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 French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.