Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
In his search for a ‘Clause 4 moment’ or that imaginary middle ground, Ed Miliband has simultaneously alienated millions of trade unionists while making himself look weak as he wrestles with his left of centre instincts and his downright Blairite influences (or pragmatism as he would call it). During his speech today in London to party members, Ed made the classic mistake of reaching out to ‘ordinary union members’ in the national interest, implying that he wanted Labour to speak for them, not ‘union bosses’.
His appeal to ‘individual trade unionists’ to actively join the Labour Party and for the union-link to change from an ‘opt-out’ to an ‘opt-in’ system for ‘associate members’ will have a number of serious consequences, both political and financial.
Financially Labour stands to lose millions of pounds and potentially create an even greater democratic deficit than already present within the Labour Party. Given the apathy toward voting in any kind of individualised process from the public right through to union members, Ed’s claims that his plan will actually lead to increasing Labour’s already poor membership level of 200,000 is fanciful at best.
Miliband plays into the Tory led mantra, ably abetted by right wing media commentators, that the Labour Party is perceived to be in the pockets of the unions and that this is somehow an obstacle to getting elected. Evidence is cited that union membership is historically low (although there has seen a small rise this year) particularly in the private sector where union membership stands at around 14 percent of the workforce.
Let’s be clear. The reason union membership has not shot up under austerity is because union power has been severely weakened whether by regressive laws or by constant misrepresentations of what unions are and what they do on a day to day basis. Workers who are suffering who are not politically engaged often say to me: ‘What’s the point in joining? They can’t help me.’ Although that is factually inaccurate this perception flows from the fact workers know individually they have no real power. The rolling back of collective bargaining agreements and rigid laws on balloting members for strike action remain the two biggest obstacles to trade union recruitment. Only 35% of workers are now covered by collective agreements.
If trade unions are not able to win better pay and conditions for their members, confidence declines and workers outside of the labour movement will not want to get involved. The Tory government understands this perfectly, which is why they have increased the time a worker has to have worked from one year to two years before they can claim unfair dismissal. Changes to the costs of tribunals will see unions having to fork out millions just to see workers get a fair hearing or claim unfair dismissal.
A campaign launched recently by Unite, the RMT and several other unions – the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom – seeks to form a broad alliance to change the law and simply allow trade unionists a more level playing field with the employer.
Despite these restrictions and an aggressive media, trade unions have been successful in mobilising thousands to attend demonstrations, raised wages and conditions for millions and have joined up with other social movements to fight the bedroom tax – something which Ed refuses to promise to reverse if he is elected. What other NGO can claim that record?
The presentation by the mainstream media that the unions are a ‘special interest’ group acting in the interests of some worker elite could not be further from the truth. Being a labour correspondent for over 4 years, it is clear to me that the union movement is a diverse place, containing both left wing and right wing opinions. But the common thread is the shared interested for a better deal at work.
Some of the most exciting and successful campaigns of trade unions with employers receive little to no media coverage. One of the biggest industrial campaigns led by the very people Ed claimed to be speaking to today was the Sparks dispute two years ago. The 25+ week dispute against construction employers who formed an unholy alliance to slash wages by 35 percent and enforce new contracts on to workers without consulting their unions would have got through if union activists hadn’t taken direct action – often in defiance of Britain’s labour laws on balloting and picketing. Many of these employers have been implicated in the current blacklisting scandal such as Balfour Beatty.
And the motivation for this dispute? A hard left faction trying to ruin industry as ‘Labour MP’ Simon Danczuk would no doubt label it? No. It was about survival, of both the workers themselves and their industry. It was about workers wanting to live like decent human beings and about knowing the value of their labour and fighting for it.
If Ed wants to reach out to these people, rather than alienating working class voters, he will need to enact some of his union affiliates’ basic social policies to kick-start the economy, to protect the vulnerable and to simply offer the electorate an alternative to ‘more cuts’ at the next general election. Failure to do so will give greater credence to RMT calls for a new workers party to be set up in Labour’s place.
Dipesh Pandya speaks to documentary film-maker Sanjay Kak, who for 30 years has been working outside the mainstream to tell a story rooted in the struggles of those excluded by India’s militarism and its narrative of neoliberal growth
Jeremy Gilbert on how radical Labour politics can be inspired by the utopianism of the counterculture
Disasters have unequal impacts – it's the poor and marginalised who suffer most. David Harvey writes on Hurricane Harvey
Survivors of the fire are still relying on thousands of community volunteers, writes Dan Renwick - but the failed council is plotting a comeback
What if it's not us who are sick, asks Rod Tweedy, but a system at odds with who we are as social beings?
The people could reach a democratic and non-violent solution if they were freed from US meddling, argues Boaventura de Sousa Santos
A decade after the start of the crash, economic power is in our hands – we must take it, writes Ann Pettifor
Nick Dowson looks at the new wave of co-ops and community groups where people are building their own truly affordable homes
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it
The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going
A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism
Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase
Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields
Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton
Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi
A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain
Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank
Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded
West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens
Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age
Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today
The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics
Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.
Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making
Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show
The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services
With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas
Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world
A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle
Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune
Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali
To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi
Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun
Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh
With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook