There’s been much talk about what Ed Miliband should and shouldn’t do lately.
We have heard a cocophony of voices telling him to stand with the left and telling him to stick to the centre, those telling him to be true to himself and those telling him to be whatever the media need him to be.
It really doesn’t matter much what Ed is. What matters is the party he’s leading.
That party has to speak for the majority. It has to be bold and innovative. It has to be compassionate and fair. It has to see the world as it really is. It has to listen, not tell.
The Labour Party exists to speak for the worker. In the mists of time and rhetoric, we used to call that “The working class”. That term is hollow and empty for many in our society today. They do not identify as working class.
But they are nearly all workers.
Sandra has been working for the same pharmaceutical company for 12 years. They are a very well known, affluent company. They make billions in profit. She is paid relatively well for the factory-line night shifts she does. But the company “don’t take on new staff” which for over a decade has been an excuse to keep people like Sandra on temp contracts. She has no guarantee of work from week to week and few employment rights.
Nonetheless, temping for this particular company is seen as one of the best untrained jobs in the town. These are the 21st century workers.
Liam’s 24 and works in a call centre. He earns 13k a year and lives with his parents. He has a 2 minute limit on toilet breaks. He has to raise his hand to leave his desk. He gets half an hour for lunch, yet he regularly works from 8 til 7 to meet his targets. He can’t afford to rent a place of his own . He is a 21st century worker.
Sandy is a cleaner on a zero hours contract with a major supermarket. She has three young children and their Dad died last year. She doesn’t earn enough to pay her bills and fell into debt. The debt is spiralling and she has resorted to pay day loans to get through each month.
Mary is a nurse. She does the job of two nurses, every day on short staffed wards. Her trust is in chaos as it tries to find the “efficiency savings” ordered by George Osborne. She hasn’t had a pay rise for years and her salary is frozen at a 1% rise. Her husband is a teacher and faces similar chaos dealt by government hands over the decades. His salary is frozen too, but they lost their child benefit and their tax credits. They live in London. Neither of them can understand why they earn 70k between them, but they can’t afford to buy shoes for the kids or take a holiday.
These are the 21st century workers.
Jim is a carer. He worked all his life as a bus driver and his wife was a cook, but she has secondary progressive MS and cannot feed herself or walk any more. He has had to stop work to care for her and of course, she is no longer working. They were astonished to be turned down for disability benefits after 73 years of work between them. Like so many, after months of fear and poverty, they won on appeal. Jim works a 90 hour week. It is backbreaking work. He must bathe his wife, clean her, feed her, lift her in and out of bed. He’s 58.
Jim doesn’t get paid at all. But he is definitely a 21st century worker.
Steve was a policeman. He lost his job.
If the Labour Party can define these people as the people they must support, it’s simplicity itself to know what our policies should be. It is almost comical that a “Labour” party might see these erosions of workers rights and not be sure how to defend them!
But the public need to know who they are defending. They need to know that a Labour party sees their struggles and states emphatically that they are no longer acceptable. They need to identify with the people speaking at them and believe that they are the workers they mean. They need reasons to go out and put a cross in a box and the belief that that cross won’t be another total waste of time.
Perhaps it is easier to convince public sector workers that Labour has traditionally been on their side. But Labour today needs to also convince the factory workers and the cleaners and the call centre hamsters and the shop workers and the shelf stackers and the electricians and plumbers and designers that they see their exploitation and will no longer tolerate it.
And the key to it all is for all strands of our politics to embrace this simple reality. It is not “leftie” to defend decent, paid work. It isn’t radical to suggest fair pay for a fair day’s work. I’m fairly convinced we won these battles decades ago.
It is as Blairite as you like to encourage excellence and reward and success. To believe that everyone deserves the best, however that is delivered. We introduced the minimum wage after decades of battles in a Blairite government! And yes, however the press care to report it now, we reduced sickness benefits, lone parent benefits and out of work benefits consistently for the whole time we were in power. Not by cutting and hurting but by helping people to get on. With Sure Start centres and free childcare and Access to Work. With the Disability Discrimination Act and civil partnerships and devolution. Yet we’ve become terrified to say it!
We can run a good economy by using all of our talents, not by watching society “get by” on a daily grudge of making ends meet and austerity, believing that’s all there is. All there’ll ever be. We can build and produce and train and grow our economy on virtue, not the next over-inflated bubble.
A Labour party know all this. Every member, every MP. We know it works and we showed it works
By living under the shadows of 80s past, of militant and strikes, we have become terrified of identifying with anyone at all. It’s ludicrous. We speak for the worker. ALL of the workers. And most people in this country work. The greatest victory of the right wing press has been making left wing governments terrified of talking about workers. A Labour party ashamed to defend labour. Last year, George Osborne announced a scheme to buy people’s employment rights for goodness sake and there was barely a flutter of response. This is what we’ve come to by being ashamed to be who we are.
Very few feel as valued as they should. Very few feel they get to reach their full potential or live a comfortable life. We should identify with all of them. And they should naturally identify with us again.
Labour must engage all of these people and fast. But even faster, they have to give the people something to identify with. To identify themselves with. They are the 21st century workers, but in this 21st century consumer trance and political hiatus, few even realise it any more.