We all depend on trade unions

What is one day of paralysis compared with a lifetime of poorly-funded and under-staffed services?

Who knew that a student blogger with a pet peeve for public sector workers could incite so much anger? Sara Malm, a journalism student at the University of Kent, probably had no idea when she ranted against "disgraceful, selfish and, quite frankly, passé" industrial action.

Her post, published on the Independent's iWriters section on Friday, has inspired 300 comments, as well as a response from blogger Lucy Snow denouncing her "vitriol." And while anyone sympathetic to workers' rights should denounce Malm's insulting article, you have to wonder why people are surprised.

Britain is seething with anti-union sentiment. Be it Michael Gove proposing to abolish teachers’ staff rooms in order to save money, or the right-wing press attacking “Red Len” McCluskey’s call for strikes during the Olympics. Thatcher used all she had in her to curb the power of unions, but the return of a Conservative-led government is reflected in our media, our fellow citizens and, now, our youth.  

Criticise the cash-for-access scandal that erupted last month and the ensuing revelations of the power of big businesses over the Conservative Party, and you will be met with claims that the Labour Party is just as reliant on its union funding. Well, yes. But unions speak for thousands of ordinary people who share similar stakes in society – which, forgive me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think necessarily appeal to the chairman of the world’s largest interdealer broker (Michael Spencer, who enjoys Downing Street dining so much he paid nearly £4m for the luxury).

But the problem is that many of these ordinary people don’t recognise the beneficial nature of unions – including Malm, who doesn’t seem to realise that she has the right to union support herself. The very fact that Boris Johnson prides himself on his pledge to limit the power of the transport unions shows how far this has gone. If elected next month, he promises to make key underground lines driverless within two years. Rather than arousing concern for the inevitable job losses this will create, the move is hailed as somehow freeing commuters from the constraints of irritating tube drivers and their endless demands; the picture painted of tube unions is not unlike the terrorising hostage-takers that Malm describes. And Boris, saying “I want to be the Mayor who does that” (create more driverless trains), has tapped into the public contempt that his own party has helped to fuel.     

A lot of the time, people who moan about industrial action don’t understand the reasons behind it. And this is something that Malm fails even to address. The strikes that the NUT proposes for later this year are about defending national pay rather than a performance-related salary – akin to much of the private sector – that Gove is suggesting. The education secretary wants teachers’ pay to be more “market facing” – a flagrant example of the creeping veil of privatisation with which this government is stifling public services.

But performance-related pay works both ways: bright young graduates should be attracted to a career in teaching with decent salaries, pensions and working conditions. Otherwise, what is to stop the best potential candidates preferring professions that don’t immediately benefit society? Don’t we want our children, Britain’s future, to be taught by people who are intelligent and enthusiastic rather than worn out and grumpy? Ironically and perhaps unknowingly, Malm hints at what the NUT is complaining about, claiming that strikes have “no place in a market economy, especially not one four years into a recession.” But that is the very problem: that the recession is incessantly taken out on people like teachers. It’s no good creating – and maintaining – a consumer-driven society that conditions people to be motivated by success, only to devalue on so many levels the careers that really matter.

Of course a strike across the London transport network is devastating on any day, let alone during the Olympics. Thousands of ordinary people will not be able to get to work, children won’t be able to go to school and the capital’s economy will dip – for a short period. But people strike to make that very point: we are all reliant on public sector workers. We need to stand by them while they protest job cuts, pay freezes and pension reforms. After all, what is one day of paralysis – to borrow from right-wing rhetoric – compared with a lifetime of badly-organised, poorly-funded and under-staffed services?

Workers at Unilever's Port Sunlight factory picket outside the main gates of their factory on the Wirral. Photograph: Getty Images.
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At Labour conference, activists and politicians can't avoid each other – but try their best to "unsee"

My week, from havoc in the Labour family to a sublime act of real-life trolling – via a shopping centre.

I like to take a favourite novel with me to party conference for when it all gets too much, and this year I took China Miéville’s The City & the City. It takes place in the fictional cities of Besžel and Ul Qoma, two metropolises that exist in the same geographic space but must dutifully “unsee” one another or risk the sanction of Breach, the secret police force. It turned out to be a better allegory for what was going on outside my hotel than I had expected.

Labour, as I don’t need to tell you, is badly split on almost everything. Now that the acrid leadership race has reached its inevitable conclusion, activists and politicians on both sides are operating as if they had a standing duty to “unsee” each other. The atmosphere feels a bit like a family dinner after a blazing row: everyone is aware that things have been said that will take years to be forgiven, if they ever will be, so the conversation is largely banal and superficial.

The exception is the conference floor, the only place where Corbynites and Corbynsceptics cannot unsee each other, which was therefore the scene of several acrimonious confrontations after tricky votes. It’s difficult to predict where Labour goes from here. The Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) is largely against a split, but its members surely can’t spend the next four years dutifully pretending not to see one another,or their activists?

 

Chaos and confusion

Would it have been better for Jeremy Corbyn if his defeated challenger, Owen Smith, had done a little bit better against him – not just in the final vote but throughout the contest? All summer, Smith distinguished himself only through his frequent gaffes, to the point where it felt more appropriate to describe him as a participant in the leadership race rather than a combatant.

The difficulty for both Corbyn and his critics is that his opponents in the PLP have no clear leader. As a result, their dissatisfaction is amorphous, rather than being productively channelled into a set of specific demands or criticisms, which Corbyn could then reject or accept. The overwhelming feeling about his leadership among the PLP is that “something must be done”. So whenever an MP embarks on a freelance assault – Margaret Hodge’s no-confidence motion, say, or Clive Betts’s attempt to bring back elections to the shadow cabinet – the majority leaps on the scheme. Corbyn’s critics reason that at least it’s something.

Although fractious Labour MPs might not see it that way, the decision not to restore shadow cabinet elections helps their cause. Taking away the leader’s ability to choose his ministerial team was a recipe for chaos – chaos that would, rightly, have been blamed on them.

 

Custody rights

If the Labour family would be, as I suspect, better off seeking a divorce, there is an irony that one of the things that they all agree on is the fate of the kids. The party is entirely united behind its leader in his opposition to grammar schools – as is almost every serious thinker on education policy, from Policy Exchange on the right through to Melissa Benn on the left.

Still, Labour will encounter a visceral type of resistance to its stance from the alumni of grammars, who, regardless of what the studies show, attribute their success to their attendance at selective schools. I can understand that. Although I went to a comprehensive, the emotional pull of one’s upbringing is hard to escape. I can, for example, read all the studies that show that children in single-parent families do worse – but I find it hard to experience it as anything other than an awful attack on my mother, to whom I owe everything.

Winning the argument over schooling will require a sensitive ear to those for whom the argument against the schools seems like an attack on their parents.

 

Pudding and pie

One of the nice things about being from a single-parent family is that I don’t have to admit to flaws – merely to unresolved kinks that would have been ironed out had my absent father stuck around. One such kink is my capacity for procrastination, which
results in my making decisions too often at the last minute.

This always comes back to bite me at party conference. At dinner events, I frequently put off picking my meal options to the point that I have to eat whatever the kitchen has left. At one meal this year, I was lucky enough to have three courses of pudding, but at another, my hastily cobbled-together starter seemed to consist entirely of pesto, taramasalata and rocket.

 

Too late

The best thing about party conference is sharing a panel with a politician you don’t know very much about who turns out to be highly impressive. It’s particularly cheering now, when my optimism about politics is at a low ebb. I try to meet them properly for coffee afterwards, although because of my capacity for putting things off, that doesn’t always happen.

Last year, I was chairing a particularly testy fringe on the Israel-Palestine conflict. The then shadow foreign secretary, Hilary Benn, was running late and an MP from the 2015 intake had to field all the questions on her own. She did this with immense poise and knowledge, while clearly having a sense of how unhelpful some of the louder, angrier voices were – during one lengthy monologue from the floor, she turned and rolled her eyes at me. Her name was Jo Cox.

I kept meaning to get to know her, but I never got around to ringing her office, and now I never will.

 

Banter and bargains

A colleague alerts me to a sublime act of real-life trolling. When Everton opened a second branch of its team store in Liverpool’s shopping centre, it picked an innocuous name: Everton Two. Innocuous, that is, until you realise that the shopping centre is called Liverpool One. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories