Union Matters

A lot is written and said about working class people – often by those who have no idea what working life is like in Britain today. When interviewers enter towns across the country to report back on the condition of the working class, they present an image of communities frozen in a different era of time. They rarely mention that more than half of people in poverty in this country live in a working family, or that these communities remain scarred by decades of wilful neglect from successive governments.

Today we live in a country where there is a deep-rooted structural imbalance of wealth and power in the world of work, the economy and wider society. Although highlighted by the pandemic, it has been decades in the making and the key question facing the labour movement is: what are we going to do about it?  Keir Starmer and the Labour Party have shown themselves to be far too timid when it comes to answering this call. Having spent the last year obsessed with telling people that he isn’t Jeremy Corbyn, the country has been left shrugging its shoulders and asking, “who are you, then?” Failing to take a position on the biggest issues of the day is not clever politics. Worse than this, failing to set out a vision for transformative change that will shift the political and economic balance of forces back in favour of working-class people will make the Labour Party an irrelevance. Working people want the real thing, they want politicians that have a moral backbone, that can tell you what they believe because it’s an integral part of who they are and not because it was approved by a focus group and a handful of the political elite.

However, those who pretend that Labour’s problems can be solved by one quick switch are also missing what is happening on the ground in this country. Serious change is not going to be brought about by Westminster at any time in the near future. In all honesty, real change has never been brought about by Westminster. It has always been working people, joining collectively to demand better, who have instigated that change. This is where the trade union movement needs to step up today. The time for talking about a serious alternative has long past – it is time for trade unions to come together and build a movement of the working class behind the demand for a New Deal for working people. Trade unions harnessing their collective strength can make change happen on the ground and this is far more important to me than Labour’s internal factional war. The political strategy of our trade union is about winning power for working people not just in Westminster, but in their workplaces, their communities and their everyday lives.

We commissioned this poll in Hartlepool out of a genuine desire to know what working class people in the much touted ‘Red Wall’ are really thinking. I am not at all surprised that the results chime with what CWU members tell me on a daily basis. This is what many in the political class forget – trade unionists are not a group of people on the fringes of society shouting down megaphones, we are embedded in every workplace and every community across this country. My gut feeling was that Johnson, and the Tories, would be ahead in the seat. The fact that they might win this by-election and that Hartlepool might elect a Tory MP for the first time since 1959 suggests to me that rather than re-building the ‘Red Wall’, Labour might be about to lose more of it. Peter Mandelson famously told Peter Hain early in the first Blair government that working class people ‘had nowhere else to go’. Since 2005 they have shown that they do. It is high time that those around Keir Starmer accepted that the 2017 election result was a moment at which the Party’s fortunes were momentarily reversed.

The reason that Labour beat expectations in 2017 was because it offered working people a genuine alternative based on re-empowering their communities. So, am I shocked that 69% of people polled in Hartlepool support providing free broadband to all homes and businesses by 2030? Not in the slightest – because I know that working class people care deeply about investing in their communities. Am I surprised that a majority support bringing Royal Mail back into public ownership? How could I be when I know the relationship that every single postal worker has with the people behind the doors they deliver to on a daily basis? I also didn’t fall off my chair when I read that 67% of people in Hartlepool see investing more in public services as more important than paying off the country’s deficit. This is because I know that working class people are crying out for bold and transformative change, both for where they live and the country as a whole.

Working people want a better lot for themselves and their country. They can’t be won over by a bit of flag waving here and there. They want a real offer and won’t get fooled again by those who pursue power without principle. In the discussions about working class communities, what is missed is that the people interviewed on crumbling high streets are on their way back to families that they wish they could spend more time with. They miss that the working people they interview, though exploited, are proud of the work that they do and the services they provide to people across their communities. Taken for granted in the national political conversation, working class people are some of the most engaged about issues in their families, their friendship groups and their local communities. In truth they are some of the brightest and strongest people about. The Labour leadership – and indeed the Prime Minister – would be wise to remember that.