Politics is about struggle, about the clash of interests. It is, ultimately, about how to create a society of common interests.
So let’s take a contemporary example – “One Nation”. I applaud Ed Miliband for the way he has raised this idea and for the content he is trying to give it. But let’s not pretend that we are “one nation”, or that we will become one without the conflict that Ralph Miliband placed at the heart of politics.
We cannot create common interests across a society that is now more unequal than for generations simply by wishing for it. So how do we get to “one nation” and what part does working-class politics play?
The labour movement has been the backbone to political change and progress for generations; if the 20th century was the century of the working class, it was so because of organised labour and the trade union movement, itself a child of conflict (over who benefits from the wealth generated by capitalism). That is why the ruling class is so keen to keep trade unions in legal shackles.
Britain was the first country of trade unionism – a point reflected in Danny Boyle’s inspirational opening ceremony at the Olympics. If we measure the success of the labour movement as the extent to which it re-shaped the responsibilities of government, the 20th Century saw victories on an unimaginable scale.
It is a remarkable feat that, at a time when wealth was accumulated at the top and poverty for working people who lived ‘hand to mouth’, the labour movement was able to secure such radical change. The working classes, against all odds, transformed society. If you were to have a Monty Python moment and say “what has the trade union movement ever done for us” some would of course talk about better pay and improved conditions at work. I would go much further, and say that the political activity of the working class secured almost everything we value today: democracy, peace, equality, our welfare state.
The idea that capitalism or the ruling elite would have introduced democracy or social equality or welfare on their own is fanciful. Much of these achievements are under pressure today.
I grew up in vibrant and politicised communities – life was centred on the docks. Around work were formed the circles of working-class life – trade unionism, community, the Labour Party. Today, we cannot simply start from there. We cannot build a future working-class politics on a basis which has long eroded.
Perhaps the more significant change is the decline in secure and stable employment. Capitalism is the only system which has normalised unemployment. It is the responsibility of any system to offer work to people, and if it fails in this basic obligation, don’t blame the victims. In the last two weeks 11,000 jobs have been lost – HMV, Jessops, Honda to name a few. Today’s hard working poor – victims – are tomorrow’s benefit scroungers, if you listen to the right wing press.
We must first confront the crisis of confidence born of increasing marginalisation, to say that we speak for the working class, that the working class speaks for a better world for all - and we have to organise and fight on that basis.
Unite is leading the way with an ambitious new programme to recruit, organise and educate across the whole of our communities. The unemployed, the disabled, carers, the elderly, the voluntary and charity sector – it is time for these people to be organised and to be given a voice. Who better to do this than the trade union movement?. This sits comfortably within our traditions. Unite’s community membership scheme means that those not in work – aged 16 to 116 – can join our family for 50 pence a week. Community branches are springing up across the country, and our activists are going into communities, empowering people to do something for themselves.
Unite is also working to meet the needs of our members through the creation of a new credit union network. My union says pay day loan vultures have no place in our society, profiting off the misery of people on poverty pay. So our members will be able to obtain credit without having to resort to the ruinous interest rates of the pay-day loan companies.
The 21st Century is not ringing out the death knell of the labour movement; it is sending out a call to arms. The apparently endless economic crisis which began in 2008 is seeing to that. In 1992 Margaret Thatcher claimed ‘It is the end of Socialism.’ A few years later Tony Blair declared ‘that the Class war is over’. No doubt from the boardroom of JP Morgan or wherever he is now, it may look that way.
But this is false evidence that we have nothing left to fight for.
We are told that strike action, civil disobedience, direct action and protest are all somehow unpatriotic. Our history tells us they are not. Our `rulers’ are deeply afraid of Ralph Miliband’s assertion that politics is about conflict. They believe that those without hope, without jobs, now looking at cuts in their meagre welfare, that families being shunted out of London because of housing benefit changes should simply put up with it. Council leaders from our major cities have warned that people might respond with anger and civil disorder. I would not be surprised. We have seen remarkable local protests recently: from 20,000 in Eastbourne and 15,000 on the streets in Lewisham to defend their NHS to 350 people crammed into a room to protest against a library closure in Newcastle.
Protest against inequality is alive and well – look at the work done by UK Uncut to challenge outrageous tax avoidance by Vodafone and other giant corporations. It takes courage to risk unpopularity and vilification. But the truth does prevail.
The labour movement’s message must be one of ‘hope’. Britain is broken. But it is the system that is broken, not the people.
I am proud to associate Unite with these initiatives, and to hope to form a longer-lasting alliance between organised labour and radical protest, even if it comes from outside our traditional movement. And, as I have made clear before in relation to the trade union laws, while I do not ever advocate violence, nor do I preach worship of the law at all costs. So my message to capitalism is this: mend your ways or risk mounting social breakdown and disorder.
People need a political voice. Labour is the natural, historic, vehicle for their voice. But should there be any return to the discredited recipes of Blairism, the Labour Party will be over for me and I believe millions more besides.
In the midst of an unending economic crisis, with what Ralph Miliband would have called a discredited ruling class at the helm, it is time for the working class to step forward with its own vision and alternative.
Our values are eternal. Let’s stand courageous, and triumph like those that have gone before.
Len McCluskey is the General Secretary of Unite