I first met Ailsa when we approached her to become a Board Member of the Reid Foundation. I immediately liked her. As a professor of economics she was of course a very bright woman, capable and with a sharp and original mind. The Foundation benefited greatly from her knowledge, particularly on issues of welfare and welfare economics. She was a passionate advocate of feminist economics as anyone who heard her wonderful speech to the Radical Independence Conference would appreciate. In fact, I spoke to one female delegate afterwards who told me that she’d never taken any interest in economics before that but that she saw things completely differently now.
Ailsa was instrumental in providing the economic case underpinning the Scottish Government’s proposals for free, universal childcare. She chaired our inaugural Jimmy Reid Memorial Lecture which was given by Alex Salmond. Childcare came up as a topic of conversation over coffee before the lecture. When the First Minister later asked her to do some work on childcare economics her response (as she later told me) was so typically Ailsa – “are you serious about doing this? If you’re serious about this policy, if you mean it, then I’d be delighted. But you have to mean it.”
People use phrases such as ‘no nonsense’ and ‘to the point’ about strong women. That wasn’t the Ailsa I got to know. She was full of fun and mischief and when we met for a coffee to talk economics we often failed to get to ‘the point’ for ages. What she wasn’t was small-p politic – if you suggested a daft idea to her there would be no pause before she made clear you knew it was daft. It was that combination of brightness, directness and fun that made Ailsa so pleasant to spend time with.
I met her quite a few times after the cancer diagnosis. Determined doesn’t begin to describe her attitude. She was as clear as could be; “I’m not lying down for this, not without a fight”. The last time I met her was a few weeks ago over lunch. She was planning all the work she wanted to do, the contributions she wanted to make to Scottish life. We’re all the worse off for that fact that she won’t be able to deliver it.
She leaves behind a young family; all our thoughts are with them.
But she also leaves behind one last policy contribution. The last contact I had with her was at the end of last week when she signed off the joint authorship of a major Common Weal report on welfare. I think it is one of the most important contributions to the welfare debate in Scotland and it represents exactly the caring, compassionate – and passionate – thinking that characterised Ailsa.
She will be greatly missed by us all. She is very greatly missed by me personally.
Comment on White Paper by Reid Foundation Director in the Daily Record
I was prepared to be underwhelmed by the Scottish Government’s White Paper. I am pleasantly surprised.
It proposes we should radically change economic policy to create a high-pay economy, make the primary purpose of government greater equality among citizens, place dignity and respect at the heart of welfare policy, renationalise Royal Mail, offer free childcare for every family, give employees a right to sit on the boards of their companies, see trade unions as a partner, remove nuclear weapons in four years, have a written constitution, end tax evasion by corporations, focus on growing Scottish industrial base and much more.
If a UK political party was offering this it would be called the most radical and people-focussed manifesto since the Atlee Government set up the welfare state and the NHS. Ed Milliband has been praised highly by some for offering much less.
What I was looking for was a promise that between a Yes vote and the first democratic election in 2016, the SNP wouldn’t behave like it had the right to design a new country all by itself. The paper promises we will all get to play a part in writing a constitution and that its opponents will be included in the negotiating team that agrees the deal we get when leaving the UK. So I am reassured.
That does not mean the Scottish Government has got everything right. It is wrong on cutting corporation tax, it is wrong on keeping the UK’s terrible banking regulation and in my opinion it is wrong to join NATO. But these are all issues that will only be decided after a democratic election so I and everyone else in Scotland will get to have a say about it.
Has it answered every question? Well, the thing is the size of a doorstep and a genuine effort has been made.
Will you be convinced? That’s up to you. The Scottish Government is in the position where if it tries to answer questions that have no definite answers it will be accused of lying and if it doesn’t it will be accused of hiding. With this report it is certainly not hiding.
And that is where Better Together looks weak to me. Alastair Darling has just been on TV suggesting that since he thinks Alex Salmond is a liar, no-one should trust him or his answers. But does Darling honestly think we trust him, that we’ll take his word for it?
I don’t think it’s going to be that easy. Whatever you think of it, this White Paper sets out a vision for a high-pay society with a strong welfare state. That is a leap forward from anything we’re being offered by the UK.
I and many other experts believe this vision is realistic. I don’t think shouting ‘liar’ will be enough to get Better Together off the hook if it rejects it.
If you want certainty, get a digital watch. If you want a better country, judge people on what they are offering.
Yesterday a big gulf opened up between the two futures we are being asked to choose between.
Will working people have enough confidence to jump that gulf and take a chance on a new future?
You’ve got about nine months to decide.
Richard Leonard argues that the best way for unions to influence politics is to maintain its close links with the Labour Party
The role of the union in fighting for justice for its members is not confined to the workplace. Nor should it be. The standard of living goes beyond the monthly salary or the weekly wage. It is about quality of life, both inside and outside work and from the cradle to the grave. The noble and enduring aims enshrined in my own union’s rule book include industrial democracy and collective ownership, an equal society, as well as extended legal rights to trade unions and greater social and economic welfare and environmental protection. These all require political action.
So the trade union movement needs a political voice. Anyone who thinks that trade unions and politics can be separated doesn’t live in the real world.
That’s why over a century ago the GMB’s forerunner the Gas Workers and General Labourers Union worked with other new unions like the London and Liverpool Dockers and the Amalgamated Railway Servants to establish the Labour Representation Committee to secure “independent working class representation”. Founding Conferences in Edinburgh and then London were convened following resolutions carried at the Scottish and British Trade Union Congresses of 1899.
A year before Keir Hardie had called for “the same kind of working agreement nationally as already exists for municipal purposes in Glasgow”. So Hardie’s vision and the pioneering role of trade unionists, socialists and co-operators in Scotland became highly influential in the new political formation.
Of course down the years there have been those who claim that the decision by Hardie and the other ILP’ers to create an independent working class party built on the trade unions was a mistake. During my lifetime in politics this ‘historic mistake’ tendency defected from Labour to help found the anti-trade union Social Democratic Party in 1981, later the Alliance. It then returned to help create New Labour a decade and a half later, all too commonly and without shame comprising many of the same individuals.
And now this same tendency with some of the same people again founded Progress the limited company, and brazenly “New Labour” (capital “N”; capital “L”) pressure group. Progress is busy falsely accusing the trade unions of the domination of everything from candidate selections to the decisions of the Party’s National Executive Committee. Its supporters are now baying for the collective disaffiliation of trade unions from the Labour Party.
It is an important matter of political principle that trade unions affiliate collectively to Labour. Trade unions are not a random collection of consumers in a market. We refuse to be run according to an iron law of individualism, indeed the very point of trade unions is that we live and breathe democratic collectivism. Our aspirations are collective ones, and devised for the common good not to feed individual greed but to advance the greater social and economic welfare of all. Trade unions not trade unionists affiliate to the Labour Party. That is democratic, it is also right and keeps alive the collectivist tradition upon which Labour was also built and should live by.
The distinctive nature of the Labour Party as a party of democratic socialism founded by the trade unions should not be supplanted by a version of the US Democratic Party stripped of its commitment to socialism and robbed of its trade union roots. The GMB and other unions are not merely donors to the Labour Party but affiliates. The link is first and foremost not financial but constitutional. To move to an American style system where the donor with the biggest buck chooses the policy, and the candidate, puts the political process itself up for sale. This would not be a change for the better but a change for the worse.
So too the idea floated of US-style primaries with Labour ‘supporters’ voting to select Labour candidates will not herald the end of a so-called ‘politics of the machine’, it would institutionalise it. For anyone to become a candidate in a primary-style system demands not reduced but significantly increased financial backing.
It is impossible to be an effective democratic socialist without working in combination and solidarity: these are defining principles. To win change we have to build, organise and persuade as well as stir emotion. The principal vehicle for doing that is still the Labour Party. Affiliation to the Labour Party and the TUC and STUC is a direct expression of solidarity and an overt act of combination with other unions. It is also a declaration of the union’s identity, that it is part of the wider Labour Movement with sister parties across the world.
And what is the alternative to this solidarity and combination? A place in the political wilderness of non-engagement? A dalliance with a political group to the left of the Labour Party liable to end in bitterness and recrimination, doctrinal faction fights and splits? Either way it represents a false trail. There is no evidence past or present that a breakaway has brought with it greater political effectiveness.
The link between Labour and the unions is forged by shared interests and a common understanding that for the quality of working people’s lives to be improved there must be radical social and economic change. That will require a renewal of political education, a commitment to be transformers not simply reflectors of public opinion, active not passive, with a new intellectual edge alongside the old tradition of pragmatism.
It was Aneurin Bevan who observed that “our movement is based primarily on the industrial masses. It is not based so much upon ideologies, as upon social experience.” He also famously said “There is only one hope for mankind – and that is democratic Socialism. There is only one party in Great Britain which can do it – and that is the Labour Party.”
I make no apology for remaining on the side of Keir Hardie, those courageous women and men, those trade union and Independent Labour Party pioneers who founded the Labour Party, or for evoking the spirit of Nye Bevan. For this is not to look back to a heroic golden age but to understand better the eternal challenges and the defining purpose of Labour’s link with the trade unions today. It is also an important reminder that the future of the Labour Party is well worth fighting for.
Richard Leonard is GMB Scotland Political Officer and was a Labour Party candidate in the 2011 Scottish Elections
Bob Crow looks at his union’s influence in UK politics today and concludes that disaffiliation to the Labour Party was one of the best things that happened to it
RMT was expelled by the Labour Party in 2004. Our crime? Allowing our regions, branches and members to have a democratic say on what political parties and candidates they chose to support.
The expulsion centred on Scotland. RMT’s executive had agreed to support requests from the Scottish Regional Council and a number of Scottish branches to affiliate to the Scottish Socialist Party. An RMT AGM decision in 2003 had already cleared the route to create a more flexible political fund, freeing the union up to support candidates in addition to Labour.
The SSP decision provoked a huge political furore with the likes of Ian McCartney wheeled out across the media to denounce RMT and to issue dire warnings that the union was consigning itself to the wilderness.
Nearly a decade on nothing could be further from the truth.
By freeing ourselves from the shackles of automatic Labour support, RMT’s political influence is thriving with political groups established in the British, Scottish and Welsh parliaments and assemblies that involve a base of supportive Labour representatives, Greens and SNP. The condition for joining is that elected members must sign up to the core political priorities laid down by the union.
In many ways, RMT’s decisions from ten years ago put the union well ahead of the game when it comes to the relationship with the Labour Party. This year, major unions have said that they will be cutting their affiliation fees to Labour to reflect the number of members who genuinely support the organisation. Others are reorganising their parliamentary groups to clear out the opportunists who take the union support and then back policies that are clearly anti-worker and anti-working class communities.
But the biggest leap of all remains supporting candidates other than those from the Labour Party. It is both inevitable and essential that that issue remains firmly on the agenda. RMT judges candidates solely on their merits as advocates of policies that match the union’s own programme and which would deliver for our members, their families and their communities. Let me pull out a couple of examples.
First up, the anti-union laws. Part of the reason why RMT made the decisive changes to our political funds that led to out expulsion from Labour in 2004 was that halfway through its second term the Blair Government had not a lifted a finger to repeal any of the anti-union laws introduced under the Tories in the wake of the Miners’ Strike. Not only had they not made any moves to unshackle the union’s but we had the grotesque site of the Labour Prime Minister touring the world boasting about how we had the most lightly-regulated workplaces in the EU – a boast designed solely to encourage bad bosses, the exploiters and the ‘filthy rich’.
The latest attack on our basic rights under this current Government is the levelling of huge fees on those seeking redress in the Employment Tribunal, designed to deter those seeking a fair hearing and loading the whole process even further in the direction of unscrupulous, wealthy and bullying bosses. It is surcharge on justice. And what has Labour done? Nothing. Running scared of the employers’ organisations and the right-wing press they have allowed the ConDems to force through measures that allow hiring and firing on an industrial scale and which is solely designed to hammer workers and their unions financially.
Running parallel to this betrayal was the stance on privatisation. Even after the smashing up of British Rail in the name of profit led to the avoidable carnage of Hatfield and Potters Bar, Labour, with the power to act, refused point blank to renationalise the railways. Far from it, it was under John Prescott himself that the PPP privatisation model was rolled out on London Underground until Metronet went bust midstream plunging the system into chaos and forcing a reluctant retreat. How could a rail union sign a blank cheque for Labour against that backdrop?
Even now, after losing an election and seeing polls showing that 70 per cent of the people support renationalisation, Labour offers little or nothing. They talk about the possibility of retaining the successful, publicly owned East Coast/DOR under state control but only as a ‘public sector comparator’. On the simple and straightforward question of full public ownership they remain in total and abject terror of the train companies and the Tories.
If you can’t even walk the talk in opposition we know exactly what that means from a potential Labour Government in power – absolutely nothing. Ed Miliband blew it the moment he fell into the old Blairite trap and pledged that a Labour Government would stick to this administration’s spending levels. Boxing yourself in to a spending straightjacket laid out for you by the most right-wing government in a generation highlights both a poverty of ambition and a total lack of concern for the lives of those you are depending on to bringing you to power.
There has to be an alternative. RMT has supported, and will continue to support, TUSC candidates and our union is pledged to encourage rank-and-file, working class candidates wherever the opportunity arises. Next year, RMT will play a leading role in fielding a full slate of “NO2EU – YES TO WORKERS’ RIGHTS” candidates in every seat with the exception of Northern Ireland. That is a major political operation that will challenge both the neoliberal, pro-boss agenda of the EU and the cynical opportunism of UKIP head on.
At this year’s Durham Miners Gala, we issued a call for a new party of labour. RMT has every intention of keeping the debate and discussion going across the broad sweep of the labour, trade union, environmental and social justice movements about what that new political operation should stand for and what it should look like. I hope that you will engage with us in those discussions.
Bob Crow is the General Secretary of the RMT
On 10 October General Sectretary of Unite Len McCluskey gave the second Annual Jimmy Reid Memorial Lecture. This is the text of his lecture, entitled We Are Not Rats; the role of workers and trade unions in politics.
Jimmy Reid was a giant of our movement – A trade union leader full of compassion and humanity; a towering figure whose life will continue to inspire long into the future – as tonight’s event surely testifies. It is a deep personal honour for me to be invited to give this lecture. As a young shop steward on the Liverpool Docks, I remember Jimmy coming to address us during the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders’ work-in. He lifted our spirits for our own struggles, by his words and his example. And I vividly remember the image of this passionate advocate, with that wonderful accent, making the hair on my neck stand up. This lecture has also given me a good excuse to spend some time reflecting on Jimmy’s life; his radical thinking; his strength in the conduct of industrial battles and his political analysis of Britain during his lifetime; It has been a process that has deepened my own long-held convictions and my solidarity with the simple, deep-rooted principles that Jimmy Reid held – principles of equality, dignity, humanity and social justice. He believed that a better society could be achieved if people were willing to fight for it. It is a belief I have always shared. Jimmy said – at the time of the UCS work-in – “We are taking over the yards because we refuse to accept that faceless men can make these decisions”. Substitute the word “society” for the “the yards” and we have an outlook as relevant today as it was then. Tonight I attempt to explain why that is so.
But first let me thank the Jimmy Reid Foundation, established to promote and continue the radical thinking Jimmy was famous for, for tonight’s invitation. I know that the First Minister Alex Salmond delivered the inaugural Jimmy Reid Memorial lecture. I do not agree with Alex on everything – although let me acknowledge that his open-minded approach towards trade unionism offers something which politicians of ALL other parties could learn from – but I will follow in his footsteps in one other respect. He has announced that he would make available the text of Jimmy’s famous Rectoral Address to Glasgow University to every school in Scotland. I’m delighted to follow-suit and announce that Unite will make this available to all of our 1.4 million members – encouraging all of our activists to read it and learn from it. The title of this lecture – you will know – is itself a tribute to that speech: “We are not rats”. “A rat race is for rats. We are not rats”. I remember what a profound affect reading those words had on me as young trade unionist. They expressed the anger I felt at the condition of the working class; and at the contempt in which we were held by the boss class and the elites that ran Britain then as they do today. They are such simple words, exemplifying that great talent Jimmy had to take the most complex of ideas and express them in their most straight forward way.
Tonight I am going to focus my remarks on “the role of workers and the trade unions in politics”. As chance would have it, this is the first lecture I have given since I spoke at the LSE earlier this year. Then I had the privilege of speaking in honour of the memory of Ralph Miliband. If the past is a guide, then, we can shortly expect to read an expose in the Daily Mail about Jimmy Reid’s “evil legacy” as a “man who hated Britain”. The curse of McCluskey! Of course, Jimmy Reid would regard such an attack as a badge of honour. Undoubtedly Ed Miliband has spoken up for everyone decent in this country in not only defending the honour of his eminent father, but in exposing the sordid journalistic practices of The Daily Mail. If the Daily Mail had its way, there would be no trade unions, no labour movement, no progressive debate, and all politics would be conducted in a state of synthetic semi-hysteria. And, of course, there would be no Ed Miliband to worry about, since his father, instead of settling in and fighting for Britain, would have perished at the hands of the Nazis who the then Lord Rothermere so admired and held up as a model for Britain. As with his decision to break with the mystique of the Murdoch media over phone-hacking, this is an act of courage by Ed Miliband. I have no doubt that, wherever Jimmy Reid now is, he is cheering him on. The Daily Mail’s raison d’être has always been to defend the power and privilege of the rich, peddling as it does so the type of bigotry and bile that – as Jimmy put it – “dehumanises some people”. The Mail’s attack on Ralph Miliband, who passed away in 1994, was an immigrant Jew to this country as well as a British war veteran, is revealing, and as good a place to start tonight as any. Ralph Miliband didn’t hate our Britain but he did make clear his contempt for the Establishment, what he saw as the old boys network. And yes he did attack ‘Eton and Harrow, Oxford and Cambridge, the great Clubs, the Church, the Army; the values . . . of the ruling orders” He rejected the notion of “workers in their place”, the House of Lords, social hierarchies, God save the Queen. And, yes, he hated the social injustices, the attacks on the working classes, the inequality and poverty, and the anti-democratic forces of the ruling elite that governed Britain. For me, as for Jimmy Reid, to hold such views is to love the Britain of ordinary people; the people who established democracy in the teeth of privilege, who fought fascism, who built our welfare state, who have made our country a cultural beacon, who our generous to the unfortunate, who are tolerant of difference… Who are everything the Daily Mail is not. In honouring Jimmy Reid tonight, we honour that Britain, the Britain which will survive the attacks of this government and which says today as clearly as forty years ago – “We are not Rats”.
Jimmy Reid’s life – like that of many activists of the 1960s and 1970s – is full of lessons in how to conduct politics. For many years, of course, Jimmy was a member of the Communist Party, becoming a leading member and for a time its top official in Scotland. This was a time when the Communist Party was intimately and integrally bound up with the labour movement and, indeed, the wider working class, particularly here in Glasgow. I think that what Jimmy learnt from the Communist Party was the seriousness of politics. For him and for many others the Communist Party was about being immersed in the daily life and problems of people in the workplace and the community allied to a vision of a better world which, however flawed in its detail and its application, retained immense mobilising capacity for most of the twentieth century. It was not a politics of opinion polls, of spin doctors, of smart-alec commentary, of cynicism, expense accounts and huddling on a nebulous centre ground. It was a politics of passionate engagement, of principles, and of hard graft; and it was a politics close to the people. Jimmy was forged in a culture which shaped many of the finest working class leaders in Scotland, from John Maclean to Mick McGahey. There are lessons for us here which are so obvious that they hardly need spelling out, but in brief: Be of the people, be with the people, be straight with the people – to lead you have to learn and listen. It is the only way for a political leader to secure the trust of working men and women, a trust which will then forgive you mistakes and misjudgements, because they are never seen as self-interested mistakes. Then in the 1970s Jimmy joined the Labour Party. He recognised and valued the unity of the labour movement in Britain and the fact that it had one electoral expression, the Labour Party, unlike in many other European countries. His many efforts to become a Communist MP, an endeavour in which saving your deposit was held to be a victory, convinced him that there was only one electoral game in town.
Today, that remains true. Tomorrow may tell a different tale. But, if I can risk quoting Lenin when the Daily Mail may be listening, the art of politics consists in grasping the key link at a particular moment. So, these truths are presently self-evident: The Tory-led coalition can only be defeated in 2015 by the Labour Party. And it is in everyone’s interests not only for Labour to win that election, but for a Labour government led by Ed Miliband to be radical enough to confront the burning problems our society faces. It is in that context that we need to address the twin debates in the Labour Party today – over its policy proposals, and over its constitutional structure. To take policy first, there is of course scope for the perennial debate – is the glass half full or half empty? But perhaps that is not the real question – we should ask if the glass is filling up or draining away? Put like that the answer cannot really be in doubt. Ed Miliband’s speech to the Labour conference was – some would say – the most genuinely radical we have heard from a Labour leader for nigh on 30 years. Of course, it may not have been radical by the standards of Jimmy Reid and the 1970s, when price controls, for example, where the small change of politics, and the big debates were about public ownership and really tackling inequality. However, to say that the next Labour government will not let the energy monopolies carry on ripping us off, to say that the property speculators will no longer be able to stop our kids getting a decent roof over their heads, and to tell the biggest companies that they are going to have to pay more tax – that is not just a break with the Coalition’s policies, it also represents Labour turning its back on the neo-liberal dogmas which dominated the Blair-Brown years.
So I unequivocally welcome Ed’s speech. Allied to his brave stance over Syria – a stance which flew in the face of the unsolicited advice of Tony Blair and which I believe has saved lives by stopping a global rush to war – there is no doubt that this is no longer “new Labour” as we knew it. Disputing that point seems to me to engage in sectarianism of the sought Jimmy Reid would never have countenanced. That does not mean we can be satisfied. I have made it clear that for me the critical question is what the next Labour government will do about trade union freedom. I do not say that just because I’m a trade union leader, but because I believe that social progress is maybe 25% the work of government, and 75% the job of working-class self-organisation. Or, to perhaps put it better, everything the working-class has achieved through the exercise of governmental power has rested upon what it had already achieved in organisation and struggle outside parliament. For example, a statutory living wage would do a lot to reduce inequality, just as the minimum wage has been a major first step. But research shows that the best way to reduce inequality is to give working people full freedom to organise themselves in trade unions. Unions are the main – indeed the only – force able to balance the otherwise uncontrolled power of the employer who, whether they are good or bad, can only ultimately be driven by the principle of profit maximisation.
I would go further – our history shows that trade unionism is the main bulwark of democracy Of gender and racial equality Of peace Of anti-fascism Of proper welfare provision In fact – of almost everything that marks civilisation out from barbarism I don’t dispute for a moment the part played by others, from other classes, in many of these achievements. But history tells us only an organised working class has achieved the strength to impose them on the powerful. That is why trade union freedom – real rights to organise and fight for rights at work, the sort taken for granted elsewhere in Europe – is vital if the next Labour government is to build the good society Ed Miliband speaks of. It can’t all be done from Westminster. It needs a vibrant civil society, with trade unionism at its heart. And – let me be clear – it needs a vibrant Labour Party with trade unionism at its heart too. Breaking the link with trade unions is today, as it always has been , a right-wing agenda. It speaks to a class fear, which I remember being expressed by the Economist magazine years ago, in the early 1980s, when it wrote that “no Party organisationally, financially or constitutionally dependent on organised labour must ever be allowed to rule Britain again.” That’s what lies behind the incessant attacks on our political work by the Tories and the media, and the unfortunate echo those attacks sometimes find within the Labour Party itself. It is the view that even if organised labour is an unavoidable evil, it must be kept firmly outside the political arena – that politics is, in the end, reserved for those whose interests are aligned with the propertied classes.
Well, for thirty years the Economist had its way. The ruinous results are all around us. Today, we would with far more justice say that no party financially or politically dependent on the City of London, the hedge funds and the bond market should ever be allowed to rule Britain or anywhere in the world ever again. So that’s why the union-Labour link is a question of principle. It is not about how Labour funds itself. It is about how democratic we are as a society, about whether the formal equality of capitalist society can ever become a real equality. In short – do working people have a place in politics. It is a matter of principle, but not an unchanging one. How working people organise and engage with politics and the life of the community today is not the same as it was a century ago. Jimmy Reid would, I think, have been dismissive of those in our movement who always wanted to stand firm on cut-and-dried schemes shaped many years ago.
So that is why I am up for the debate about how to improve and develop the way trade unions and the Labour Party work together. I’m only sorry – and I could not come to Scotland without making this point – that the debate arose out of disgraceful attacks by the right-wing on my union and its activists in Falkirk. I believe that there is a prize at the end of this debate – a renewed Labour Party which remains the historic expression of organised labour at the centre of a broad coalition for social progress, but with a more dynamic democracy and a deeper popular participation than it has enjoyed for many years. Of course, there are those with other agendas. Last week at their conference the Tories were talking about still further anti-union laws, designed to further cripple our right to organise, to take strike action, and to engage in democratic politics. I have said it before, but let me say it again. Trade unions are not cavalier regarding the law, and we acknowledge our common obligations. But we are not going to let ourselves be rendered impotent and redundant through death by a thousand legal cuts. If the Tories are not prepared to allow for genuine legal trade unionism then our priority must be clear – to stand up for our members whatever the law says and to make such changes to our ways of working as will allow us to do so. There are more ways than one to skin a cat. After all, Jimmy Reid didn’t check in with the High Court before organising the UCS sit-in. He did what was needed without bothering a solicitor for advice first. Our attitude must be the same – if the Tories abuse the law to render effective trade unionism illegal, then we will not be bound by it.
Colleagues It would of course be dishonest to pretend that the Labour Party was the end of Jimmy Reid’s political journey. He left Labour – doubtless disillusioned by the New Labour agenda which was the antithesis of all he stood for – and joined the Scottish National Party in his last years. Now, I am not going to abuse this invitation by wading in to the critically important debate on Scottish independence. That is a debate for the Scottish people, and it is for the trade unions here in Scotland to formulate their views on that debate. But I hope it will not be too controversial if I make two points. First, I believe that whatever the outcome of the referendum, the working people of all the nations of Great Britain will find a way to stay united in their struggles. And second, it is my firm conviction that, partisan of his own country, Scotland, as he surely was, Jimmy Reid’s politics cannot be defined as nationalist. He was, like all the finest working-class leaders, an internationalist. The brotherhood and sisterhood of man was his objective. “Man to man the world o’er will brothers be for aw’that” as your national poet has it. Jimmy’s was a world view without a trace of xenophobia or of hating and fearing “the other”.
Internationalism is, of course, recast and recast again as the world changes and the working-class movement develops. But it remains the cornerstone of our outlook. Let me give an example of how a new internationalism is emerging. Some of you may know that Unite has recently launched an ambitious community membership programme, aiming to extend our union family to those who, for one reason or another, are not in employment. As part of this initiative, we have opened a centre in Cable Street in London’s East End, a historic location where workers of all faiths and of none united to defeat the Daily Mail’s Mosley Blackshirts in the 1930s. Today, it is at the heart of a vibrant Bengali community, well represented when I went to open the centre. And at the opening event much of the talk was about what trade unions could do here to assist garment workers in Bangladesh, more than a thousand of whom had just died in the scandalous factory collapse in Dhaka – a cause that Unite is involved in through our association with the international union Workers Uniting. Here is a new circuit of working-class internationalism forming, and there could be many other examples. Globalisation has knit the world economy closer together, in the interests of employers. And it must be answered by new forms of labour globalisation, that seeks to level the international playing field. Such internationalism was part of Jimmy Reid’s make-up from day one – extending it may be the best tribute to his memory.
Comrades, Let me move towards my conclusion by offering a fairly lengthy, but important, quote from Jimmy Reid: He said: “Alienation is the precise and correctly applied word for describing the major social problem in Britain today. People feel alienated by society. In some intellectual circles it is treated almost as a new phenomenon. It has, however, been with us for years. What I believe is true is that today it is more widespread, more pervasive than ever before. Let me right at the outset define what I mean by alienation. He went on:
“It is the cry of men who feel themselves the victims of blind economic forces beyond their control. It’s the frustration of ordinary people excluded from the processes of decision making. The feeling of despair and hopelessness that pervades people who feel with justification that they have no real say in shaping or determining their own destinies”
Those sentiments were true in 1972, when Jimmy expressed them, and how much more true are they today? Far more than forty years ago, ordinary people feel disempowered, living lives controlled by forces above and beyond them. The only right contemporary society really enshrines are market rights – the right to consume and choose in the market-place. The vision of citizenship is cramped, and our role as workers is derided as a “producer interest”. People are treated as simply life-support systems for credit cards. And this vast abstraction – the market – entirely dominates the actual, living society in which we produce and consume, develop communities, enjoy leisure, form friendships and relationships, and raise children. The all-powerful market destroys established industries and the livelihoods and lifestyles which developed around them. And, by exalting individualism, it actually renders individuals powerless. That’s because, as Jimmy Reid understood, we can only exercise power together. On our own, a very few can get rich, many more live lives stunted by poverty, and most of us get by. That’s the only control any of us can exercise. But united, of course, we can start to shape things. That is the essence of democracy. Alienation is the price we pay for reducing democracy to a once-in-five-years voting ritual, when it ought to be about taking collective charge of all the circumstances that shape our lives.
Property has always seen democracy as its enemy. It concedes as little power as possible to the democratic process, in order that the majority with little or no stake in the capitalist system do not use the collective authority which democracy bestows to bring about radical changes. The result we can see around us. We have a food bank, bedroom-tax, workfare-democracy because the food bank, workfare and the Bedroom Tax are the sort of things you can only do to people who feel they have no power. And that is where trade unions come in. Of all the myriad organizations thrown up by our society, we have the greatest numbers, the deepest roots and, when we get it right, the clearest sense of purpose. Above all, we speak for those who are otherwise voiceless. When we are strong, society has progressed, as after 1945, and in the 1960s and early 1970s. Trade unionism allows working men and women to have at least a chance of “determining their own destiny” as Reid says. Yes, we need to change. The industrial world is not as it was when Jimmy Reid, Jimmy Airlie and Sammy Barr led that inspiring sit-in at UCS. But we need to capture that spirit undiluted. More than ever, destiny determines us in contemporary Britain. We have to turn that round. The main ingredient we can take from the great struggles of the past is self-confidence. Defeat and decline have sapped the self-belief in our movement for too long.
I believe that is starting to change. We have started winning some industrial victories again. We are organising new members in a way we have not for two generations. We are engaging with the wider community. And our ideas are starting to make political headway. The failure of neo-liberalism, of the unrestrained market, are now evident. Broad sections of the public are looking for an alternative, socially just and emancipating. And I believe it is evident that renewed trade unionism must be at the heart of that alternative. That is what Jimmy Reid would have wanted. For Scotland. For Britain and for the world. It falls to us to carry that vision forward.
Despite the mantra that tax cuts resolve economic concerns, writes Robin McAlpine, it’s only the rich who ever benefit – Scotsman article from today
Nationalising Scotland’s oil is not a priority – stopping multinationals and their pals in the Treasury fleecing us again in the renewables field as they did in oil is: Robin McAlpine’s article from today’s Scotsman
Robin Hahnel and Gar Alperovitz are two of the major figures in the New Economic movement in the US. We are very lucky to have them writing on the Common Weal and Scotland’s economic future – from today’s Sunday Herald
A teaser from the Scottish Left Review which will be out next week. Jim Mather argues that the model of financialised capitalism has very clearly failed to address the ‘Common Weal’ either in terms of shared wealth or economy security. A new approach is needed.
We need a new economic philosophy, one where people come together for the benefit of all members of society – Scotsman article from today
My Scotsman article - Political leaders and their parties have to be told to stop parroting what the plutocrats want them to say and start doing what the people who elected them told them to