks to our messaging and services are not enough on their own. We also need structural change in our trade union movement to ensure our long-term success.

Firstly, we need to recognise the severity of the situation that we are in and face up to the facts of declining membership, relevance and authority. There needs to be an acceptance that it is the responsibility of the trade union movement to understand the problems we face and to address them – not to blame others such as the press, politicians or employers.
 
Secondly, we need to build a consensus across the trade union movement on a recovery strategy. Given the diverse interests of our many sister organisations, that is easier to say than to deliver on. Strengthening the governance of trade unions should be one priority, seeking to develop a tripartite social framework with employers and government should be another.
 
Thirdly, we need to ensure the continuing and increasing relevance of trade unions to the world of work. We must recognise that we are struggling to connect beyond our membership and in many cases even beyond our activist base.

Too often change is done to trade unions, rather than by them. The Trade Union Act is the most recent example of a Conservative government taking action to reduce trade union influence. It won’t be long before they return to this pursuit. So rather than waiting to respond, why don’t we take the initiative?

It shouldn't be beyond the collective wit of trade unions to seek to develop and modernise our own structures, develop ideas that would underpin our future independence and seek out best practice across the movement in the delivery of services and benefits.
 
These are undoubtedly big challenges for the trade union movement. I know we want to help build a fairer, more equitable society with decent jobs, housing and education. Wanting to do these things isn’t enough, we need to be in a position to make change happen.

John Park is assistant general secretary of the trade union Community.