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The Future of the Left – Where next for Britain’s labour movement?

By Andreas Bieler

‘The Conservatives are not invincible – splits over the forthcoming EU referendum and their small majority in parliament are only two signs of their weakness. Together, the Left can stem the tide of austerity’, these were the words of the TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady. In front of a full lecture theatre with 300 people, she delivered the first Ken Coates memorial lecture, organised by the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation and co-hosted by the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice (CSSGJ) and the local University and College Union (UCU) association. In this post, I will draw out some of her key points.

Labour’s defeat in the general elections

Frances O’Grady heavily contested the idea that Labour had lost the elections because its programme had been too far on the left. Any Labour party programme has to focus on constructing homes, ensuring jobs and safeguarding the NHS. If at all the elections had been lost because the party had conceded too much to austerity. Moreover, the Conservative tactics of scaremongering the public of a minority Labour government depending on SNP support had worked. While she was supportive of the SNP’s anti-austerity stance, however, Frances O’Grady pointed out that the politics of place, as pursued by the SNP in Scotland, is an inadequate response to austerity. Workers in England will always have more in common with workers in Scotland than with bankers in London.

In the main part of her lecture, Frances O’Grady focused on three of Ken Coates’ main concerns and their implications for today’s politics.

Workers’ Control

For Ken Coates, it was essential that working people were in charge of their own working life, which is why he had established the Institute for Workers’ Control in 1968 in support of the struggle for increasing the role of workers in running their enterprises. The emphasis should be on workers’ plans for alternative production in order to meet social needs. Worker involvement in organising the workplace is the beginning of a process of economic democratisation.

Considering that levels of inequality are currently on the rise and that it is workers, who create wealth, their participation in decision-making on the distribution of wealth is as relevant today as it was in the late 1960s, early 1970s.

Commitment to Social Europe

Ken Coates as a member of the European Parliament had frequently spoken up on behalf of pensioners’ and working people’s rights with a special emphasis on creating decent employment. Social Europe, again then and now, was essential to ensure the support of working people for the EU. As the Troika currently applies the sledgehammer to trade union rights in Greece and other peripheral countries, workers across Europe are increasingly dissatisfied with integration. Considering that Cameron’s plans for reforming the EU include further cuts to workers’ rights, it is hardly surprising that some workers turn away from the EU and towards right-wing parties, which always thrive on the scapegoating of migrants.

Considering especially the forthcoming referendum on the EU, it was important, Frances O’Grady argued, that a Europe is constructed, which works for working people. An alternative Europe of investment, green jobs, workers’ rights, high-quality public services, corporate control and the Robin Hood tax on financial transactions has to be the goal.

Union organisation

Ken Coates was an organiser, educator and agitator par excellence, from whom today’s labour movement has a lot to learn. In a situation of growing inequality in Europe the current government is focusing on establishing new thresholds on strike ballots and new powers of surveillance. As so often, in times of economic problems, governments become more authoritarian. It is the task of trade unions, Francis O’Grady maintained, to resist these developments.

In order to do so, however, the labour movement had to rebuild itself. Lessons should be learned from the fast food workers’ campaign for a living wage in the US and their broad-based alliance between unions and social movements or the indignados and Podemos in Spain and their new type of politics. To be able to organise young workers, who are at the sharp end of austerity, it is important that unions fight for green jobs, public services and against inequality.

Of course, employers have been changing in processes of globalisation. Trade unions too need to adjust their structures and change in order to empower workers to represent themselves in this new environment. The fundamental challenges remain the same, Frances O’Grady concluded:

Educate – Agitate – Organise!

Andreas Bieler is Professor of Political Economy and Fellow of the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice.

Image credit: Wikipedia Commons 

Published inBritish PoliticsGeneral Election 2015Politics

One Comment

  1. Robert Crosby Robert Crosby

    Frances’s lecture was more interesting and insightful than anything I heard in the election – and I am simply a Labour Party member who holds the same “centrist” (meaning “centre of the Labour Party” back when Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley led it) beliefs that I did when I joined it aged 15.

    If we can embrace Frances’s ideas and learn the right lessons, we CAN re-energise our workplaces and communities.

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