Labour 'must be bold'

Unite GS Sharon Graham: Labour should 'grab the opportunity to create a better, fairer society'

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In the early 1970s the American liberal philosopher John Rawls wrote “A just society is a society that if you knew everything about it, you’d be willing to enter it in a random place”. The quote sums up the aspirations of the age. Ever-rising living standards allowed ordinary workers to believe that their kids would have greater opportunities to create a better life for themselves than they did – the runners in the race might not always be equal, but everyone would be able to enter the race for a better life, which wouldn’t be rigged.

Fast forward fifty years and those ambitions lie in ruins. The financial crisis and the decade of austerity which followed, means that ordinary households are £18,000 a year worse off now than before the crash. Real wages are actually lower now than they were in 1997.

The statistics of Conservative rule make grim reading for workers and communities. In July 2023, the number of patients waiting for NHS treatment hit 7.68 million, the highest ever level. An estimated 11 million cannot access an NHS dentist. Even our prison service is on its knees. It’s clear that whatever remains of the social contract between people and the state is on life support.

But even amidst the turmoil, we have to give the Tories their due. Make no mistake, when in power they bat for their side. They know who they want the rewards to go to and do whatever is politically possible to make that happen. 

Take the reversal of caps on city bankers’ bonuses as a vivid example. Or consider that as the welfare state is cut back, the collective wealth of Britain’s billionaires has grown exponentially, year after year. New ideas to dump inheritance tax follow a clear long-term trend of tax breaks for the already wealthy. Conservative administrations over history are very clear – they know that they are on the side of the City, the banks, and the profiteers of corporate Britain.

So what about Labour? It looks like they’re about to be going in to bat for us. Surely they will raise the banner for change? Surely they will make a stand for the ordinary person on the street, the way the Conservatives unerringly serve their masters. Surely Labour will tackle the profiteers, and break the ‘Greedflation’ haunting Britain. Surely they will rebuild our national infrastructure and deliver on the eternal promise of genuine opportunity for all? They know whose side they are on. Don’t they?

Recent backtracking on key pledges – like the manifesto on workers’ rights – is a warning. Labour is in danger of fast retreating into managerialism – the same old failed ideology that Labour can rescue the economy by managing it better than the Conservative Party. The irony is that at the exact time Labour’s choosing to play it safe, the public are ready for something different. They understand that things are not as they could be and not many believe things should stay as they are. One poll last year found that 71% of British people thought that “the economy is rigged to advantage the rich and powerful”. 

In 1945, the war ended and we did things. We were in a far worse situation then than we are today – the British economy was torn asunder by war and an empire in decline. Yet the 1945 Labour government didn’t retreat into miserable managerialism. Instead it transformed the face of Britain building the NHS, delivering the welfare state and transforming industry through economic intervention. Labour can choose that moment again in present-day colours. 

It can choose to lead a crusade for change instead of just managing further decline. It’s the time to say to Labour, grab the opportunity to create a truly better, fairer society. Labour must put the stake in the ground and take the big decisions to make our economy work for all the people, not the top 0.1%. Labour must be bold, unapologetic and above all show whose side they are on.

By Sharon Graham, Unite general secretary

  • An edited version of this comment piece first appeared in the Times on October 7.