Labour and the unions; till death do us part…
The Trade Union Congress’s 2011 conference opens today. Traditionally, it marks the opening of the political conference season (though this is slightly unfair on the Green Party and UKIP who have both already held their annual conferences). Plenty of fighting talk is in the air and rightly so, it is good to see union leaders, at least rhetorically responding to the threat the Coalition government poses, not just to their members but also to the vast majority of British society.
Of course, however, it is often the case that union leaderships can be more about the jaw-jaw than the war-war and, also the media loves to hype-up the prospect of a good old fashioned industrial ruckus for its own ends. Regardless of all that though this is a fight the union and labour movement must undertake and its also one it must win. I don’t think a government can have been said to be such a threat to our movement since Thatcher’s times and although her continuing legacy and presence may make us feel like that was only yesterday, it was, in fact, a long time ago.
How can the unions win? Numerous suggestions exist which range from the kamikaze-run calls for a general strike now to doing little more than lobbying like any other pressure group would. Strikes should be, and are for most people, a last resort. This is what many in Labour’s leadership fail to appreciate, that those going on strike are not gung-ho, red-vein eyed militants spoiling for a scrap. They are ordinary people that want to work, want to get on with their jobs, but they have simply been pushed too far. Anybody who is pushed too far snaps and in his response to #j30, Ed Miliband failed spectacularly to show he understood this and indeed, all the indications are he did not.
Labour should be a stout friend to the unions now more than ever. A friend that yes, sometimes is critical but above all shows understanding to those pushed to take these measures. We should not be letting our thinking be governed by what the headlines in the Murdoch press might label us but be guided by our values into taking a position that is right. We should help the unions win their battle for public hearts and minds, because their fight is our fight. So, when a strike is a product of desperation we should support it too the hilt and tell the truth; that the blame lies with a government doped-up to the eyeballs on its own ideological zeal.
We should suggest to the unions that they are creative in the ways they fight these cuts; that its not always right to reach for the heavy artillery, ie, strike action in the first instance. Direct action, simply propagandist exercises like handing out concise leaflets to the public, all these things have their place in our arsenal. The unions do also need to work on their image and communications strategy and this is something that Labour can help with since we, and politics in general, has absorbed the import of communications and people’s perceptions long before the union movement seems to have given it much consideration.
I would hope Ed Miliband will use his speech tomorrow to re-affirm his commitment to Labour’s special relationship with the unions, one that is intrinsic to Labour’s DNA. However, I worry he won’t and like over #j30 his thinking is clearly governed not by what is right but by what he thinks will look good in the headlines tomorrow. In that case, the unions have to flex their muscles within Labour, in a way that is productive and constructive for both parties and takes both forward together for together is where both belong, for richer or poorer and until death do us part, the fate of one is locked to the other. The sooner both sides recognise that the better for both and the more progress we will make getting rid of this rotten government.