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Aw That No resting on laurels for Scottish unions

Labour’s New Deal for Workers is welcome, but the shadow cabinet still runs a mile when quizzed on even the slightest commitment to spending money, warns MATT KERR

THIS week will see the Scottish Trades Union Congress gather once more in Dundee, the last before a general election at which workers’ rights must surely be at the heart of the debate. 

The result of the election itself seems a foregone conclusion. The Tories have not just run out of steam as they had in 1963 or 1997, but appear to have embarked on full-blown self-destruction. Many individual MPs in the party of the individualist have already run for the hills, ditching their seats to return to the business of becoming stinking rich, get on with some gardening, or even claiming that they will spend time with their families, but many others appear to be taking a more accelerationist approach. 

In many ways, this is a joy to behold, but there are certain familiarities which hit a little too close to home for those of us clinging on in the Labour Party, not least in Scotland.

The idea of a group of right-wing ideologues wearing hoodies emblazoned with “pragmatist” or “moderate,” splashing unleaded around the place, before chucking a match at the house and then gathering around to look sad afterwards is something we’ve become accustomed to. 

Acres of print have been devoted to their efforts to undermine the last leader of the Labour Party, while they move from the feigned looks of sorrow, to “we told you so,” to denying their exertions, to the present “yes, we burned the house down, what of it?” position. 

The ditching of the pledges Sir Keir made as he ran for the leadership are now priced-in to all considerations of his leadership and the party, and the serious allegations of vote-rigging have so far simply washed-over the apparatus as Britain’s Establishment prepares for a change in management. 

The abandonment of commitments to nationalisation — even in the case of bankrupt Thames Water — displays a slavish adherence to the broken status quo, and leaves any claims to pragmatism collapsing under the weight of their own definition of it. 

In the dull grey sky of managerialist mince however, one shaft of light has struggled its way to earth — the New Deal for Workers. 

Giving workers the full rights not usually afforded to them for six months and longer at the moment is not small beer. At a time when precaritiy has come to define so many lives — particularly those of young workers — that pledge alone has the power to transform lives in the way the minimum wage did when I entered the world of work, even if it did come in too low. 

Commitments to ending zero-hours contracts and outlawing the fire and rehire practices — so appallingly displayed two years ago at P&O — and repealing the Tories’ 2016 Trade Union Act must also be welcomed, and arch-marketeer Lord Mandelson’s protestations about them must only confirms it is the correct position. 

Nonetheless, I worry. 

Addressing the STUC congress last year, Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner committed the party to the policy, and so confident was she that it would deliver that she brushed-off questions on adopting the STUC position of devolving employment law, telling me “the New Deal for Workers will be so good, you won’t need it.”

To be a socialist must surely to be an optimist, and so I sincerely hope that courageous comment proves to be true, but the sometimes the world has a habit of crashing in. 

The next Labour government you see, will come to office with the economy and public services in tatters. Decades of relentless asset-stripping in both the public and private sector has left infrastructure dilapidated, living standards and life expectancy falling, and a resurgent far-right circling the carcass. 

Some years ago a young man called Blair swept to office amid a similar wave of sheer desperation, but the contradictions of his own self-proclaimed pragmatism soon caught up with him. 

Tax credits and the minimum wage — however imperfect — made a difference, as did some relatively small concessions to workers, such as the right to join a trade union and gain recognition.  

The other trademark change in the era was Blair’s attitude to the EU. Gaining power from a Tory Party that had torn itself apart over the issue, he talked of forging a “new relationship” with the organisation, which would put Britain at its heart rather than “shouting from the sidelines.”

In the years that followed, the EU went through unprecedented expansion and, while the British economy grew, people from across Europe came to Britain to play their part, bringing their skills, experience and going on in many cases to make their homes here.  

My experience of it has been nothing but positive in the neighbourhoods I’ve lived and worked in over the last 20 years, though it is also undoubtedly the case that migrant workers are more vulnerable than most to the worst excesses of exploitation in our society. 

Those who came to Britain in search of a better life would surely be welcomed by such an outward-looking government that oversaw their arrival… surely? 

Tragically, they weren’t. Instead members of the Blair Cabinet such as the now Lord Blunkett were content to play along with far-right narratives of people “comin’ over ’ere” to exploit a welfare system that was already well on the road to be more punitive, changing legislation to outlaw any financial support for so-called “failed asylum-seekers,” and using language that conflated the two. 

Since the 2016 vote to leave the EU, many of the Blairite true-believers have spent their time blaming the result — implicitly or explicitly — on racism and xenophobia, as they saw the constituencies many of them had been parachuted into decades vote to leave. 

That assessment is of course as simplistic and elitist as one might expect from these characters who had been parachuted into these constituencies decades earlier, but much as I would like the debate to have been centred on class interest, it is undeniable that attitudes to immigration were a factor in the outcome. 

Despite their determination to blame Jeremy Corbyn, the truth is that “centrist” champions of the EU by — to be generous — lazily going with the grain of right-wing xenophobia all those years did more to deliver brexit than any “lexit” campaign. 

Why the detour to Europe?  

Labour’s new pragmatists may be offering a New Deal for Workers in its first 100 days, but the shadow cabinet still runs a mile when quizzed on even the slightest commitment to spending money. 

In the face of a crumbling NHS, on even on Waspi compensation, they fall back on platitudes about “growing the economy” as the only way to boost spending. They might be cosplaying 1997, but the economy and tax receipts — though built on sand — were growing then, and there’s little sign of that on the horizon now unless government does the spending. 

The new government will inherit a cost-of-greed crisis that is seeing millions forced to attend food banks to feed their families, including thousands of people it employs. 

From schools, to the Civil Service, and the NHS to councils, workers desperately need a pay rise, and perhaps now, more than in a generation, they have shown a willingness to take to the picket lines to win it, and will again in Labour’s first year. 

It is right that Labour reverses the Tory attacks on workers’ rights, but the “pragmatists” could be in line to be taught another harsh lesson on trying to look both ways at once just a few years after they triangulated their way out of their beloved EU membership. 

Will they learn it? 

As Nye Bevan said: “We know what happens to people who stay in the middle of the road. They get run down.”

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