Why can't they be grateful?

Kevin Maguireimplores the unions to drop the victim culture and see what they have gained from Labou

The tea and coffee were poured and the chocolate biscuits handed round in the TUC's fifth-floor general council chamber. The industry minister, Ian McCartney, shuffled his papers and prepared to outline the government's package of new job rights. Forty-five minutes later he was still waiting for his union hosts to finish going through the minutes of their last meeting.

A few general secretaries had the good grace to look embarrassed over the delay. A couple appeared to enjoy being in control for once. Most, as usual, were blissfully unaware.

When he was finally allowed to speak, McCartney, organised labour's most important ally in government, gave a performance one fan privately described as a tour de force. He outlined an impressive battery of employment measures: all workers will for the first time have the right to be represented in grievance and disciplinary hearings; if half the workforce have union cards then recognition is virtually guaranteed, and just 10 per cent of the workforce can trigger a recognition ballot; paid maternity leave will rise from 14 to 18 weeks, and unpaid parental leave of three months will become law.

Yet this week's publication of a ground-breaking Employment Relations Bill will be met with union accusations of sell-outs and betrayals. Trapped in a victim culture, unions see themselves as always cheated of victories that should be theirs.

When interest rates are cut by a quarter or half per cent, do unions welcome the reduction? No, they call for another cut. When the minimum wage was set at £3.60 for adults, did unions welcome the first across-the-board attack on poverty pay? No, they complained that it was too low and exempted young people.

This week's bill contains 42 new employment rights. Labour's manifesto promised three. Yet any grudging praise from the unions will be drowned out by their carping.

Much breast-beating has been heard from union HQs over changes to the bill since the Fairness at Work white paper was published before Christmas. At present, workers can be sacked as soon as they go on strike. Under the proposed legislation, that won't be allowed. But at the CBI's insistence, strikers may still be dismissed after eight weeks. "Betrayal!" shout the unions, yet firms will have to show they tried to resolve the dispute instead of sitting back for two months before sending out the P45s.

The jibe that the "fairness not favours" promised has been all favours for employers and no fairness for unions (see the Bill Morris interview in last week's NS) might get a round of applause from activists. But it is just not true.

McCartney's boast to the TUC that by the middle of this parliament Tony Blair's government will have done more on employment than all previous Labour administrations put together is not an idle one. The minimum wage will be in force from April, the Social Chapter has been signed, unions are back in GCHQ, the EU's young workers and working time directives have been accepted, and bosses will be forced to ballot workers if they want to derecognise unions, making derecognition all but impossible.

Unions are right to keep pushing the interests of their members. They would be wise, however, to remember that those same members want to be in bodies that can claim some victories.

The political landscape has changed dramatically since the election, yet many union leaders publicly act as if nothing has changed. The fundamental mistakes union leaders made in the 1970s and 1980s cost them dear - and unless the opportunities now offered are grasped, Bill Morris will miss the boat like his predecessors. He must understand that being a social partner means working with employers and the government. It does not mean selling out the workers. As professional negotiators, union leaders should realise they have done pretty well out of Labour. With the new legal framework, and with British workers worried about job insecurity, they have the opportunity for a renaissance.

Yet the reception given to the working time directive when it came into force last October did not bode well for the future. As well as the 48-hour limit on the working week, millions of employees are now guaranteed at least three weeks' paid holiday a year. Alas, not a single union kicked off a campaign to inform workers of their rights and get them to join the union. Instead the directive was met by TUC complaints that it had been watered down.

The Financial Times reckoned the TUC beat the CBI 6-2 when the white paper was published. Arguably the CBI pulled one back in the bill, but that still makes it a 6-3 win. Blair, more comfortable in the boardroom than on the shop floor, has been won over by McCartney. The No 10 political officer Jon Cruddas put forward more convincing arguments than the CBI's man, Geoffrey Norris. The TUC general secretary, John Monks, ran a more effective lobbying campaign than the CBI president, Sir Clive Thompson.

Yet the bill will be met by more union bleating. Once again the TUC will be in danger of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. For once, its leading lights should declare the glass is half full, not half empty. That way they can move on instead of looking back.

The writer is political editor of the "Mirror"

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain