LABOUR AND THE UNIONS: A TWO-WAY STREET by Tim Roache, GMB Yorkshire & North Derbyshire Regional Secretary, and Chair, Yorkshire & Humberside TUC

(This is the speech Tim made at the WinningLabour launch on 9th July)

Thank you all for your attendance and for my invite to speak.

In opening, it would be foolish of me to ignore last Thursday’s events and the action by teachers and civil servants in support of their jobs, pay and pensions.  But the Party’s response (and by that I mean the Shadow Cabinet and YES the leadership) was a great disappointment to the movement and a missed opportunity.

The Party’s response was bewildering, as it defied the fact that the Labour Party should be on the side of working people.

That much should be a given, but it shows how far things have moved and how much work we’ve to do.

We need to start crafting the policies and politics of a proper Labour Party, not one that is top down, but a democratic, member led organisation that is bottom-up, just how it was at its inception.

And that’s what I think ‘Winning Labour’ is about and that’s the role I am keen and anxious to play.  It really is nothing radical or revolutionary.

Some people say we should walk away from the Party.  Well that is certainly one option.  It certainly is the EASY option and the cheaper option.  There are also forces in the Party who want to break the link.

But my proud union the GMB has never taken the easy or the quick fix cheap way out.  We have a proud tradition and policy of staying with the Party and working bloody hard to influence and change things from within.

I think that is the position that all unions should take.  But we have to be clever about this because there’s masses to do.

And now I have explained my position I want to tell you about 2 things that attract me to ‘Winning Labour.’

First is, that the Labour Party was born out of the Trade Union Movement way back in 1900 as a living, breathing organisation that would, for the very first time, represent and give a voice to ordinary working people.

Is that still the case today?  Can we hand on heart say it is, or that it’s progressed to something better for us and our members?

Then briefly through history, 1931 sees Labour sink to its lowest ever position in Parliament (52 seats!).

And who kept the Party afloat at its lowest ebb?  The trade Unions that’s who.

And then 1945 – the election of a Labour Government – when unions play the key role in winning consensus for the post war settlement that shaped British society for the next 30 very progressive years.

Why is this brief historical reminder an important point for me today?  Because the fact today is as it has been throughout history; that it is the union movement that remain side by side with the Party when all the celebs, the luvvies and the big businesses deserted us when we lost power, just as we all knew they would.

Am I pleased or upset about that?  Well to be honest I’m neither.  It was a natural state of affairs. And what is even more natural, the most natural thing in the world, is the fact that we are left as just about the only remaining funders of the Labour Party.

Because you know, there is something very unique about our relationship.  A Trade Union Movement so closely integrated with a major political party is, in my experience, unique across the world and that is something we should hold on to, and to celebrate.

But not hold onto at any price!

As a senior trade union official I know both sides gain from this relationship:

For us, the unions, of course we get influence.  The ability to influence laws and legislation to benefit and improve the lot of our members.  Fairness, justice, equality, dignity and respect.

And for the Party today?  Access to the thought process of millions of working people…….and all for FREE!

The second thing that attracts me today is the prospect of ‘Winning Labour’ taking on the market.  There can be no better, albeit tragic example of how the neo-liberal idea of a so called free market economy has consistently failed the people of this country than what’s happened in Southern Cross Healthcare.

My union warned some years ago of the private equity sharks buying companies and almost overnight asset stripping them and flogging parts off at huge profits to feed their shareholders greed, not for one moment giving a second thought for what they left behind like the carcass of a dead animal.

And what’s the real effect in Southern Cross?  Tens of thousands of elderly people living out their final years in fear of their home closing and being uprooted to god knows where, a move that will ultimately finish many of them off.

At the same time thousands of loyal decent hardworking people being thrown out of a job or, ‘if they’re lucky’ retaining a job where their current contract is worthless.

No guaranteed number of days or hours of work per week. No longer a contract to work to at a specific care home.  Just the hire and fire of ‘we only want you 2 days this week, oh and by the way you’re working at the home 20 miles away!’.  And if you don’t accept this ‘offer?’ you have no job AND we won’t be paying any redundancy.  The market, treatingboth as a commodity.

If this doesn’t demonstrate that the market has no place in the care of our elderly, no role to play in our working society, then I don’t know what does.

So where to from here?  What are we trying to achieve through ‘Winning Labour.’

First and foremost there’s no quick fix.  This is going to take time and we need to recognise that to get back the influence within the Party that we gave away so easily will be a long haul.

Our aim must be to influence and shape the direction of Party policy on things that should always have been a given:

Full employment

Progressive rather than punitive employment laws

A properly funded, decent and fair public sector.

Our agenda really is as radical as that!

And to achieve this we need to identify, train and develop an army of political candidates that share this common agenda, and that will speak up in pursuit of these policies because it is right, fair and just.

They and we need to get active in our local Party wards and constituencies so that, at election time it is OUR candidates that step forward and get elected locally and to Westminster.

This is achievable and I hold up as an example what my union the GMB has done through our GMB@Work policy.

We recognised 6 or 7 years ago that you could not service, let alone recruit and organise 600,000 members by relying on 2 or 3 hundred full time officers, however good they are.

You need an army of committed, dedicated well trained activists, leaders in the workplace, known locally and in their community.

And what’s the position now?  We are the fastest growing trade union despite the difficult times and challenges, and are a campaigning union, relevant to our members and an organisation of which they are proud.

This ‘army’ of activists means we are built on solid foundations and that is what the modern Labour Party must rest upon these same foundations.

So I am advocating the building of an identikit picture of a trade union candidate; that no matter what union they’re from is supported by us all locally and finally put an end to parachutes from London.

We need to see a return to the days when Party Conference was motion based, where motions passed meant something and aren’t simply ignored by the top down structure that we have today.

We need to enter the debate on ideas, on policy, on direction and what really matters to working people of this country.

Develop a debate on public and private sectors and use all of the latest technology to ensure we attract younger people to get involved and participate.  The creation of an intellectual wing to win the hearts and minds on the Winning Labour agenda.

I’ll finish on this point.

Why does the Party maintain this obsession with winning ‘middle Britain’ when the factsshow that through the nineties and noughties we lost almost 5 million of our traditional supporters.  Ones who didn’t just vote Labour, they actually got off their backsides and encouraged  others to do likewise.

It’s them that we need to win back and I’ll tell you this.

We won’t win them back by trying to steal the Tories clothes on cuts, but then saying we wouldn’t cut quite as quick or quite as deep.

We need innovation, new ideas, brave and bold moves to get people back into work.  Give them some confidence back and some money in their pockets and purses and get the economy moving again.

And that’s what I find so attractive and compelling about ‘Winning Labour.’  Forget new, blue or blue rinse. I urge you to get behind us and get the Party back where it should always have been.  A democratic organisation run by the members, for the members.

Thank you.

WinningLabour’s weblog is a forum for debate on its three main themes. As with other sites, the general range of views expressed on it are not necessarily those of our individual guest writers, whose opinions should be viewed solely in terms of their specific contributions.

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