Trade union activists may be delighted by Jeremy Corbyn’s triumph in the Labour leadership contest, but they should not mistake the scale of his victory for widespread demand for socialist and pro-union policies among the wider British public
Can you imagine a British general strike taking place in the year 2016, ninety years since the last, with workers from every industry downing tools (or leaving their public sector office desks, as it would be today) to bring the entire country grinding to a halt?
No, of course you can’t – no person with a single foothold in reality can take the prospect seriously, let alone countenance the circumstances whereby a general strike might now be justified. But Britain’s trade union leaders can – and now that Jeremy Corbyn has been installed as Labour leader, they fully intend to make it a reality.
The Daily Mail strikes a suitably alarmist tone:
It would be the first time that there had been a General Strike since 1926, when work was halted for nine days.
Unite, led by ‘Red Len’ McCluskey and one of Mr Corbyn’s biggest supporters, is calling for ‘a broad, militant and imaginative campaign’ against the Trade Union Reform Bill.
It even proposes breaking the law, saying the TUC should be open ‘to giving maximum possible political, financial and industrial support to those unions that find themselves outside the law’.
But on this occasion they are right to be alarmed. The Telegraph reports that Britain’s favourite union leader, Mark Serwotka, sees Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership victory as only the start:
Mark Serwotka, leader of the PCS union, said: “You have to pinch yourselves that a Labour leader is saying things that all of us agree with.
“If we are going to see any of those policies realised, we will not get that just through what Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party do in Parliament. If Jeremy Corbyn wants to win on those policies, he absolutely needs a mass vibrant movement in the country… He needs the six-and-a-half million trade union members to ensure that we have that vibrant campaign through strikes, demonstrations, local campaigns, occupations and everything else.”
He added: “We have the ability to stop austerity in its tracks, to topple this government and to ensure we get a fairer society.”
It really is the 1970s all over again now: boorish, egotistical union leaders presuming that they – rather than democratically elected politicians – govern Britain.
Drunk on the scale of their victory, Jeremy Corbyn’s union backers are in danger of losing what little grip on reality they have left, and imagining there to be a depth of public support for 1970s-style industrial unrest which simply does not exist. This muscle-flexing by the unions is vaguely worrying, but certainly not surprising.
Unfortunately, much of Jeremy Corbyn’s support (welcome though his victory is) happens to be drawn from that slightly hysterical group of anti-austerity zealots who believe that David Cameron’s weak tea version of conservatism is tantamount to a deliberate genocide of the poor and the sick, and that they are being cruelly oppressed and downtrodden by the jackboot of the Evil Tories. And when people are thus convinced that they are on the side of the Greater Good – and that those who disagree with them are basically evil – they do tend to get carried away with themselves.
The election of Jeremy Corbyn gave the Labour left wing a powerful mandate to reshape their party. That much cannot be denied – and Corbyn is already flexing his newfound muscles in this regard, assembling a markedly left-wing shadow cabinet with John McDonnell as Shadow Chancellor. This is Corbyn’s prerogative – a thumping majority of Labour Party members and supporters voted for him to be leader, so now he gets to take the Labour Party in the direction he promised.
But what Jeremy Corbyn’s victory does not do – no matter how much some may bluster and wish otherwise – is override the mandate given to the Conservative Party to enact its vaguely centre-right, steady-as-she-goes continuity manifesto under David Cameron.
The trades union, kept at arms length for so long by Blair, Brown and Miliband, are clearly delighted at the sudden positive change in their fortunes, and the fact that they will have a sympathetic and enthusiastic champion at the top of the Labour Party once again. But they should not make the mistake of believing that there is suddenly now widespread support for trade union positions.
If the newly emboldened unions now embark on a period of strident industrial and civil unrest based on doe-eyed support from that tiny sliver of the overall electorate who happen to be members of the Labour Party, they greatly misread Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate, and risk a potentially massive public relations backlash.
Why? Because when the last strains of the Red Flag fade into silence, the awkward fact remains that there is simply no appetite or tolerance among the British people for a rolling and coordinated programme of industrial action, wildcat strikes, sympathy strikes or the violent and disorderly behaviour displayed most recently by angry Labour supporters on the morning after the Tory general election victory.
Left-wingers love making ill-fitting comparisons between the present day and George Orwell’s Britain – remember the relish with which they accused George Osborne of bringing back The Road To Wigan Pier? – so perhaps they might care to explain just how present working conditions, practices, remuneration and the social safety net compare to the last time Britain suffered a general strike?
But of course they cannot – because there is no comparison. Even the poorest among us are immeasurably better off, enjoying the fruits of modern technology, globalised supply chains and advanced medicine unheard of when Orwell stayed with miners’ families to experience and document their punishingly hard lives. Those calling for a general strike today are pampered dilettante socialists, by comparison.
Take Ronnie Draper of the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union, who nobly announced his readiness to go to jail if necessary, in the name of God knows what:
Ronnie Draper, leader of the bakers’ union, said that he and “thousands” of other union members were prepared to go to jail for coordinating illegal strikes if the new Tory laws are passed.
He said: “I don’t want to go to jail comrades – but I tell you, I will. And there will be thousands of others.”
These overwrought speeches about going to jail really are over the top. Go to jail for what? The economy is growing again. New technology means that we all live more relatively prosperous and interconnected lives than ever before. What, exactly, about modern Britain is worthy union supporters going to jail for?
Well, in fact there actually are some valid reasons. Because as with so many policies cooked up by this Conservative government, for every sensible measure to encourage private enterprise there is another which seeks to forcibly expand Big Government, and grant the state unprecedented reach into our lives, all in the name of “security”.
The Trade Union Act being debated in Parliament today contains some worthy measures, like introducing a requirement for at least 50% of union members to vote in a strike ballot for the strike to be legal, thus protecting the public from being harmed or inconvenienced by strikes provoked by a small and militant minority.
In addition to that – they have decided to introduce fines of up to £20,000 on unions if pickets do not wear an official armband. Also, approved picket supervisors would have to take “reasonable steps” to tell police the name, contact details and location of those on the picket line” This, I believe, is what prompted David Davis to say “I agree with most of the trade union bill. I think it’s very sensible … but there are bits of it which look OTT, like requiring pickets to give their names to the police force. What is this? This isn’t Franco’s Britain, this is Queen Elizabeth II’s Britain.”
But the union leaders are not preparing to go to war over civil liberties – that’s just an extra rhetorical string to their bow, another own goal scored by the Theresa May faction of the Tory party.
The danger for small-C conservatives and libertarians is that a whole host of illiberal and Big Government style measures will find their way on to the statute books simply because the public – and MPs – are presented with a binary choice between allowing important trade union reforms to go ahead, albeit packaged with a nasty bunch of Theresa May-inspired poison pills, or voting down the bill and handing a victory to the odious and hyperbolic forces of the Left.
But we may all be faced with many more lose-lose choices like this if the Tories mishandle the rise of Jeremy Corbyn.