Turn the world upside down!
ALTHOUGH I’M GETTING BETTER AT IT, it’s sometimes quite difficult to keep your cool when the Tories on the opposite benches start talking about the economy. We’re spending more than ever: on the NHS, on education, on public services, they proclaim. More people are in employment, fewer people are claiming disability benefits and we have more self-employed entrepreneurs than ever before. Apparently, we have never had it so good. Of course, we know it to be spin. When the calculations are done properly, in real terms (which are the only terms that matter to anyone who lives in the real world), the cuts made by this government have been devastating.
And the point is this: this year’s cuts are not in isolation, they are built upon historic debt, austerity and privatisation - just like below inflation pay rises which come on top of nearly a decade of erosion of pay, terms and conditions. There is a tipping point, and I believe we have reached it. Yet, government ministers stand proudly at the despatch box and claim greater funding, and greater prosperity than ever before. Sink or swim; the cold water is good for you; poverty is motivating and less is more. It’s a world turned upside down.
I didn’t expect to be promoted to shadow Minister for Labour within my first year as an MP. To be honest, I had been enjoying the freedom of being a back bencher, but at times like these you have to think very hard about what is best for the movement and the Labour Party, rather than your weekends! And this job to me is one of the most important around.
The main focus of the role is work: so, employment rights and law, the changing nature of employment, the trade union movement, pay, productivity and investment. The UK has had nearly a decade of austerity, on top of some of the most draconian employment laws in Europe. The result is a toxic mix of attacks on our movement, casualisation of many jobs via outsourcing, and the entrenchment of a low pay economy. The Minister for Labour role has a long tradition (Bevan was briefly in the job after resigning as Mini
ster for Health in 1951), but currently it does not have an opposite number. Some might say that’s because the Tories couldn’t give a stuff about workers, I couldn’t possibly say! But the role is a significant marker of intent for a Corbyn government.As outlined in the manifesto, under a Labour government, there will be a new Ministry of Labour, working closely with the trade unions to start to dismantle the anti-trade union laws, and to establish universal, ‘from day one’ rights for workers. So, if I’m lucky enough to stay in the role, I will spend a lot of time in the coming months and years looking at the detail of what this might look like, working together with trade unions across sectors to construct a better world for workers under a new government.
Back in the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher’s governments very deliberately dismantled much of what the labour movement had fought for during decades and centuries of struggle. She personally never forgave the miners for their militancy in the 1970s, which overturned Heath’s government, and was determined to punish a group of workers she called “the enemy within”. Unfortunately, too, our New Labour government, led by Tony Blair, did very little to reverse the Tories’ anti-trade union legislation, making it almost impossible for the labour movement to recover its purpose and strength. As a result, the movement became cautious and, at times, inward looking. The summer of 2015 changed all that.
Finally, under a Corbyn-led government, we have a chance to reverse not only that legislation - because we have one of the unions’ foremost advocates leading the party - but the culture too. A Labour government can deliver the former, the wider labour movement the latter.
Ambition is exactly what is needed right now. We need to turn the world upside down ourselves. Tinkering with a badly damaged labour market will not be enough. And in that context, I’m hugely excited at the prospect of working together with the trade union movement at all levels to construct an improved environment for workers across the UK, where they are rewarded fairly for their hard work, and supported properly when times are tough. That isn’t asking for the earth, it’s the bare minimum we should expect.