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“THE market will not save us.” TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady’s stark warning to Congress today is in tune with a broader shift in public opinion.
Common themes resound from many of the contributions to this year’s trade union parliament: ordinary people are being systematically cheated by the current economic order and trade unionists are running out of patience with a political class that refuses to countenance change.
To be sure, the laissez-faire neoliberalism that characterised the “austerity” governments of David Cameron has been out of fashion for some time.
The damage these governments did is clearer than ever: our hollowed-out public services have struggled to meet the challenges of a pandemic while hunger and in-work poverty afflict millions in one of the richest countries in the world.
Now even the Tories champion state-led investment in the economy and claim to recognise the need for higher taxes to fund services — though their “investment” largely consists of handing public money to corporations and their taxes fall most heavily on the poorest.
Regressive National Insurance hikes will cost low-paid workers hundreds of pounds a year while mooted rises in corporation tax are deferred for years.
Even so, the fact that the party of big business feels the need to pose as big-state economic interventionists shows that the left has won important arguments over the last few years.
Much of this is down to the way Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party dared to make the case for a different kind of society between 2015 and 2020, raising subjects that had been taboo at Westminster for decades like nationalisation and economic planning.
The popularity of these policies, demonstrated in the 2017 election and repeatedly in opinion polls, has not been lost on the Conservative Party.
The Parliamentary Labour Party has been slower to catch on, but interventions like Emily Thornberry’s call for trade treaties to be subject to greater democratic oversight and to prioritise jobs and wages show that it too is now aware of the new public mood.
At the same time, Westminster is not merely lagging behind the popular desire for fundamental change: in most important respects it is determined to thwart it.
The Conservatives are further impoverishing workers by forcing unacceptably low pay awards in the public sector while giving bosses licence to grind workers under their heel through fire and rehire.
The Labour Party has dropped or gone quiet on the big questions of ownership and control of the economy it was prepared to address under Corbyn, while prioritising a sustained and vicious attack on the hundreds of thousands of members who joined it in recent years to fight for those policies.
So the task facing the labour movement is how to mobilise for the new settlement ordinary people want and need in the face of an obstructive and unrepresentative political establishment.
O’Grady is correct to put pay at the centre of the movement’s demands. The Conservatives have presided over one of the longest wage squeezes in British history — the fact that workers would earn an average £5,900 a year more than they do had wages continued to grow at pre-crash rates since the financial crisis of 2007-8 should be shouted from the rooftops.
To begin to claw back this money from a bloated and parasitical boss class will require co-ordinated action by unions, organising around common bargaining demands on a sectoral basis.
Conditions are ripe for a major offensive on pay as our economy is hit by labour and supply shortages. They are ripe too for a mass campaign to rebuild and renew our public services, which could draw in community groups and campaigning organisations to build pressure for change from the ground up.
One thing is clear: we cannot wait on politicians to address these issues. The trade union movement has to take the lead.
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