Aslef’s annual assembly of delegates opens in Bristol today. MICK WHELAN, the union’s general secretary, spells
out why a Labour government would be good for Britain
SHADOW CHANCELLOR John McDonnell, speaking at the traditional May Day rally in Trafalgar Square last month, said the general election on June 8 is “the biggest chance of a lifetime” for the left in Britain. He’s right. Because the Labour Party is going to the country this month with a manifesto which could significantly and fundamentally change this country — for the better.
I am proud to be a member of the Labour Party. And I am loyal. So you won’t be surprised to learn that I vote Labour. That’s where I put my cross on the ballot paper. Because I believe that Britain is better off with a Labour government than a Tory government or a Conservative-led coalition.
But there were times, during the New Labour years, when my trade union, and all the trade unions, were treated by Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson as if we were distant relatives rather than close family friends — an embarrassing uncle at the Christmas party, perhaps — and it was sometimes hard to keep the faith. But we did. Because we knew the Tories, and the Lib Dems, would be worse. And so they proved since 2010.
It wasn’t just that Blair and Mandelson and the New Labour apparatchiks surrounding them were embarrassed by the trade union link — which is a bit rich considering the history of the Labour Party, born, as it was, out of the labour movement — they were embarrassed by our values as well.
In their rush to grab the centre ground and persuade some of those who voted Conservative or Liberal Democrat that it was safe to vote Labour, they turned their backs on many of the key values and beliefs of the party and our movement.
The result was the defeat in the general election of 2010. In fact, after the heady days of 1997 — when things, as D:Ream said, can only get better, and that was the song which echoed around the People’s Palace on the South Bank at Labour’s victory party — the Labour vote fell in 2001 and again in 2005.
It wasn’t just the Iraq war which did for Toxic Tony. It was the fact that, under Blair, the Labour Party lost its soul.
Under Jeremy Corbyn, that has changed. Off the back of an unexpected and debilitating defeat at the general election in 2015, Corbyn has brought in, or brought back, tens of thousands of new members, activists and supporters who had either left because of the sellouts and triangulation of the New Labour years, or had never been interested in politics because they felt that Labour offered the same sort of discredited policies, in the wake of the global financial collapse, as the Tories.
Corbyn, who believes in the core values and traditional aspirations of the Labour Party, is running on a progressive platform which I believe will excite voters put off by the machinations of the New Labour years. Corbyn has been a real breath of fresh air. He is honest, and is decent, and has a vision for a better Britain.
“The Labour Party is a moral crusade,” said Harold Wilson, “or it is nothing.” The party — our party — lost its way when it forgot that. When it became obsessed with the CBI’s version of the “free market” rather than representing the ambitions and aspirations of the vast majority of ordinary hard-working men and women in this country.
Corbyn is proud, not embarrassed or ashamed, to talk about public ownership. He understands how ordinary people are suffering in the Conservative age of austerity ushered in by David Cameron, George Osborne and the Lib Dems, and continued by Theresa May and Philip Hammond, who have redistributed wealth from the poor to the rich — the reverse of Robin Hood — to bail out the bankers who caused the economic crisis of 2008.
Corbyn wants to rebuild Britain, to create a fairer, more modern society, with a more productive economy that delivers for all the people, not just the few, fit for the 21st century.
The Labour manifesto promises to bring Britain’s railways back into public ownership — a policy on which Aslef has campaigned passionately ever since John Major’s ill-starred privatisation of British Rail in 1994 — and to freeze passenger fares across the network.
It also pledges to reverse the privatisation of Royal Mail, create a publicly owned energy company to put an end to the rip-offs of the oil and gas cartels — even Theresa May says the energy market doesn’t work — and stop the insidious “salami-slicing” backdoor privatisation of our National Health Service.
Labour, if elected, will repeal the ill-conceived Trade Union Act and embrace sectoral collective bargaining, so unions can once again negotiate terms and conditions across an industry and across the country.
The party will end the public-sector pay cap, guarantee trade unions access to the workplace, enforce employees’ right to union representation and use public spending power to drive up standards by only awarding public-sector contracts to companies which recognise trade unions.
The party will end pernicious zero-hours contracts and shift the burden of proof in the gig economy so the law assumes a worker is an employee unless an employer can prove otherwise.
Labour will provide education “from the cradle to the grave” that is free at the point of use — from early years through primary, secondary and tertiary education to adult education — abolish university tuition fees and reintroduce maintenance grants.
So what’s not to like? This is a sensible socialist platform on which any of the great Labour Party leaders of the past — Keir Hardie, Clement Attlee and Harold Wilson — would have been happy to stand. That’s why I urge you to vote Labour on June 8 and help return a Labour government to build a better Britain.
Mick Whelan is also chair of the Trade Union & Labour Party Liaison Organisation. Tulo co-ordinates the activities of the 13 trade unions which affiliate to the Labour Party — Aslef, Bectu, the Bakers, Food & Allied Workers Union, Community, CWU, FBU, GMB, Musicians Union, NUM, TSSA, Unison, Unite and Usdaw.