From Collective Bargaining to Mutual Action
‘Where there is discord, we will bring harmony.’ Yes, this was St Francis of Assisi! On 4 May 1979, Margaret Hilda Thatcher had the audacity to regurgitate this quotation at the beginning of dividing the nation in a way that had not been seen since the overthrow of Charles I.
Speaking for the nation as a whole entails understanding and feeling the pain, as well as understanding the aspiration of the different cultural, social and political make-up of the nation. That is Labour’s challenge today.
At the heart of our politics and as an expression of our values, rests an all-embracing yet simple philosophy of our humanity. Namely, that we have a mutual interdependence which springs from a bond of parent to child, and is writ large in different ways and through various cultures, from extended family and physical community to nation state and the desire for protection and security.
Reciprocity helps us balance the need for self-determination and creative individuality with mutual hope, and therefore what might be described as ‘solidarity’.
As we say, ‘we can achieve so much more together than we can divided’. Balancing the common good with the freedom and liberty to exercise that individuality has been and remains a challenge for those committed to democracy, while understanding that the Polis ensures our participation and therefore our citizenship.
At its crudest we need to understand where power lies, how it is exercised and by whom, and what can be achieved through coming together and working collectively to protect ourselves from exploitation, to promote the best interests of what has come to be known as ‘society’. The existence of which was bizarrely denied in that famous Woman’s Own interview with Margaret Thatcher!
The clash between capital and labour, between those seeking to maximise profit and those with only their toil to sell, was of course the driving force for the creation of the trade unions in the 19th century. Coupled as it was with the crusade to increase the franchise and enable people to have a political voice, we saw the development of an understanding of how people united together in a particular cause could give themselves some chance of being empowered, no matter how modestly.
The reshaping of Ed Miliband’s ‘One Nation Britain’ is an endeavour to articulate that belief, that what we do to others engineers the circumstances which benefit or damage ourselves and our family.
The ill-educated child is a drain on our economic prosperity, productivity and competitiveness, as well as a waste of talent and an immoral denial of the nurturing of every child.
At its crudest the ill-health of others is a drain on our taxes, even if, as a minority, people decide to buy themselves out of that service.
Few people can escape from the wider environment in which they live and work. Again, most crudely, unsafe, ill-lit and filthy streets can be avoided by the very rich for most of the time but for the majority of people only part of the time.
But ‘One Nation’ cannot and should never be simply the avoidance of the most obvious injustice or collective suicide. It has to be about a great deal more than politics built on grievance and the unhappiness of a resentful and selfish public sphere. More than putting right the playing-off of public sector workers against those in private enterprise. The retired versus the young, the migrant versus the resentful and excluded. Or, the badly housed versus the homeless.
In other words, replacing the politics of Conservative division with a morally more superior and a politically more cohesive engagement.
For if we are to pull the nations of Britain together, the inner city with the rural hinterland, the more affluent south-east with the once-powerful and prosperous economic engine room of the north, it is involvement and that mutual sense of purpose which will be so vital.
Bringing people together, for their own benefit but also to counterweight global economic forces and powerful vested interests, will not only bring material gain, it will also be educative, informative and empowering.
One simple example (which, ironically, the present government are assisting) is what has become known as the Big Switch. Bringing people together to use the power of collective bargaining to reduce energy bills. This example can be seen as an essential part of the purpose of modern local government, as well as reinforcing civil society.
What, therefore, if a radical incoming Labour government offered the opportunity of both influence and affluence by engaging the power of people in underpinning the macro action in the economic and social policy of the government. Government and people together.
To fail to pay even minimal taxes in major developed countries is a scandal, but one that does not have to be tolerated. Yes, of course government has to act (sensibly) in cooperation with like-minded representative democracies elsewhere. But it has also a common-sense duty to mobilise and support its own electorate.
Boycotts have been used effectively over the decades in different parts of the world to combat injustice. The ‘strike’ of the consumer can and should be effective. Governments cannot and should not do this for people, but there is no reason at all why they should not facilitate and support such action.
Equally, changing the way in which we deliver our public services (as opposed to simply slashing and burning) offers common cause as much in Berkshire or Bedfordshire as it does in Bury or Bolton.
Back in the late 19th and early 20th century, municipal enterprise was the driving force for innovation and enterprise in creating not only availability of clean water, but gas and electricity. The Goose and Burial Clubs of EP Thompson’s ‘The Making of the English Working Class’ was followed by the creation of the embryo welfare state – bottom up, not top down.
So ‘earned entitlement’, the balancing of rights and duties, an understanding of mutual responsibility based on self-reliance, are ingrained in the values of those who count themselves to be social democrats.
Above all, in a rapidly changing world where global forces determine so much of our lives, from the elbow room of our elected representatives even to the survival of our planet, rooting what we stand for in the sense of belonging, wellbeing of the people we call our ‘fellow citizens’ and the liberation of talent has to be both common sense and good politics.
Turning this into practical reality that touches the day-to-day lives of those people is the challenge for the politics of the moment.
Our Treasurer Chris Weavers is chairing a policy discussion with Rt Hon David Blunkett MP in Parliament tomorrow, to attend click here.
collective bargaining, history, Labour, mutualism, politics