At the Kingston and Surbiton CLP's all members monthly meeting in October 2016, Dave Ward, General Secretary Communication Workers Union, opened up a discussion on a "New Deal for Workers". CLP Chair, Laurie South, reflects.
Dave Ward lives in the Kingston & Surbiton constituency so we were particularly pleased to welcome him as a guest speaker at our October all-member meeting. This blog does not claim to be a summary of what Dave said, but it is certainly inspired by his contribution to our thinking.
Where did the promised workers’ utopia go? Once we speculated on how we would use the leisure afforded by the reductions in working hours created by increasing automation. In fact, we now contemplate reduced job security, with those in employment having to work harder and longer and more efficiently than ever before.
During the Brexit debates we were constantly being told that we were the 4th or 5th largest economy in the world and yet only the only country where real incomes have risen by less in the last years is Greece. At the same time the Brexiteers promised we would take back control, without specifying from whom. They omitted to elaborate on how we are increasingly being controlled by foreign companies. Cars, steel, gas, water, electricity, even chocolate: you name it, foreign companies own it and are looking to extract the maximum profit from the UK. As we have seen in the case of Tata Steel or Nissan car assemblers, foreign owned companies can now blackmail the British government with a threat to pull out.
Even our own government lacks any sense of patriotic allegiance to British industry, buying Chinese nuclear power plants or commissioning French steel for the controversial new generation of missile-toting submarines.
After six years in government the latest cabal of business ministers started talking about the need for an industrial strategy. This quickly morphed into talking and speechifying as if they had one. Try googling it. They don’t.
But the latest watchword is not automation, it is digitisation. The most modern factories and warehouses boast that their workers are digital machines and processes without the need for workers. Where they are innovating, others must follow or be swept away as obsolescent anachronisms.
So, how will those who are described so readily by politicians as “ordinary hard-working people” fare in this brave new globalised and digitised world? What should the new world of work look like and what are the processes to be put in place to ensure we do not have a larger and larger pool of workers just managing on poorly remunerated, sporadic, temporary or zero-houred work, while an ever-self-enriching elite becomes progressively wealthier?
If you look to the Tories there is nothing but the bankrupt thinking of consumerism and commensurate individualism. Basically, you must be a good consumer, constantly looking out for the best deal for yourself. And if you start at a disadvantage or fall upon hard times, well it’s your own fault and not the responsibility of anyone else to provide support and help, other than the flimsiest of a shrinking state welfare net.
But there is another possibility: a New Deal for Workers. Here the industrial strategy would be pro-business, pro-citizen and pro community. The government policy would be geared to ensuring there is a focus on long-term development not short-term profit. Globalisation would include the concept that governments across the world work together to ensure that multi-nationals do pay taxes to the countries in which they operate. Governments, companies and workers need to see tax as a joint venture which opens, through the state, opportunities and enrichment for everyone; taxation should not be a burden to be mitigated at all costs, characterised as an unnecessary and wasteful drain on profits. Governments would celebrate, invest in and reward entrepreneurship rather than asset stripping. Trade unions, companies and government have a joint social function to ensure that employees are developed, trained, and supported when difficulty or misfortune occur. The UK should implement an industrial strategy that ensures there is a progression to a high-wage, high-skill economy. What we have is an industrial strategy based on a long running bargain basement flash-sale of UK industrial capacity. This is commensurate with a race towards a low-skill, low wage economy, and a UK operating as a subsidiary of industries based elsewhere in the world.
We have seen where trying to ignore, marginalise and legislate against the contribution of trade unions has got us. But, as Dave Ward explained, formulating a New Deal for Workers, driven by trade unions as partners with the government and industry, creates challenges for trade unions. They need to reach out to non-unionised workplaces, currently made so difficult by government laws, and find ways of working more closely with multi-national companies. They also need to initiate dialogue with people in the work-place. Most of all they need to agree, through the TUC, a common platform and agenda for change. They will need to work closely with the Labour Party’s 20/20 agenda (see http://www.policyforum.labour.org.uk/agenda-2020/commissions/economy).
We are at the cross-roads. We can continue the Tory policy of selling off our industry and pursuing a failed austerity strategy – a neo-Victorian dystopia for workers - or we can look to an economy based on a “New Deal for Workers” driven by the Labour Party and trade unions. This does require a lot of deep thinking and the construction of a simpler narrative. It needs the percipience and commitment of Party members and trade unionists to hone the vision, create the practical policies and develop the story that can be taken door to door. But it has so much more to offer than the continuation of the consumerism, individualism and inequality that dominates the present government thinking.