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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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.