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At twenty one you’re on top of the scrapheap
At sixteen you were top of the class
All they taught you at school
Was how to be a good worker
The system has failed you, don’t fail yourself
In 1983 Billy Bragg defined the threat a generation faced from Tory policies. Thirty two years later his words ring true again as we face a Government blind to the damage they are doing to the prospects of so many. Labour must offer more than opposition. We must be an alternative, fighting for a better future for all. In doing so, trade unions have a vital role to play contributing ideas, energy and experience. Following the election defeat it is vital that we do not retreat, but instead renew again our movement as the voice and vehicle for working people. We must not mourn- but organise.
Britain’s union movement has a proud tradition of progressive change –delivering weekends, paternity and maternity rights and equal pay. In doing so, they have helped to not just protect but create millions of jobs, saving business’s time and money, and helping the state deliver services that save lives. Despite this, the Tories are proposing the biggest crackdown on trade union rights for 30 years. We can and will oppose their agenda. But the truth is they will be able to pass this into law because they won. My campaign is about getting us ready to win again, because winning is the only way we can guarantee a Government that respects and appreciates trade unions. And with much is at stake, we must not let Matt Hancock or Francis Maude define their purpose or wait until the election to challenge their destructive agenda. Instead, we must together put productivity and pay on the political agenda, using the work many unions already do as a template of how this benefits employees, employers and the economy.
British productivity levels are falling far behind our competitors: as a result of Britain’s limited skills training and poor infrastructure, we produce 30% less per hour than workers in Germany or France. Or to put it another way, by Thursday lunchtime a French worker has produced as much as we do in a week. Improvements in technology are also creating a “Second Machine Age”, where many of the jobs currently done by humans are being computerised. Osborne claims to support a living wage, but the bitter reality for those on low incomes is that they will find any increase in their wages will be wiped out by cuts to tax credits – and then some. In giving with one hand but taking much more with the other he has made it more likely people will live not just in poverty, but also in financial difficulty. This is now one of the most indebted countries in the world, as families try to bridge the gap between what they earn and what they need to live through borrowing. Under Cameron’s watch, our low pay high debt economy is causing misery for millions.
The Tories pretend all these issues could be solved if only people worked harder or if trade unions were weaker. We know the UK’s productivity crisis and low pay cannot be met by deregulating business and regulating unions. A smarter government would get all the players – government, business, schools, employees and trade unions – working together. At Royal Strathclyde Blindcraft Industries in Glasgow, Community Union has worked in partnership with management to develop training programmes that take physically disabled young people through a training programme which leads to a decent job. The project is supported by local government bringing the business and trade union together in partnership to make a positive difference to workers’ lives. Such collaborative approaches offer a model for how people can develop new skills and gain the confidence and security they need to move from industry to industry over the course of their careers.
While the Tories view trade unions as barriers to change, we know that they can be the facilitators of success in the workplace, both within sectors and at a national level too. Helping tackle poverty pay is just the start of the conversation about the role they can play in driving up productivity and supporting employees in the global economy. In the years ahead Labour must put into practice the partnerships that can help us demonstrate this is a possibility for all- both in our policy making and our campaigning. By renewing our power of collective action we can show how we would deliver fairness and prosperity for all – doing so as the biggest political organisations by far in the UK. As Labour’s next Deputy Leader ensuring our movement leads this debate from the front would be a personal priority.