Thursday, October 07, 2010

Healey, 'the squeezed middle', and the challenge to Labour

(Disclaimer: Written in a hurry. Intended to capture an idea rather than make the argument perfectly)

I had an odd reply on twitter recently suggesting that I was involved in a bit of co-ordinated boosterism when I said something supportive of John Healey MP who has done exceptionally well in his bid to join the Shadow Cabinet.

It seems I'm not alone in hoping that he becomes a more prominent and influential member of the Opposition team (Left Foot Forward's Will Straw and Labour List's Anthony Painter have also been noting his finer points. They may all have been co-ordinating each other for all I know, but I wasn't!

I've known John for a long time, and only slightly (he used to say 'no' repeatedly to me when I tried to sell him things in his various Trade Union capacities before he was an MP, - if anything, I should be bearing grudges!). But his view that Labour needs to address a good deal of it's policy focus to the squeezed middle is a useful one for the party to get it's head around for all kinds of reasons.

His particular willingness to pick this up probably does stem from his time at MSF and later at the TUC, as this demographic - one that is over-represented among public sector workers in general and paid-up trades unionists in particular - is electoral low hanging fruit for the party. The messages that Labour will make from within their comfort-zone over the next couple of years are going to have an obvious appeal to these voters, many of whom didn't vote for us last time. A while ago, I outlined one of my hasty ten-point plans for Labour renewal (the things insomnia prompts me to do!) Points 2, 3 and 4 are ones that could be pursued within our comfort-zone - especially with our new fangled anti-NuLab leader!)

But this raises an important question for Labour and its diaspora. I'm in a hurry so I'm going to post two links in lieu of throat clearing:
  1. Chris Dillow on the degree to which political movements skew their definition of social justice to match the demands of powerful minorities
  2. Hopi Sen on the decline of Trades Unions - less in terms of the numbers of members that they claim and more in terms of their claims to represent a broad swathe of working people
And if that isn't enough laziness on my part, I'd like to link to a post written by someone called 'Why Labour's electoral college is the most mature and democratic means of electing a leader.' I think its a very good system and when I get a moment I'll say why. It's very much to the party's credit that it throws this decision open to millions of people who may not be nailed on Labour voters, but who are members of organisations that share the party's commitment to collective action and a degree of economic democracy.

It's only flaw is in Hopi's point about the narrowness of TU members, and this is something that a Labour big-noise with the ear of the Unions needs to be pressing home.

Unions charge about £10 a month for membership. This is a huge generalisation, but bear with me willya? They bundle a series of offerings together with what John Monks used to call 'the magic ingredient of trade unionism.' The thing is, unless you work in a unionised workplace or one where a spot of solidarity can make an obvious difference, it's hard to make the case for an outlay like this. There is a real opportunity to offer a telephone / web only contact service with cut-down access to TU services and commercial offerings priced at (say) £3. TU Lite anyone?

I've worked with some of the biggest Unions and, in my experience, in many cases, their attitude to aggressive recruitment has often ranged from piss-poor to shameful. In recent years, most of their expansionary energy has gone into mergers with a handful of super-unions growing to dominate the TUC.

I've seen plenty of evidence of TU officials resisting potentially effective means of online expansion because (in my opinion) they felt it would threaten the base of professional organisers. And while this is understandable from the organisers I suppose - we're all guilty of budget maximising in our jobs at some time or other - but I've often been surprised at the indifference from senior Trades Unionists about this. In my last workplace a few years ago (12 staff at the time) I had to repeatedly chase the T&GWU to get hold of membership forms.

We eventually got an 'organiser' (!) out to make the case for joining in about the sloppiest way imaginable, and it was almost impossible to get the completed form processed once I'd returned them. (Getting them to respond to any attempt to access 'member services' was no more impressive).

I'd also add that there are very honourable exceptions to this observation, but still....

Until Unions are prepared to re-package their offering in order to expand - perhaps offering lite online flavours of membership with options to join the political fund, they will continue to be confined to a declining base and will be failing in their professed mission to be evangelists for Labour politics.

And until this happens, Labour will be tethered to a section of the electoral college that isn't as legitimate as it could be. It will be losing an opportunity to improve our policy and selection processes. As it happens, it will also potentially be a political hostage to fortune if the Tories manage to make their Red Ed charge stick in any way.

So maybe one or two new members of the Shadow Cabinet will be able to pluck up the courage to go to the Unions and ask them to offer a bit more than the odd cheque as part of their commitment to growing the Labour movement?


Mike said...

Getting them to respond to any attempt to access 'member services' was no more impressive
Maybe it's under-resourcing, but I found Unite to be completely useless when they were most needed, and I've been a member for 20 years. Management bullying was causing colleagues to go on long term stress leave and never return. I unsuccessfully tried to involve the Union for 3 years, attending all monthly branch meetings. All I wanted was to discuss the problem with the Union face-to-face. They wouldn't even return my phone calls. In the end, we were all made redundant.

Mil said...

Interesting you should say that. I heard of a case which involved a big union recently, where the alleged bully was actually the union rep. The situation was judged insoluble by people in the matrix of hierarchy that was the company and union together, and the union member at the sharp end was finally required to give way.

This is obviously an awful exception to what are generally supportive and helpful organisations - but even so, the very fact that it can take place even occasionally unchecked is, I am sure you'll agree, sad.

A cost-orientated approach via the use of technology and a "lite" membership figure is a brilliant idea, though. Anyone want to try?