It is impossible to put a precise date on the moment the British trade union movement set itself on a trajectory that would eventually result in a rupture between itself and a significant portion of the working-class, but 6 September 1988 must rank as a contender. That was the day when a certain Jacques Delors, then president of the European Commission, swept into Bournemouth and delivered a love letter to delegates attending the TUC’s Annual Congress.
Delors’ address has gone down in the annals of trade union history. Cowed by Thatcher, weakened by deindustrialisation and with membership falling and influence waning, it was a case, for many trade unionists, of any port in a storm.
And in a speech peppered with push-button talk of the ‘social dimension’ of the EEC (as it then was) – how by ‘pooling resources’ its member states would fight the scourge of unemployment, deliver improved workers’ rights, extend collective bargaining and invest billions in areas suffering industrial decline – Delors managed to convince the bulk of a once sceptical movement to fall in behind his vision.
For some, the love affair between the representatives of British workers and a remote, supranational, explicitly anti-socialist institution stood as something of a mystery. But the relationship should be seen in the context not only of the wider Left’s tribulations around that time, but also its rejection of the old Bennite cause of greater democracy as a central feature of national and economic independence, and in its place its embrace of a more liberal, globalist, cosmopolitan agenda.
What is more of a mystery is that the affair has endured in spite of Delors’ vision turning into an utter nightmare – unemployment is rife throughout the EU area, the monetary union has failed, old tensions have been the rekindled and neoliberal economics is entrenched.
That trade union leaders who stand against austerity, privatisation, the predominance of market forces and unaccountable political and corporate power continue to rally to the flag of an institution at whose core these things are embedded remains, for some of us in the movement, a source of great frustration.
TUC leader Frances O’Grady can regularly be heard demanding the UK stay hitched to the Single Market. This, she says, is the only way to guarantee workers’ rights. But not only does such an argument devalue the historical role played by trade unions in winning advances for workers, it spreads pessimism about what might be achieved outside of the EU in the future. It might also lead some to question the very point of joining a trade union in the first place.
The TUC’s exhortations on this should be taken with a pinch of salt. We shouldn’t forget that, back in the day, it was among the loudest cheerleaders in favour of the UK joining the Euro, warning that investment, jobs, trade and living standards would suffer if we stayed out. It couldn’t have been more wrong.
Despite the working-class playing a significant role in the Brexit vote (59% of voters who perceive themselves as working-class voted Leave, and Leave won greater support in areas with lower levels of income, education and skills), the TUC has all but backed a second referendum – raising the almost comical prospect of the voice of British workers going around the country telling British workers they are wrong.
Its stance over Brexit is, of course, indicative of the movement’s increasing estrangement from the working-class, particularly in those former industrial heartlands where the nostrums of the metropolitan liberal elite have little traction, and something resembling a traditional working-class culture still endures. Tragically, the trade union movement is largely absent from these communities and thus commands no loyalty among their inhabitants. Worse, large parts of the movement’s leadership see these people as a different breed: a mob to be kept in check, their rougher edges smoothed, their ‘reactionary’ working-class views tempered.
It is this mindset which has meant that, despite the TUC having a history of pledging solidarity to internationalist causes and movements, it has uttered not a word and lifted not a finger in support of the gilets jaunes in France. These magnificent protests – an explosion of genuine working-class anger, a guttural roar against an arrogant, detached establishment, enjoying massive support from workers across urban and rural France (and beyond) – have generated not a syllable of support from the representatives of British workers just a few miles across the Channel.
Why so? Because unlike in, say, Venezuela or Colombia or Cuba or Palestine, the gilets jaunes are the wrong type of anti-establishment protestor. Like those who voted for Brexit, they are just a bit too working-class, too earthy and ‘populist’. Their unrefined views don’t accord with the pro-EU, liberal cosmopolitan agenda, so they must be kept at arm’s length.
And this sums the British trade union movement up. Like the wider Left, it doesn’t do working-class revolts any more. Not real ones. Especially if they are a bit too close to home. Protests will be embraced only if they are fashionable. So while the Soixante-Huitards are still talked about in reverential tones among the British Left, the gilets jaunes are dumped in the basket of deplorables with Brexit voters. God forbid a serious yellow vest movement emerges in Britain. Then the TUC’s priorities would be tested.
Through Brexit, an accidental alliance has emerged between two groups alienated by the modern liberal establishment and holding fast to old-fashioned communitarian, small ‘c’ conservative values: on the one hand the working-class post-industrial towns, and on the other middle-class suburbia. It’s what the commentator David Goodhart has perceptively identified as the ‘Gavin and Stacey’ coalition, an “illustration of a benign independent-mindedness and pride in place that infuses two Brexit heartlands: Essex and ex-industrial South Wales”.
The trade union movement, like the Labour party and wider Left, must, if it is to recover its lost influence, strive every day to win the hearts and minds of these communities.
Less Islington and Camden. More Barry Island and Billericay, please.