Putting hope back into Britain

Putting hope back into Britain

26 February 2014

Unite general secretary Len McCluskey's address to Trinity College Politics Society on 26 February 2014

With the economy still stalled and the country still depressed, Britain needs to rediscover optimism about the future – both in terms of policies that can give people a guarantee of jobs and homes, and a vision of a better society.  Len McCluskey explain what both trade unions and students can contribute.

Address by Len McCluskey, Unite general secretary to  Trinity College Politics Society, Cambridge University, Cambridge,  26 February 2014

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Thank you for the invite to Cambridge. I always had an inkling I’d make it here. I welcome this chance to speak to you about some of the longer-range political issues facing our country and the world today. The stuff that lies beyond the day-to-day headlines, although I will have a word to say about a couple of contemporary questions too!

I’m speaking to our leaders – maybe our rulers – of a generation from now. So it’s a privilege to have a chance to shape your impressionable minds (hopefully, you’re still impressionable!). 

Planting a few seeds

I want to use this opportunity to maybe plant a few seeds, which, who knows, may flower years from now and help make our country a better place.

If I’d have spoken here 25 years ago, to your equivalents in the 1980s, I would have been speaking to people - many of them at least – who we now know would have gone on to make a huge heap of money, while helping to drive the economy off a cliff.

That’s not me being too harsh.  The generation of the 1980s imbibed to a large extent the ideology of the time. And if my predecessor Ernie Bevin had spoken to Cambridge students in the 1930s he would have been addressing people who would perhaps have gone off to fight to defend democracy in Spain during the civil war – or who planned the post-war world which emerged from the defeat of fascism.

So let me start with a basic question which should be asked of every young person:  What sort of society do you want to live in? What difference do you want to make to the world?

What sort of society do you want to live in?

Because there’s no doubt that you will make a difference.  You have the background, the education, the life chances to leave your mark on society and on the world.

The choice is, what sort of a difference?

If some of you here just want a big house in the country and to drive a Porsche, then fine.  Good luck.  But for me, that is as cramped a vision as anything one could find on a mythical “Benefits Street”. I would sooner address those who have broader horizons.  How do you want to use your skills, your intelligence, your opportunities, your intellect to change the world?

Of course, there is no one answer to that question.  People can contribute in different ways.  

If you are researching a cure for cancer, or designing the technologies of tomorrow, politics may not seem to matter all that much. But there is no hiding place from the big questions.  We are all, in large measure, interdependent.  What happens on a broader canvass, beyond our immediate specialisms, affects all of us.

So let’s set out some of the problems.  

Defeating fascism

As I mentioned, in the 1930s many students, at Cambridge and elsewhere, saw defeating the menace of fascism as the cause they could devote themselves to – and many took that devotion to the point of sacrificing their lives.

The far-right are still with us today, now as then trying to speculate on the consequences of economic crisis, but the difficulties we face today are different – less stark, happily, but more complicated perhaps.

I would put my central concern this way: We live in a society where over the last generation every institution that stands between the individual and the market has been diminished or stripped away. Trade unions, local government, a public sector in the economy, even the churches – all have been reduced, marginalised or broken up by the onward march of neo-liberal, market-first ideology.

The effect has been to bring into sight the reality of Mrs Thatcher’s famous claim that: “There is no such a thing as society.”

People have been reduced to individual economic actors, each and every one going to the market alone, measured solely by their spending power. In this society-without-a-society, people exist as consumers alone - or maybe investors if you have the resources.

“Producer” is almost a dirty word, as if we could all consume without creating anything first. Of course, if you don’t have an income, or much of one, then you account for little in the marketplace and are treated with scorn in the political and media arena, just like those forced to live on welfare are being treated today.

And as for people as citizens, this has come to be seen as almost a quaint concept, as voter turnout in elections falls and the capacity of communities to exercise any control over their circumstances is stripped away.  

Cynicism steps into the vacuum.

Some will certainly respond by saying – some of that may be true, but at least we live in a more prosperous society, where growth has given most people more choices. Obviously, those arguments would have sounded much better in 2007, before the bankers’ crash, than they do today.  But still they need addressing. 

The more unequal society is, the worse things are

Let me start with inequality.  

There is an abundance of research showing that the more unequal a society is, the worse things are for nearly everyone – health is worse, anti-social behaviour, educational outcomes. Over the last 30 years inequality between the rich and the rest has widened dramatically. The very richest 1 per cent in Britain have as much wealth as 60 per cent of the population. 

We have created an almost medieval elite in our midst - and the trend shows no signs of reversing. The flip side of this coin is that the share of our wealth that is used to pay the wages of workers in Britain is shrinking year by year. 65 per cent of our national income went on workers’ wages when Mrs Thatcher came to power. Today it is just 53 per cent.  

The economists amongst you will tell you this is a dramatic drop. Over the last few years, real wages have been falling for most people in work.  The longest, largest drop since Queen Victoria was on the throne in the 1870s.  

Of course this could only happen in a society where the power of trade unionism, and of collective bargaining – always the best defence against inequality – have been radically reduced. Money follows power, and without redressing that deliberately created imbalance of power in the workplace, by re-empowering workers’ organisations, wage inequality can only widen. That’s why trade union freedoms are critical in any civilised democracy.

Of course, wages are only one measure of our unequal society.  Housing is another. Why, in a society of our wealth and development, is it so hard to offer everyone a decent roof over their head? The answer is that every government in the last 40 years has failed to stimulate the house building that is needed to provide decent homes for Britain’s people.

The failure to build council housing is a national scandal that has negatively impacted on the life chances of, not only, the worst-off in Britain for generations, but also others in society as they seek an independent path in life Over 40 per cent of former council houses are now in private hands and are being rented out at extortionate rents.  So much for the Thatcher revolution which was going to create a home-owning democracy. Spivs and speculators and greedy landlords have swallowed that idea.

'Housing traps' in the private rented sector

All too often people are caught in ‘housing traps’ in the private rented sector without the money needed – for example for a deposit – to move from one property to another. So, it’s good that the Labour party is at last addressing all this, and talking of building one million homes over a parliament, and forcing developers to release land to be built on. It’s not rocket science.  A huge unmet demand for homes.  Unemployed building workers.  And masses of unused building materials.  A five year-old child could join those dots together. It seems that it’s only a neo-liberal economic system that can’t.

Where will the money come from?  Using the billions tied up in pension funds would allay the government’s fear of borrowing and meet businesses' desire to invest – the funds themselves are clamouring for such opportunities.  

And banning the highly-profitable search for tax loopholes by the super-rich – ending tax avoidance in effect – would create a huge stimulus. And let’s give new rights for renters in the private sector – where the UK currently has the most deregulated private rental market in Europe. 

Jobs, homes and hope

Because the point of this, is, if you have a certain prospect of a decent job and a decent home, it gives you a platform for your life. With that security, everyone can start to spread their wings. Contribute to the wider society, plan for the future, deploy their talents.

That’s why I say Britain today needs three things: Jobs – homes – hope. 

And the greatest of these is hope.  The optimism that can infuse a country, that can drive out by degrees fear and cynicism, that can make society much more than the sum of its parts. It springs out of the first two, but it is the hardest to guarantee. 

Roosevelt said that Hoover's Republicans were swept from office in the 1932 election in the midst of the great depression “because in disaster you have held out no hope" 

Remember the song – Land of hope and glory. 

Today we have little of either. What hope is there in a land of food banks?  And what glory when the family of a soldier who has died for their country could be forced from their home by the bedroom tax?

You can’t introduce hope by decree.  And it doesn’t flow automatically out of a pay cheque or bricks and mortar. And some things you can’t determine. To read some newspaper reports you’d think “trade union barons” had the capacity to stop the rain from falling.  If only…

The question of power

But there is one missing element which does reside within the sphere of public policy.  It is the question of power.  There is nothing like being powerless to make you pessimistic. And hope can spring from the knowledge that your views are taken seriously, that you can influence things around you, from the workplace to the government.

We have lost that sense of our power in recent times.  Democracy has withered. As I mentioned earlier, the only recognised power in our system today is the power of the purse.

Indeed, if the free market economy is looked on as an act of God or nature, with which ordinary mortals may not interfere, then what is there left for politicians to do?

What the country needs is a politics that offers choices, where votes make a real difference, and where you do not end up with more of the same whatever the outcome of a general election. 

For too long, that’s been the case.  

I’m not saying that there have been no differences, and it wouldn’t have mattered who won the last general election.  That would be wrong.  But the differences have narrowed enormously.

People are interested in politics

Nor is it the case that people aren’t interested in politics.  

Tell that to the millions who marched against the Iraq war.  Or, more recently, the students who stood up for their rights against tuition fees.  Or UK Uncut, which has done great work in highlighting the tax avoidance by big business which I mentioned earlier – unacceptable at any time, and criminal at a time of austerity.

On all these issues and more, people feel strongly.  They want to make their voices heard, and to shape the national agenda.  But too often they are confronted by a more-or-less united political elite which is bipartisan when the chips are down – voting for the Iraq War, betraying promises on tuition fees and trimming tax policy to the needs of the big corporations.

We need real choices – and politicians who reflect the diversity of public opinion, not the narrow assumptions of the global elite. That’s why I have to suppress a shudder down my spine when I hear talk of a Lib-Lab government after the next general election – another coalition.  

An outright Labour victory

Of course, I don’t know what the result of that election will be.  I’m hoping for an outright Labour victory.  And it’s up to the politicians to deal with the result the British people hand them. But for those of us who believe we need a real alternative and a fresh start, the thought of Nick Clegg standing on the threshold of Downing Street again, with his arm around  Ed Miliband rather than David Cameron, is not one to set the pulse racing.

Because I believe that Clegg does not represent a new kind of politics, but instead the last gasp of the old neo-liberal consensus.  He is an “Orange book” Lib Dem, who swears by the free market and by cuts in social spending. His pitch is – whoever you vote for, you get me.  And he will ally himself with whoever is to hand to keep the country bogged down in    the same failed consensus. 

Ed Miliband is starting to offer the different perspective we need – taking on the energy giants, asking the rich to pay a bit more tax, building homes, tackling inequality. The last thing the country needs is a genuine Labour radicalism filtered through the soggy Lib-Dem sieve.

Labour must be bold

I would hope that under those circumstances, Labour is bold enough to form a minority government, set out its programme, and dare MPs from the failed coalition parties to vote it down  And, if the Tories do – then go to the country again in an election that would offer the starkest choice as to what sort of society we want to be.

Our NHS betrayed

One of the most shameful of the betrayals by this government has been its treatment of the National Health Service. David Cameron vowed to preserve the NHS  intact, with no more unnecessary reforms. He lied – and Nick Clegg, of course, has allowed him to get away with it.  Enough to make any voter cynical about politicians. So we have seen one of this country’s most treasured institutions gutted and sold off. This is not even privatisation by stealth – there is nothing stealthy about it at all.  It is robbery in plain sight. Bit by bit, the NHS is being turned into just another business, like energy or other utilities, run for private profit by those who see gain in pain.

For the Tories and Lib Dems, competition is more important than curing.  Their agenda is to let their business friends make money out of health.

No surprise there since 230 MPs and peers – mostly, but not all Conservatives – have personal interests in private healthcare companies. They include Andrew Lansley, health secretary until recently, whose office has been funded by Care UK; the present health secretary Jeremy Hunt who has taken cash from a US hedge fund with private health care interests, and MP Mark Simmonds who has received £50,000 a year from Circle Health for just 10 hours’ advice a month! No wonder Oliver Letwin, the Cabinet policy chief, once boasted that the NHS would not exist within five years of a Tory election victory. The best of it is; we know that private health care doesn’t work. In the USA an overwhelmingly private health system delivers worse outcomes while spending a greater share of GDP.  But it does make some people very wealthy indeed.

No mandate for NHS changes

And, let’s not forget, no-one voted for this change.  There is no mandate.  No-one voted for health decisions to be handed over to government-appointed Monitors, who recently declared that two cancer surgeries in the West of England could not combine because the care improvements did not outweigh the loss of competition. 

So here is a vital issue which people feel they have lost control of.  They have not been consulted.  In fact, they have been deceived and, when they have protested, they have been ignored. I don’t believe we have any obligation to just stand aside, and wait for the next general election, while this government does its worst.  

Nye Bevan said that the NHS would only exist as long as there are people prepared to fight for it. That is why I am announcing tonight that Unite is launching a new leverage campaign in defence of the NHS.  We will fight for it. Some of you may have heard a bit about “leverage”.  Contrary to what you may have read, it is NOT about turning up outside directors’ houses and demonstrating. It is about putting pressure on employers and others to face up to their corporate and social responsibilities. By saying that there is nowhere to hide if you want to trample over your workforce – or the public.

We will go to your clients and your customers.  We will be there to take the gloss off your PR events. We will talk to the pension funds and financial institutions that hold your stock. In short – you will be accountable.  

And so, in the case of the NHS, will be the politicians that have given the green light      for this attack on our health care. Let me be clear – this will not target health professionals, or premises used by patients, under any circumstances. This is about defending the NHS from the predators, and it is the predators we will target, not in the interests of trade unions, but in the interests of the whole community. What society needs is more community leverage over politicians and business – and I am proud that Unite can give a lead in providing it.

Back to hope

That leads me back to hope. It can’t be delivered in a pre-wrapped package.  It has to grow out of society. A democratic society that offers opportunities for all.  That ensures every citizen decent guarantees of security – and avenues to expand their talents.  And to play their part.

All of you here can be pretty confident that you will have those opportunities.  I do not begrudge you that. All I ask is that you remember that there are many in today’s Britain – let alone today’s world – who do not have those life chances. Happily, you will not be asked to shoulder a rifle and go to Spain to defend democracy.  But I hope you set your sights higher than the loadsamoney generation Whatever your course – do not just take society as it is.  Don’t be content to leave the world as you found it.

It was Karl Marx who said: “Philosophers only interpret the world. The point is to change it”.

You can be the people who renew our economic values.  You can re-invigorate democracy.  You can banish hunger and homelessness.

Those are the causes worthy of Cambridge University students. 

It was John Maynard Keynes – one of your most famous graduates – who famously said “in the long run we are all dead”. So it’s what we do when we aren’t dead that matters.  And whatever you do – make a difference.


Twitter: @unitetheunion Facebook: unitetheunion1

Notes to editors:

  • Unite is Britain and Ireland’s largest trade union with over 1.4 million members working across all sectors of the economy. The general secretary is Len McCluskey.

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