JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 13.9.13
YESTERDAY MORNING, with little fanfare, the coalition government announced that it is to go ahead, over the next few weeks, with the privatisation of Britain’s Royal Mail service, which as been held in various forms of public ownership for more than 300 years. There is, it is widely acknowledged, no strong business case for this privatisation, let alone a defensible social case; the service is currently operating at a profit, and remitting much-meeded income to the Treasury. Margaret Thatcher herself famously saw the Royal Mail as a privatisation too far; and opinion polls suggest that two-thirds of the British people are strongly opposed to the move.
Yet still, the privatisation goes ahead; in yet another vivid illustration of how Westminster government under all three parties, over the past 20 years, has increasingly come to represent no-one except the tiny economic elite who actually tend to benefit from such policies. There is, of course, one remaining voice in the Royal Mail debate which is speaking out clearly for the majority view; it is the voice of the Communication Workers’ Union, which says it will fight this decision with every means at its disposal. The very fact that the anti-privatisation cause is being backed by the union, though, is almost enough to guarantee its failure at Westminster. As Ed Miliband pointed out in his speech to the TUC this week, the Tories and their Coalition allies spit bile at the very mention of trade unionism, which they have been brought up to regard as a great evil. And as for the Labour Party – well, when its obituary comes to be written, perhaps twenty years from now, I would guess that its craven failure since the 1970’s to defend the popular movement that gave it birth, to draw on its strength, and to reflect its priorities, will play a large part in the story of its demise.
Not, of course, that it’s easy to catch any sense of this looming crisis from the normal course of British political debate, now almost entirely dominated by a right-wing narrative – adopted by lobby journalists and politicians alike – which casts trade unions as a problem, and the escape of the Labour Party from their influence as a precondition of its success. That the post-Thatcher Conservative Party promotes this argument is to be expected; some trade union leaders did abuse their power in post-war Britain, and offered ammunition for the long right-wing backlash of the last 35 years.
What has changed, though, in the last generation, is Labour’s implicit acceptance of the same overwhelmingly negative view. Despite Ed Miliband’s fragile attempt to strike a more bullish pro-union note with the TUC on Tuesday – instantly undermined by his ill-thought-out and panicky proposals for “reform” of Labour’s union links – it is now almost a quarter of a century since any Labour leader moved onto the front foot to defend trade unionism as a vital feature of any free society, and to express pride in the trade union sponsorship without which the Labour Party would not exist, and would have no political base. And as the Liberal Democrat MP Sarah Teather pointed out last week – resigning in despair over her party’s failure to contest increasingly vicious attitudes to immigration – politicians who do not seek to lead and change the political climate, rather than simply reflecting it, can hardly claim to be politicians at all.
For outside the Westminster bubble, the figures tell a very different story about who really speaks for Britain. In 2012, the three main UK political parties had around 400,000 members in total, or well below 1% of the British population. The trades unions affiliated to the TUC, by contrast, have well over 6 million members, fully 10% of the population, making them by a long way the largest grassroots campaigning network in the UK.
So when the House of Commons is heard baying for the trade unions’ blood as it did this week, or mocking the Labour Leader for not rejecting their influence, or passing legislation like the breathtakingly illiberal current Lobbying Bill – which will strictly limit all non-party political campaigning around general elections – it is difficult not to hear, behind the roars of hatred and contempt, a real fear of the political potential of organisations which now greatly outnumber our hollowed-out and unpopular political parties, and that retain not only their own independent funding base and policy priorities, but their ability to speak for the real interests of millions of working people.
In the short term, of course, our unlovely political class has little to fear. Across the western world, the right-wing narratives of recent history are pumped out day and daily by the mainstream media, and accepted without question by the majority of voters; including, in the UK, the big lie about how Britain in the 1970’s was an ungovernable hell of trade-union-sponsored misery and chaos, when in fact the statistics show that in that decade, this country came closer than ever before or since to real equality of opportunity, to the ending of homelessness and beggary, and to an average working-class wage that was sufficient to raise a family in comfort and security.
Yet the problem with the truth, from the point of view of those in power, is that it stubbornly refuses to lie and down and die; and it’s this knowledge that makes our present rulers so nervy, ill-tempered and intolerant of dissent, despite the apparent completeness of their victory. Ed Miliband, of course, is not much of a red; it’s clear that he lacks both the force of character, and the poetry of language, to challenge and transform the current terms of debate. Yet until he rolls over and concedes total defeat – learns to accept every proposed US military action without question, completely shuts up about workers’ rights and poverty pay – he will not be blue enough to satisfy the baying pin-striped ranks of today’s Tory party. And so long as the Labour leader and the TUC continue to agree even on that much, the long Tory campaign to silence the unions, and to co-opt and destroy the party that once spoke for them, will rumble on; nastier, more authoritarian, and more profoundly undemocratic, with every passing year.