The NS Interview: Frances O’Grady, deputy general secretary of the TUC

“Britain is going to be a much meaner, nastier, scarier place”

How and why did you first become involved in the trade union movement?
I first joined as a shopworker - I came from a family where joining a union was the expected thing to do. I've always believed that the relationship between an employer and an individual worker is fundamentally unequal.

How would you describe the purpose of the trade union movement?
We have a moral responsibility to speak up for the poor because not many others can. It's an old saying, but trade unionism is about the strong helping the weak. We've got an obligation to do that.

What is your take on the Spending Review?
It is bad economics. Britain is going to be a much meaner, nastier, scarier place - particularly if you're poor.

What worries you most about it?
I find the cuts in housing, the rent rises and the impact on women and children across the board especially disturbing. Coupled with some of the comments we've heard, it suggests the spirit of Keith Joseph and Norman Tebbit isn't entirely dead within the Tory party.

What is your alternative?
A crackdown on tax avoidance, a "Robin Hood tax" and investment in growth.

What effect will redundancies have?
At the moment, we've got five unemployed people chasing every vacancy, and vacancies are shrinking by the day. Understandably, I think, we'll see a lot of resistance.

Do you think there'll be a poll tax moment?
Yes, in the sense of government MPs going back to their constituencies and finding out that they've become the most unpopular MP in recent history in a very short space of time! We're determined that we're going to make this local and personal.

Will there be co-ordinated strike action?
We've got to be very intelligent about picking the timing, territory and tactics of any strike ­action. We've got to win popular support.

Is the media flurry about another "winter of discontent" exaggerated?
I think a lot of old journos have been reaching for a lot of tired old clichés. This is a very dif­ferent kind of trade union movement from the one we had in the 1970s. It's 50/50 men and women, and there's a new generation of activists coming through who are looking for bolder, more imaginative ways to win.

Do you think the coalition will last a full term?
It's too early to judge. Although there's a lot of focus on the Lib Dems, we need to keep our eyes on the far right of the Tories, who I suspect will become increasingly impatient in their appetite for tax cuts, deregulation and shrinking the state even further.

What do you think of Ed Miliband as leader?
Ed has the potential to become a great social-democratic prime minister. He has a lot of interesting things to say about the quality of life in Britain today and the role of consumerism and how that's corroding our sense of community. People are feeling cheered by that.

You're the first woman to hold your post. Have you ever been treated differently?
We didn't rush things at the TUC, did we? I have been given a lot of encouragement by men and women, and that's something I hope to pass on, particularly to young women.

How equal are men and women in society now?
When I look at my daughter, who's 24, she is much more confident than I ever was and her expectations are higher. But I worry that there is a backlash brewing against progress on equality. I feel very cautious about what may or may not happen on abortion, for example.

Is enough being done to tackle the gender pay gap?
No. We still have one of the biggest gender pay gaps in Europe - it is outrageous in the 21st century. I predict things are going to get a lot worse. As long as it's down to individual women having to put their head above the parapet, progress will be slow.

Who are your political heroes?
My first hero, as a teenager, was James Connolly. I remember discovering that he was a feminist, and that was an eye-opener, coming from a man of such poverty. And all those women, like Mary Macarthur, who've stood on each other's shoulders to get a bit further ahead.

Do you vote?
Oh yes, always.

Is there a plan?
It's better to enjoy what you're doing in the here and now, and let the future look after itself.

Is there anything you'd like to forget?
A few spotty boyfriends!

Are we all doomed?
No, as long as we're organised.

 

Defining moments

1960 Born in Oxford
1989 Joins Transport and General Workers Union as a campaigner
1994 Joins the TUC
1998 Becomes head of TUC organisation and services department
1998 Sets up academy to train young union organisers
2003 Becomes TUC deputy general secretary, the first woman in the post
2007 Appointed to Low Pay Commissio

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Vietnam: the last battle

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times