Back in the 1970s my father remembers being able to walk out of a job one day and into another one the next. The very idea boggles my mind; the necessary red tape alone ensured it took nearly a month for me to move between my latest two jobs, from a full-time short term contract into a part-time longer term ‘temporary’ position. I’m also freelancing on an ad hoc basis over the internet, with no set hours, job security or career ladder. The days of my Scottish grandfather, where he left school at fourteen, joined the Post Office at the bottom rung and worked his way up into the manager of his local branch before he retired, are distant memories.
The rot goes back many years before the current jobless recovery of course. British wages for those on middle and lower incomes have been stagnating since the late 1970s, whilst the economy has more than doubled in size in the same period (1). But if I had to pick a time span I would have to pin it on the defeat of organised labour by the Thatcher government and big business in the first half of the 1980s. The old unions had their faults; the one measure of the anti-union legislation Thatcher passed that I agree with is the internal strike ballot. They were unrepresentative, sometimes badly led by autocratic leaders, and situated in industries vulnerable to change. Technology, the rise of women to the majority of the labour force (2) and competition from countries like China would have destroyed the old-style unions anyway, but given time the nimbler ones would have adapted. That they have not been allowed to by Britain’s undemocratic anti-union laws (which have now been left in place by all three major parties) goes a long way to explaining why progressives of my generation have been able to mobilise nearly a million protestors against the Iraq war in 2003 but have stood helplessly by as workers’ terms and conditions have deteriorated across every industry for the last generation. A Facebook ‘like’ does not fill the political gap left by marches, lock-ins and flying pickets.
You might not know it from the government’s attempt to turn universities from centres of critical thinking into factories for MBAs but Britain has actually had series of fairly lively left-wing student movements over the last twenty years. But the energy is lost upon graduation as the debt-laden graduates disperse and begin hunting for scarce jobs. Even once they find one there is no guarantee their participation in a progressive political movement will continue. My aunts, uncles and parents as teachers joined a teaching union as a matter of course. Not many of Britain’s students would make such an automatic transition todayand many workplaces have a very active union left. That dampens recruitment; the dues are another cost on top of every other due bill.
The last stronghold for organised workers in the UK is in the public sector, and has been under rigorous attack by the Conservatives and their media allies since the last election. What is left of the Labour party watches and shuffles its feet in case someone mentions union funding. It shows that the left didn’t just lose a major organising mechanism with the suppression of the unions; it also lost vital leverage at the political level. The unions and Labour had sometimes had a tense relationship, but they kept Labour generally true to its social democratic roots. The current Tory-lite party is a sad and pitiful creature, which serves no purpose, and frankly defunding it would be a long overdue political correction by what is left of the union movement.
That we need a new political vehicle for organising ourselves to face down the attacks on all of us is hardly news. The new generation of millennials is too young to remember the Winter of Discontent and the miners’ strike, those twin legends Conservatives like to appeal to when reminded that left-wing groups used to be able to do more than sign an online petition or clog the streets in protest for a day or two. Those cut no ice with us, nor the teenagers coming up after us, and show the age of the people making it (the average age of a Conservative party member is 68). We grew up watching the contrast between the treatment of the underclass rioters in 2011 and the upper class crooks that crashed the global economy in 2008. No effort was spared to hunt down young Darren but collaring Tristan is a different kettle of fish. In the meantime the banking industry continues to shine (Insert examples of laundering money for drug dealers and terrorists). Dave Cameron cuts our benefits and tightens penalties for fraud but doesn’t prosecute tax-dodging companies. I’d say it’s a safe bet to say Conservative appeal to the rising generations will be limited at the next elections. They couldn’t even win a majority against New Labour back in 2010.
The problem for progressives is that unlike single issue politics, to which we have become addicted, it isn’t as easy to organise a disparate coalition of groups into a social movement to force change on multiple fronts simultaneously. Neo-liberalism remains the default ideology of all three major parties in our system, and without state funding will they all be prisoners of corporate funding once the Labour party finishes its long divorce from the unions. We only have to look across the Atlantic to see the corrupting effects that has had on US politics. There will be no magic bullet that lets us dodge this like a change in the voting system. Only the long slog back into office that our ancestors started once before in the 19th century, when ordinary people realised that the system was broken and they needed their own representatives in charge. That’s why I’m voting Green next time.