Len McCluskey addressing TUC conference. Photo: Getty
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If we want political change, trade unions must be the real opposition to the coalition

The people who are bearing the brunt of the coalition’s cuts need the protection of good, community based activism. If the unions can provide this, it will pay a handsome political dividend.

Trade unions and council estates have much in common. Both are generally inhabited by low-earners , both enjoy high levels of camaraderie, and both boast high percentages of strong women who act as a silent, and often forgotten, backbone. The general election is only 13 months away, and the underlying narrative will be one of forgotten backbones. The focus of the election battle will again be on the scramble for middle class votes, in a pattern repeated since Labour embarked upon  a quest to evict the Tories at all costs from an area kindly marked out by successive editors of the Murdoch press as “the centre ground”. The lessons of abandoning core voters has manifested itself spectacularly in recent times, contributing to Labour’s by-election defeat in Bradford West to Respect in 2012.

For those thriving on politics of fear and division, areas of poverty have long since been fertile recruiting grounds, attracting the disenfranchised, and misleading the poorly educated. Parties like the BNP and UKIP have exploited these areas, sowing seeds of discontent, and spreading a message of conflict, despite most people only voting BNP or UKIP out of a desperation to be listened to. It’s easy to dismiss such voters as being politically inactive. I grew up on council estates, and can testify that these places have some of the most politically impassioned people you could possibly encounter. They care deeply about society, housing, health and education, about fighting for a fairer future for their kids. The truth isn’t that these people have nothing to say, rather that disconnected, beige, professional politicians in Westminster choose not to listen.

Labour’s early history tells a tale of a party designed to listen. Unions formed Labour precisely to oppose the exclusionary tendencies of the Tories, and to provide avenues for the poorest people to become politically active. The party of today squirms awkwardly at the mention of its radical heritage, offering in reply only a homogenised mixture of lightly rinsed austerity policies aimed at keeping right wing tabloids and trade unions simultaneously quiet, alongside bland platitudes about future reform. It is no longer a voice of the poor, of organised workers, nor is it a voice of opposition to the vested interests of the wealthy and powerful.

Recent comments by Len McKluskey underlined this, when he challenged Ed Miliband to provide “real alternatives to austerity”. While I agree with Len, I would go further by challenging unions to step forward and fill the vacuum left by Labour’s failure to provide meaningful opposition to this wretched coalition. The working poor, vulnerable, and disenfranchised need to be shown there is hope, that there are people with the means, and the motivation to help. It’s abundantly clear that Labour won’t heed Len’s call to arms, so unions need to take the initiative, and must do so in two ways.

Firstly, call Labour’s bluff. The party is incredibly reliant on union funding, and catatonically devoted to the power of free markets. Unions should be presenting a united front, using their combined financial power in the “free market” of political funding to force Labour back toward the path for which it was originally constructed.

And if the party leadership continue to expect unquestioning finance for very little return? 

Disaffiliate. Direct that considerable financial backing towards a party that will represent the aims of the working poor and organised labour.

Secondly, unions need to organise in the poorest communities. They need to work together, possibly via the TUC, to establish a solid, campaigning presence in areas where austerity has bitten the hardest, and the gap between “haves” and “have nots” is widest. The disenfranchised need credit unions, job shops, youth projects for kids. The elderly need assistance with daily tasks and transport. Soup kitchens and food banks need money, volunteers, and food. Those in debt, those suffering the harshest attacks of Iain Duncan Smith’s war of benefit attrition need counselling, they need advocacy. They need the protection of good, community based activism, and it will pay a handsome political dividend.

 Women in these areas, usually silent, exclusively magnificent in their devotion to their family’s survival, need the support of the unions’ equality agenda. Just as importantly, they need neighbourhoods where they can raise children in a climate of hope, solidarity, and aspiration, instead of fear, resignation, and detachment. Most important of all, they need to be heard.

For many women, the mantra they live by is “If you want something done properly, do it yourself.”

I challenge Len McKluskey, Paul Kenny, Mick Whelan, Mark Sewotka, and other union leaders to follow this mantra, as well as to listen, as they would have Miliband listen. Lay down the challenge by all means comrades, but please, if you want political change to be implemented properly, go and do it yourselves.

Karl Davis is a writer, stand up comedian, train driver, and trade union activist and advocate. He lives in Hull and is married with two young sons.

Photo: Getty
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Are the Conservatives getting ready to learn to love the EEA?

You can see the shape of the deal that the right would accept. 

In an early morning address aimed half reassuring the markets and half at salvaging his own legacy, George Osborne set out the government’s stall.

The difficulty was that the two halves were hard to reconcile. Talk of “fixing the roof” and getting Britain’s finances in control, an established part of Treasury setpieces under Osborne, are usually merely wrong. With the prospect of further downgrades in Britain’s credit rating and thus its ability to borrow cheaply, the £1.6 trillion that Britain still owes and the country’s deficit in day-to-day spending, they acquired a fresh layer of black humour. It made for uneasy listening.

But more importantly, it offered further signs of what post-Brexit deal the Conservatives will attempt to strike. Boris Johnson, the frontrunner for the Conservative leadership, set out the deal he wants in his Telegraph column: British access to the single market, free movement of British workers within the European Union but border control for workers from the EU within Britain.

There is no chance of that deal – in fact, reading Johnson’s Telegraph column called to mind the exasperated response that Arsene Wenger, manager of Arsenal and a supporter of a Remain vote, gave upon hearing that one of his players wanted to move to Real Madrid: “It's like you wanting to marry Miss World and she doesn't want you, what can I do about it? I can try to help you, but if she does not want to marry you what can I do?”

But Osborne, who has yet to rule out a bid for the top job and confirmed his intention to serve in the post-Cameron government, hinted at the deal that seems most likely – or, at least, the most optimistic: one that keeps Britain in the single market and therefore protects Britain’s financial services and manufacturing sectors.

For the Conservatives, you can see how such a deal might not prove electorally disastrous – it would allow them to maintain the idea with its own voters that they had voted for greater “sovereignty” while maintaining their easy continental holidays, au pairs and access to the Erasmus scheme.  They might be able to secure a few votes from relieved supporters of Remain who backed the Liberal Democrats or Labour at the last election – but, in any case, you can see how a deal of that kind would be sellable to their coalition of the vote. For Johnson, further disillusionment and anger among the voters of Sunderland, Hull and so on are a price that a Tory government can happily pay – and indeed, has, during both of the Conservatives’ recent long stays in government from 1951 to 1964 and from 1979 to 1997.

It feels unlikely that it will be a price that those Labour voters who backed a Leave vote – or the ethnic and social minorities that may take the blame – can happily pay.  

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