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Dan Hind
Dan Hind
Dan Hind is the author of two books, The Threat to Reason and The Return of the Public. His pamphlet, Common Sense: An Essay on Liberty, is published on Kindle later this month.
In the UK, the unions can win
Britain's trade unions have been kept on the margins for too long - but they have the ability to make a comeback.
Last Modified: 07 Mar 2012 14:01
In the United Kingdom, organised labour groups boast over six million members [EPA]

London, United Kingdom - Organised labour is by far the biggest social movement in Britain, with more than six million members. But, as the author and journalist Owen Jones noted last week, "the political and media establishment treat them as though they have no legitimate place in public life". They are caricatured as "sectional interests, blindly standing up for their members whatever the cost to the wider community". In a column in the Independent, Jones told the trade unions that they would only break out of the margins when they began articulating a response to "issues that affect working people… whether unionised or not".

Both of these points are correct, and Jones is shrewd to connect them. The media and the political establishment do treat the unions dismissively. And this will only change when the unions are seen to be promoting the interests of the working majority. In other words, the unions can only prosper if they plausibly align their interests with the common good. This should be an easier task for them than, say, for the financial sector. But since the global economic crisis began in 2007, the unions have remained marginal - while the banks that trashed the economy still largely dictate the terms of economic, and hence political, life.

The question is this: how do the unions most effectively break into the mainstream of discussion, debate and political action? In the early years of the 20th century, the answer was plain. They created their own political party, the Labour party, and their own mass media, including a successful national newspaper, the Daily Herald. They knew they couldn't rely on sympathetic liberals in the media or duplicitous Liberals in the political establishment. They needed their own people in Parliament and in journalism.

Labour politics

The Labour Party existed to convert the objectives of trade union members into a programme that could win elections. The 1930s and 1940s shows this process of transmission in action. Meetings, pamphlets, arguments, debates and endless articles in Tribune and the Herald established the outlines of a political and economic programme. A series of party conferences imposed this programme on the Parliamentary party. A heavily armed electorate voted Labour into office in 1945. The heroic Cabinet of the late 1940s did what it was told to do by a motivated, informed and idealistic mass movement.

We can learn a good deal from what the unions achieved then. If the media establishment treats unions with contempt, then it is time for them to create a media establishment of their own. This doesn't have to mean launching a national newspaper. There's no need to. Modern technology vastly reduces the costs of disseminating information. Social media like Twitter and Facebook offer individuals, not to mention institutions, access to large audiences that were once the exclusive gift of a few corporations and the BBC. Combine this technology with a culture of assembly and debate between equals and the unions will soon find themselves moving back into the centre of politics.

A revived labour movement "won't be fobbed off with Blair's verbless abstractions and soft-focus sentimentality".

Unions are mass membership organisations. They could become venues for democratic debate that enliven the participants and go a long way to reviving a public culture currently muffled by the operations of the traditional media. Private-sector unions are the natural place to explore co-determination and co-operation as alternatives to shareholder capitalism. Public-sector unions can set out the outlines of a reformed state. And the programme that emerges from these debates can be made to reach many more people than the members of trade unions. People want to know how we are going to solve the country's pressing problems. If the unions offer them the means of finding out, they will become relevant and attractive in ways they haven't been since the 1940s.

A programme for wide-ranging reform is bound to disrupt existing power relations. This will not always be welcome to every union, union leader or union member. Some people in my own union, the National Union of Journalists, might see new media operations by the movement as a threat to their own members, for example. There are bound to be conflicts of interest. The unions' interests are closer to the general interest than most, but they cannot be identical with it.

A revived labour movement will be argumentative and assertive. It won't be fobbed off with Blair's verbless abstractions and soft-focus sentimentality. That is kind of the point. But union leaders can only hope to reach a national audience at the moment when what they say can be spun in ways that damage their cause. The discoveries of a public culture of debate and inquiry will sometimes be awkward but only such a culture can give the leaders of the unions a fair hearing.

Social movements

Still, it is union members who stand to gain most from the creation of a new and more properly public sphere. If they wait for their leaders to act on their behalf, they will wait a long time. But they will speed things up considerably if they take matters into their own hands. They would be well advised to adopt and adapt the techniques used so successfully by UK Uncut and the Occupy movement. If they organise, assemble and debate, the so-called rank and file will soon restructure their unions so that they can once again help shape the political and economic agenda.

 Huge public-sector strike hits the UK

Unions are not wealthy organisations. But a few million pounds a year would be enough to fund a communications infrastructure to rival - and hence influence - the BBC and the other major media. If people are to debate effectively, they need reliable information about matters that newspapers and broadcasters currently ignore or downplay. Besides, as a recovering publisher, I can't help thinking that an effective media operation could be made to pay for itself. Millions spend a pound or two here and there for the vicarious liberation offered by TV talent shows. Some of them will, I think, pay something for actual liberation, if it is actual liberation: sensible working hours, spacious and pleasant housing, an accountable and competent state, education that prepares the young for political adulthood, that kind of thing.

That leaves Parliament. The unions could stop funding the Labour Party, but an outright break would cause huge disruption. It is probably unnecessary, too. Once people know what they want, and how to get it, the professional politicians will soon fall in line. Labour MPs will give up their dreams of escape into the plutocratic ether and rediscover their deep commitment to the decent, hardworking people of blah, blah, blah. Politicians must follow public opinion while pretending to lead it. That's their job.

Some will say that working people want to leave all this to others. They just want to get on with their lives. Others, smugly or regretfully, tell us that politics is too difficult for "ordinary people" to understand. Union members have to call time on this kind of nonsense. If we have access to reliable information and opportunities to interrogate experts and debate among ourselves, we are perfectly capable of understanding what's happening in the state and the economy. We can also decide what reforms are necessary, just as our grandparents did 70 years ago.

In his article Owen Jones warns that, if the unions don't address the rising frustration, "somebody else will". He is right about that, too. In fact, it is already happening. People are far less forgiving of a media and political establishment that breaks the law - and mistreats animals - as it sees fit. They are no longer befuddled by the moonshine about free markets that the rich used to dispense. The successes of direct action groups like UK Uncut and the Occupy movement are signs that the current consensus is already losing its hold. But the unions have the skills and the resources to create a democratic public culture on a much larger scale, much more quickly.

To put it another way, the unions can win.

Dan Hind is the author of two books, The Threat to Reason and The Return of the Public. His pamphlet, Common Sense: An Essay on Liberty, is published on Kindle this month.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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