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THE fact that Tolpuddle is taking place online this weekend shows that the Covid crisis is far from over.
Despite the lifting of restrictions on Monday, the rise in cases poses new challenges for the trade union movement.
Just as workers have organised within their unions to protect their health and safety rights at work in the past, we must now all come together to do the same in this new stage of the crisis.
As things open up, we are seeing wide dissatisfaction with the way the government has handled things — and rightly so, given the huge numbers of people who have died and the fact that we have suffered the worst recession in Europe.
But the problem for the left is that this has not translated into support for Labour, which is currently trapped in its forever factional war while the Conservative Party remains significantly ahead in the polls.
The party’s problems have been clear in recent by-elections. The Tories won in Hartlepool as the CWU’s polling predicted — despite our union being accused of treachery by the Labour right — even when that polling showed support for key left policies such as public ownership and higher pay for NHS workers.
And while I am pleased that we held Batley and Spen, I think this had more to do with a great local candidate, Kim Leadbeatter, who I congratulate, than it did Labour’s message.
We shouldn’t imagine that this win marks a comeback when we lost votes and clung on to a seat we already had.
A similar slump in the Labour vote at a general election could cost the party a further 50 seats.
But that isn’t because people don’t want change. There is a huge public appetite for a different way of doing things.
But people don’t want to hear a refrain of “we hate you” or “we think you’re useless” — whether you’re aiming that at Boris Johnson or Keir Starmer.
People will respond positively to action that builds unity.
This isn’t about watering down any of our beliefs or the political positions that Labour developed under Jeremy Corbyn. It’s about the trade union movement working out how to build collective struggles towards those positions.
We need to tackle that through work issues — but we also need to do so through principled positions on what society should look like — post-Brexit, post-Covid.
Fighting to build the welfare state and proper public services are a big part of that. And they are causes for which there is massive support.
Because people feel menaced by insecurity. The pandemic has shown how fragile the economy is, how fragile the world of work is — and how important it is to help people when they’re in trouble.
That feeling people talk about from 1945, the feeling that we can’t go back to the way things were but need to build something better for people, is back in a big way.
But you can’t build support for that from a negative agenda. You need a positive narrative.
Because those in power know how to spin what they’re doing. Take the NHS — the left rightly keeps warning that they’re privatising it.
But most people think that privatisation would mean the NHS is going to be floated on the stock market or something, and that’s not happening.
People are not so alert to the impact of things like outsourcing and internal competition structures that achieve the same result in a different way.
So we need to talk about what we think things should look like. This is where the Conservatives have been outmanoeuvring Labour, with Johnson talking about levelling up.
He’s set himself up as some kind of beyond one-nation Tory, and built expectations that we know he can’t meet.
We shouldn’t be afraid of that — he’s partly sold the narrative for us. We can say that it is right to talk about levelling up — this is what we think that needs to mean.
Building a different type of economy — rebuilding our public services. Looking after people who come across troubled times. Making sure nobody is discriminated against because of their colour or their gender.
That you can’t have levelling up without a levelling out of power and wealth.
I’m not too interested in waiting for the Labour Party to win people to that vision. I think the trade unions have the power to change things ourselves.
Only the trade unions can lead a social movement that links in with community organisers, groups changing things on the ground.
Working with Labour, sure. But not so much by pushing for this or that policy at Westminster as providing support for Labour people who are doing things locally, shifting to regional and local support for initiatives and leaders that are making a difference in a way that supports working people and the communities they live in.
But it all comes down to trade unions. How can we act collectively as the only group that has the power, still, to deliver change?
How do we build collectivism to influence and shape the future that we want for our members, our families and society?
How do we build on the direction we have already taken in connecting our industrial and political strategies and calling for the trade union movement to come together and fight for a new deal for workers?
How do we link up with groups and communities that have emerged from the pandemic with a strong sense of what can be achieved through collective power?
The starting point must be our own positive agenda. The world of work and rebuilding the economy have to be the focal points.
The overarching narrative I think must be about social justice, and it should be something we can all sign up to.
But then, every union and organisation has to have the space to put front and centre to their members, their audience — this is why we signed up, because this is the difference it is going to make for you.
The right narrative, allied to organisations coming together to deliver change — in the CWU we’re already talking to 20 or 30 community organising groups — is something that could really frighten the Conservatives.
Building collectivism is the future of our movement — not what’s going on in the Labour Party.
Dave Ward is general secretary of the CWU.
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