I believe in trade unions but the Unite machine alienated me

I joined the union as a fresh-faced student idealist but the camaraderie which I expected never materialised.

As the fallout over Falkirk continues and Labour calls in the police to investigate its biggest financial backer, some sections of the media can barely contain their glee at Unite’s troubles. The reactions of ordinary union members have, as usual, been excluded from the discussion. They cannot be heard over the cacophony of middle class media pundits and Oxbridge observers who lack a grassroots understanding of the problem.

As a former Unite member, news of the alleged scandal was accompanied by a familiar sinking feeling. I left the union earlier this year under a burden of disappointment and anger.

I’d joined Unite at the start of 2012 as a fresh-faced student idealist, one of the first to join under their pioneering community membership scheme, which embraces students, the unemployed, the disabled and others outside the traditional workplace.

Before I hear you groan, I was not - and am not - a fair-weather student revolutionary. I was raised in a working class, trade unionist family. My father was a night sorter for the Royal Mail. As a child I watched my parents struggle under the financial burden of regular strikes, ensuring that my brother and I had dinner while they discreetly went without.

We were brought up to believe in the justness of trade unions and the necessity of sacrificing short-term income for a greater collective good. When my brother was diagnosed with autism and his care requirements became clear, it was our father’s union which helped him negotiate family-friendly hours. It was in this context that I joined Unite, with a childlike belief that unions could do no wrong. I was quickly disabused of this idea.

Soon after joining I began to involve myself in Unite’s activities. I attended a training weekend and later stood for election on a committee of young members. I planned to attend a conference and, in the time-honoured tradition of democracy, give a speech about my suitability for the role. When illness prevented me from attending at the last minute, I tried in vain to contact the appropriate union official to pass on a speech to be read in my absence. When nobody replied in time, I was angry that I had been denied the right to stand for the committee position.

My anger turned to confusion when, weeks later, I received a letter congratulating me on winning my committee place and inviting me to the first meeting. How on earth, I wondered, did I win an election in which I was not present and had no speech? I now held some executive power over the youth policies of Unite’s London and Eastern branch, without attending a single Unite conference. A little discomfited, I didn’t attend the committee meetings. The invitations kept coming, and nobody contacted me regarding my absence. Looking back now, it seems extraordinary.

There were murmurings of unease among other young members I encountered. Even the most strident  muttered about the indifference they encountered from higher-ups regarding queries and problems. Such criticisms tended to be couched in the more gentle language of "communication difficulties" and the need to "update infrastructure", but their meaning was clear. These observations would be briefly acknowledged and quickly glossed over without progress being made. Unity was our watchword and we were all comrades in the good fight, but there was an unspoken understanding that being too direct about the union's problems would make you appear disloyal. Members quietly assumed that individual thoughts and opinions should automatically play second fiddle to a wider purpose. To criticise was to mark you out as an individual in an organisation deeply focused on the collective. Everyone, myself included, yearned for a place within this good and noble collective. To be an individual was, fundamentally, to be selfish.

There were other moments of unease. One training day took an awkward turn when a young member dared ask why we were given an equalities monitoring form where everyone was lumped into either "white" or "BME" (Black and Minority Ethnic). The workshop leader simply ignored her and changed the topic. The girl who’d rasied the question was visibly disgusted.

Greater disappointment was to follow. When Unite advertised an admin apprenticeship within their offices, I was keen to apply. Unfortunately the link to the application form was broken, so I notified the union. I did receive a reply, assuring me it was being looked into. As the days ticked by and the application deadline loomed, I emailed again and again urging them for answers before time ran out.

There was no further reply, and the deadline passed me by. My point of contact never got in touch to explain her silence or apologise for the missed opportunity. I began to regard Unite as a vast and ponderous machine, rumbling on, regardless of its members’ needs, in aid of some more obscure purpose. The camaraderie with which I expected my union to enfold me never materialised. With deep sadness, I cancelled my membership.

After witnessing firsthand Unite’s relaxed attitude to democracy, the accusation that it manipulated the selection contest in Falkirk is sadly not a surprise. I hope for the sake of the trade union movement that Unite is innocent of the accusation. Trade unions still have a crucial place in the modern world in helping people fight back against unscrupulous employers, low wages and poor conditions. If you believe that all employers will simply be saintly without checks and balances, then you are a far bigger idealist than me.

All the same, it isn’t hard to understand why unions might feel compelled to opt for underhand methods. Look at their relationship with the media: there isn’t one. In a recent conversation with a friend who had worked for a national broadsheet, she complained that in her experience, unions had failed to reach out to journalists and put their side across. They were aloof and surly towards outsiders.

As a result, a generation has grown up with a mainstream press that promotes ambivalence or hostility towards unions. Myths have sprung up: unions are bad for business, they are troublemakers and, that old chestnut, they promote "health and safety gone mad". We live in a country where many have never encountered a pro-union opinion in their lives and think of unions as a sinister cabal.

The truth is that they have failed to do the legwork to secure support the proper way - by building relationships with the media and communicating with the ordinary people they claim to represent. It’s no wonder that people are mistrustful.

In perhaps the greatest irony of all, Unite continue to send me ballot papers for their referenda and leadership elections. It is a good thing, then, that I throw these away and do not choose to exercise the undue influence of which they stand accused.

Demonstrators take part in a TUC march in protest against the government's spending cuts on October 20, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.
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This is the new front in the battle to control women’s bodies

By defining all of us as “pre-pregnant”, women are afforded all the blame – but none of the control.

For several weeks, YouTube has been reminding me to hurry up and have a baby. In a moment of guilt over all the newspapers I read online for free, I turned off my ad-blocking software and now I can’t play a simple death metal album without having to sit through 30 seconds of sensible women with long, soft hair trying to sell me pregnancy tests. I half expect one of them to tap her watch and remind me that I shouldn’t be wasting my best fertile years writing about socialism on the internet.

My partner, meanwhile, gets shown advertisements for useful software; my male housemate is offered tomato sauce, which forms 90 per cent of his diet. At first, I wondered if the gods of Google knew something I didn’t. But I suspect that the algorithm is less imaginative than I have been giving it credit for – indeed, I suspect that what Google thinks it knows about me is that I’m a woman in my late twenties, so, whatever my other interests might be, I ought to be getting myself knocked up some time soon.

The technology is new but the assumptions are ancient. Women are meant to make babies, regardless of the alternative plans we might have. In the 21st century, governments and world health authorities are similarly unimaginative about women’s lives and choices. The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently published guidelines suggesting that any woman who “could get pregnant” should refrain from drinking alcohol. The phrase implies that this includes any woman who menstruates and is not on the Pill – which is, in effect, everyone, as the Pill is not a foolproof method of contraception. So all females capable of conceiving should treat themselves and be treated by the health system as “pre-pregnant” – regardless of whether they plan to get pregnant any time soon, or whether they have sex with men in the first place. Boys will be boys, after all, so women ought to take precautions: think of it as rape insurance.

The medical evidence for moderate drinking as a clear threat to pregnancy is not solidly proven, but the CDC claims that it just wants to provide the best information for women “and their partners”. That’s a chilling little addition. Shouldn’t it be enough for women to decide whether they have that second gin? Are their partners supposed to exercise control over what they do and do not drink? How? By ordering them not to go to the pub? By confiscating their money and keeping tabs on where they go?

This is the logic of domestic abuse. With more than 18,000 women murdered by their intimate partners since 2003, domestic violence is a greater threat to life and health in the US than foetal alcohol poisoning – but that appears not to matter to the CDC.

Most people with a working uterus can get pregnant and some of them don’t self-define as women. But the advice being delivered at the highest levels is clearly aimed at women and that, in itself, tells us a great deal about the reasoning behind this sort of social control. It’s all about controlling women’s bodies before, during and after pregnancy. Almost every ideological facet of our societies is geared towards that end – from product placement and public health advice to explicit laws forcing women to carry pregnancies to term and jailing them if they fail to deliver the healthy babies the state requires of them.

Men’s sexual and reproductive health is never subject to this sort of policing. In South America, where the zika virus is suspected of having caused thousands of birth defects, women are being advised not to “get pregnant”. This is couched in language that gives women all of the blame and none of the control. Just like in the US, reproductive warnings are not aimed at men – even though Brazil, El Salvador and the US are extremely religious countries, so you would think that the number of miraculous virgin births would surely have been noticed.

Men are not being advised to avoid impregnating women, because the idea of a state placing restrictions on men’s sexual behaviour, however violent or reckless, is simply outside the framework of political possibility. It is supposed to be women’s responsibility to control whether they get pregnant – but in Brazil and El Salvador, which are among the countries where zika is most rampant, women often don’t get to make any serious choice in that most intimate of matters. Because of endemic rape and sexual violence, combined with some of the strictest abortion laws in the world, women are routinely forced to give birth against their will.

El Salvador is not the only country that locks up women for having miscarriages. The spread of regressive “personhood” laws across the United States has led to many women being threatened with jail for manslaughter when they miscarry – even as attacks on abortion rights make it harder than ever for American women to choose when and how they become pregnant, especially if they are poor.

Imagine that you have a friend in her early twenties whose partner gave her a helpful list of what she should and should not eat, drink and otherwise insert into various highly personal orifices, just in case she happened to get pregnant. Imagine that this partner backed his suggestions up with the threat of physical force. Imagine that he routinely reminded your friend that her potential to create life was more important than the life she was living, denied her access to medical care and threatened to lock her up if she miscarried. You would be telling your friend to get the hell out of that abusive relationship. You would be calling around the local shelters to find her an emergency refuge. But there is no refuge for a woman when the basic apparatus of power in her country is abusive. When society puts social control above women’s autonomy, there is nowhere for them to escape.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle