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Labour have put themselves on the wrong side of the English

Ultimately, exhorting the SNP to vote against fox hunting in England and Wales will hurt Labour, warns John Denham.

Labour will pay a heavy price for its opportunistic response to English Votes for English Laws. It’s as though they have already forgotten how English sentiment swung the last election against the party. Last week’s feeble response to the debate on Evel has been made worse by the open plea to the SNP to vote on hunting with dogs. Only the Tories and the SNP will benefit in the long term, even if has helped the foxes in the short term.

This is one of those classic issues where Scottish MPs will vote on English policy when it is Scottish MSPs that decide the same issue in north of the border. In this case, the SNP MPs will be voting to reject for England a policy that actually exists in Scotland! Growing numbers of English voters simply don’t accept the anomaly as democratic or defensible. By making its appeal to Scottish MPs Labour’s frontbench knew full well that it was also making a much more important, uncritical, defence of the constitutional status quo.

It’s easy to see why a demoralised Labour enjoyed the Government’s discomfort over Evel last week.  The Evel case was poorly argued and the Government’s response was technically flawed.  It’s fun to see your opponents forced onto the back foot on their own proposal. This amusement can’t be allowed to disguise how weak and feeble was Labour’s own response.  The thin recognition that ‘something must be done’ from the frontbench was not followed by any indication of what changes Labour thinks should be made., or any sense of urgency that change should be made.

Worse was the jibe from Labour’s backbenchers that the Tories were doing this to ‘increase their majority from 12 in the UK to 100 in England’. Many Labour MPs don’t seem to realise that the Tories have a majority of 100 in England because that’s what English people voted for. It’s the hardest evidence yet of the depth of denial in Westminster about our election defeat. Instead of working out how to win an English majority, too much Labour clings to the hope it can govern Westminster through it’s Welsh and - it hopes - Scottish MPs.

Tristram Hunt argued this week that progressive patriotism and support for England will be key to Labour’s recovery. By refusing to speak to England’s political identity, and by seeking SNP support to decide English policy, Labour will simply allow the Tories to consolidate their hold over a key section of the English electorate. The SNP will gloat at their hold over Labour, making recovery in Scotland much the harder.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a lifelong campaigner against hunting. I’m still proud of the day I got the New Forest Staghounds’ licence suspended for cruelty. So I understand the powerful call to defeat the Tories cruel and cynical proposal. Until the Commons rules are changed, there is no bar on any MP from voting. But Labour also needs to pin its flag to clear Commons reform and a clear defence of England’s right to determine its own domestic policy.

 

John Denham is former Labour MP four Southampton Itchen, and Professor of English Identity and Politics, Winchester University.

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010.

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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.