Today, I made it to Cambridge University. The richest university in Europe, one of the most successful in the world. I welcomed this chance to speak to our leaders – maybe our rulers – of a generation from now.
If I had spoken here 25 years ago, to the students of the 1980s, I would have been speaking to people – or many of them at least – who we would have gone on to make huge heaps of money while helping to drive the economy off a cliff.
If my predecessor, Ernie Bevin, had spoken to the students of the 1930s, he would have been addressing people who would perhaps have gone off to fight to defend democracy in the Spanish civil war or who planned the post-war world which emerged from the defeat of fascism.
So I started with a basic question which should be asked of every young person: What sort of society do you want to live in? Because there is no doubt that these students will make a difference. They have the background, the education, the life chances to leave a mark on society and the world.
The choice is, what sort of a difference?
Some will just want a big house in the country and to drive a Porche, then fine. Good luck. But for me, that is as cramped a vision as anything one could find on a mythical “Benefits Street”.
Because we need change. We live in a society where over the last generation every institution that stands between the individual and the market has been diminished or stripped away.
Trade unions, local government, a public sector, even the churches – all have been reduced, marginalised or broken up by the onward march of market-first ideology. People have been reduced to individual economic actors, measured solely by their spending power, in a society-without-a-society.
If you don’t have an income, or much of one, then you account for little in the marketplace, treated with scorn in the political and media arena, as those forced to live on welfare are being treated today.
Our society is also less equal: the very richest 1% in Britain possesses as much wealth as 60% of the population, an almost medieval elite in our midst – and the trend shows no signs of reversing.
Flip over this coin and the share of our wealth that is used to pay workers’ wages is shrinking. 65% of national income went on workers’ wages when Mrs Thatcher came to power; today it is just 53%. Real wages tumble as we endure the longest, largest drop in living standards since Queen Victoria was on the throne in the 1870s.
This could only happen in a society where trade unions, and collective bargaining – always the best defence against inequality – have been attacked. Without redressing that deliberately created imbalance of power in the workplace, re-empowering workers’ organisations, wage inequality can only widen.
Britain today needs three things: decent jobs, homes and hope.
Why, in a society of our wealth and development, is it so hard to offer everyone a decent chance of earning a living and a roof over their head?
It’s good that the Labour Party is at last talking of building one million homes over a parliament, and forcing developers to release land to be built on, creating jobs and meeting a huge unmet demand for homes. Even a five year old can understand it – it’s only a neo-liberal economic system that can’t.
Money to achieve this is there: using the billions tied up in pension funds would allay the Government’s fear of borrowing and meet businesses’ desire to invest – the funds themselves are clamouring for such opportunities.
Further, give new rights for renters in the private sector, where the UK currently has the most deregulated private rental market in Europe. Five year tenures, with rents pegged to give workers and their families a chance of some stability.
The hope that stems from knowing your country strives to gives you a platform for your life, a decent job and a decent home, can infuse a country. It can drive out fear and cynicism.
An absence of it can drive out governments. Roosevelt said that Hoover’s Republicans were swept from office in the 1932 election in the midst of the great depression “because in disaster you have held out no hope”.
Land of HOPE and Glory? Today we have little of either. What hope is there in a land of foodbanks? And what glory when the family of a soldier who has died for their country could be forced from their home by the Bedroom Tax?
It cannot be that the only recognised power in our system today is the power of the purse – if so, what is there left for politicians to do?
What the country needs is a politics that offers choices, where votes make a real difference, and where you do not end up with more of the same whatever the outcome of a general election. That’s why I have to suppress a shudder down my spine when I hear talk of a Lib-Lab government after the next general election.
I’m hoping, striving, for an outright Labour victory. For those of us who believe we need a real alternative and a fresh start, Nick Clegg – an “Orange book” Lib Dem, who swears by cuts in social spending and will ally himself with whomever will keep the country bogged down in the same failed consensus – is not the new politics we need.
Ed Miliband can be this change, however. He is starting to offer that different perspective taking on the energy giants, asking the rich to pay a bit more tax, building homes, tackling inequality.
The last thing our country needs is genuine Labour radicalism filtered through the soggy Lib-Dem sieve.
Len McCluskey is the General Secretary of Unite