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.

Len McCluskey addressing TUC conference. Photo: Getty
Len McCluskey addressing TUC conference. Photo: Getty

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.