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Challenging the Establishment

Why trade union values must win the day
Len McCluskey, Unite general secretary, Friday, June 26th, 2015

May’s general election result was a shock, not just to those in our movement but to pollsters, political commentators and even to the Tory beneficiaries now sitting smugly in their grand offices of Whitehall.



The Liberal Democrats were annihilated. UKIP and the Greens took millions of votes but only a single seat each. The SNP swept across Scotland taking every seat but three.


When May 8th dawned, an archaic voting system had delivered a Commons majority to a Conservative Party for whom many were too ashamed to say they backed the party and where 64 per cent of those who voted actually voted against them.


Disappointment, devastation, stretching right across the wider anti-Tory majority that exists across all our nations, soon gave way to fear. What fresh pain will be felt by the disadvantaged and vulnerable, what will become of our communities, schools, homes and hospitals? Who will give our young people a chance? What about the elderly who need care and security?



All these thoughts raced by as reality dawned that further attacks from a newly invigorated Tory establishment were on their way. And as Cameron has now made clear, being in work is no protection against his austerity economics – if you happen to be poor because your wages are low, then you are in this government’s crosshairs too.


War on the poor



These are the people who remind our movement that we cannot waste one moment being downhearted or cowed. As the slogan asks – when did the war on poverty become the war on the poor?



Instead, as the hundreds of thousands did on the streets of London and other cities on June 20, we must send the clearest possible message to this political elite: if you think you won the war of austerity on May 7 – then think again.


Whatever the majority in the Tories take into the Commons’ lobby – and it is a slender one – simple human decency tells us that there is this no legitimacy in the ravaging attacks on the disabled, the elderly, the sick, those in precarious work or those out of work.



It will never legitimise the poverty and human suffering caused by the greed and gluttony of unaccountable vested interests. It will certainly never legitimise attacks on ordinary trade unionists, on democracy in the workplace or on the right to strike.


But if our values cannot carry the day against this destruction then the growing counter-offensive, embracing even the IMF, which says austerity economics is a bankrupt philosophy – it is always the problem, it is never the solution – will eventually prevail.


The Labour Party now searches for its own answers to May’s drubbing. With elections for its top positions nationally, in Scotland and for a London mayoral candidate, varying prescriptions for its revival are being put on the counter. At the same time the Labour Party inside Westminster must now do its duty as the official opposition to the first Tory government in over 18 years.



Westminster bubble

The truth, though, is that for too long inside the Westminster bubble there has been little opposition to the establishment’s consensus. Most importantly, given its negative long-term effects on our country, there has been no push-back against austerity despite the discredit heaped upon it by renowned economists and new political movements from around the world.


So while our movement outside of Westminster is winning new supporters in the fight back across our communities, it still lacks expression in the corridors of power. The Labour Party, let’s remember, was founded to overturn the establishment consensus of one hundred years ago, to give working people a voice in politics and in government.



Today, the need for that Labour Party, the one that went on to become the greatest agent of social justice in the last century, is more vivid than ever because once again ordinary people are being robbed by vested interests and rampant new elites.


Challenging the establishment is Labour’s calling (that includes looking at its own role within it). Today’s political elite is as discredited and disgraced as any that has come before it – the millions who did not vote last month are a stark reminder that faith in politics’ conduct is at a new low. Phone-hacking, expenses scandals, police cover ups, Orgreave, Hillsborough and the very banking crisis that bankrupted our public finances – all crimes where justice is denied and for which the people pay the price.


The establishment shames our democracy. Those self-styled lords and masters, invoke the cause of the people when in fact they work against them. Of course they loathe trade unions – we hold up a mirror to their misrule – and so they will come after us, looking to silence our critique. They will fail. Make no mistake, Unite was a powerful, fearless and proudly vocal trade union before the general election. We remain exactly that today.




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