While the national discourse is dominated by talk of Brexit, basic bread and butter issues like workers’ rights and cuts to services are being pushed out of the spotlight. It’s a narrative that needs to change, says DAVE WARD
FOR months I have been saying that we cannot let the debate around Brexit, important as it is, swamp all of the other issues we need to address for working people.
The thought struck me again this week with the Supreme Court’s decision on making Parliament vote on triggering Article 50. That dominated the news and there was next to no coverage of government actions to implement the Trade Union Act.
Nor of the fresh attempt to further restrict trade union rights by a Conservative back-bench Bill that thankfully ended in defeat in the House of Commons.
For a party that has spent years trashing Europe, immigrants and any regulations on business, it is no wonder that with public debate being so heavily dominated by the finer details of Brexit, the Tories look to be in comfortable territory — just as they were in the last parliament when the deficit became the sole focus of political debate, giving them cover for an agenda to cut back public services.
Because what wider agenda do they have to offer? All the nasty party’s attempts to redefine itself have catastrophically failed. This week’s industrial strategy looks set to go the same way as George Osborne’s “march of the makers.”
The “shared society” seems to have as much substance as the “big society.” And the “party of working people” stands in obvious contrast to the explosion of insecure employment it has presided over for the past six years.
From the economy to the NHS, from the railways to housing, what truly defines this government is crisis — and this is a record it has to own.
We cannot allow the Tories to set the terms of debate on the future of this country and make it about nothing more than Leave or Remain, while they get on with implementing an agenda that leaves working people poorer, less secure and less able to stand up for themselves.
For all the obvious failings of the government, for all its manifest inability to tackle the issues we face, the labour movement has to face up to some hard truths.
Labour has a real fight on its hands in two looming by-elections. It’s trailing in national polls.
And the labour movement as a whole isn’t yet cutting through with a simple and clear progressive vision as an alternative to the Tory project — which, as Jeremy Corbyn points out, will create a bargain-basement Britain with low taxes, lower wages and no workers’ rights.
Nor are we doing enough to mobilise our members in opposition to what the government is doing. In all likelihood the new restrictions on industrial action imposed by the Trade Union Act will take effect in just over a month’s time, on March 1.
For years the trade union movement has been working to oppose these laws and we achieved some significant changes to address some of the worst provisions.
We now need to redouble our efforts because it remains one of the most divisive and serious attacks on trade unions of recent times.
At the TUC last year, the CWU’s motion called for a national demonstration to demand for a new deal for workers, which we should be organising this year.
Unless we can quickly find a way to drive this forward through the TUC, individual unions will need to step up to the mark to mobilise their members around this.
In calling for this new deal, we understand that the world of work is changing. At recent conferences — of the CWU’s retired members and of its young members — we discussed the implications of technological change and how advances in robotics and automisation are affecting our jobs.
We can’t be anti-technology, but we should be clear that the benefits of it must be shared more widely. Thirty years ago the idea was that technological change would make our lives easier and free up our time — we talked of achieving a shorter working day or working week. We thought it would mean less pressure on workers.
What we’ve seen instead is that people are having to work much harder, their terms and conditions are being driven down and they’re working longer hours for worse pay in order to compete with the technology.
That’s partly the British disease I’ve mentioned before — the result of short-termist bosses who won’t invest in the future but only know how to cut costs.
But as we’re seeing with Donald Trump in the United States it’s becoming a global issue.
As we look at what’s happening across the Atlantic, the danger is that we underestimate Trump, that we focus on the lies and the spin and argue about the number of people who may or may not have attended an inauguration or a rally.
That’s comfortable territory for the left — and it’s even more comfortable territory for Trump as well.
What we really need to recognise is that alongside the most divisive platform we have heard from a mainstream politician in recent years, what Trump has been saying, about the outsourcing of jobs, the country littered with the tombstones of industry as a result of globalisation, resonates with millions of people.
When he says he’s going to protect jobs, to bring them back home, that has a wide appeal.
If all we are doing is writing this guy off as an idiot for his lies — or pretending that everything was fine before he came along and defending the status quo — we’re letting him and the populist right own the agenda on jobs.
We will only defeat their divisive pitch, and their programme of tax, spending and public service cuts that will only benefit the rich, if we show we are the ones who will deliver the new deal working people need.
That’s an agenda that we, the trade union movement, need to be setting ourselves. If we aren’t both defining the new deal for workers we want, and mobilising to achieve it, then the future will be imposed on us by people with very different ideas.
Dave Ward is general secretary of the Communication Workers Union. His column appears on the last weekend of the month.