On April 18, British Prime Minister Theresa May called a surprise election for June 8. The biggest choice facing voters is the selection of who they want negotiating the terms of Britain’s exit from the EU – May and her Conservative Party or Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party. Ben Chacko, the editor of the socialist daily Morning Star, provides commentary on the election in this article, which originally appeared in the German newspaper, Junge Welt.
Britain is approaching what many regard as the most important election for a generation, with lots at stake for our country’s relationship with the European Union, the United States, and the world. The Labour Party trails badly in the polls at the time of writing. Many Labour MPs blame its socialist leader, Jeremy Corbyn, for this.
In Scotland, Labour faces even bigger problems, squeezed between the pro-UK Conservatives and the pro-independence Scottish Nationalists. In the last elections to the Scottish Parliament, the party came third in a country it had dominated as recently as 2010.
Yet, when Corbyn arrived to address the Scottish Trade Union Congress at Aviemore, he got a rockstar reception. Walking onto the stage to thunderous applause, cheers, and wolf whistles, his speech held the audience spellbound and he received a standing ovation at the end – an honor denied to the Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who spoke later the same day.
Why such enthusiasm? To be sure, there was a lot for trade unions to cheer in Corbyn’s speech.
The immediate repeal of the government’s Trade Union Act – which places draconian restrictions on the right to strike – for one. A £10 ($13 USD) minimum wage, which would be life-changing for millions of low-paid workers, for another.
Proposals to use the departure from the European Union to enact procurement policies which would mean any company wanting to receive government contracts would have to recognize trade unions and collective bargaining. Firms that blacklist workers or stash their profits in tax havens would no longer be able to grow fat on taxpayers’ money.
But there’s more to it than that. “Corbyn’s leadership has re-energized people,” argues Ronnie Draper, general secretary of the Bakers, Food, and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU).
The Labour leader is not only promising policies that trade unions have been fighting for “donkeys’ years,” but “there’s an honesty that has been lacking in other Labour leaders – he actually passionately believes in what he’s saying.”
Before he was leading the party, Corbyn was well known to the most militant sections of the trade union movement.
“He was already involved in our £10-an-hour campaign, and the campaign around McDonald’s,” says Draper, whose union has been fighting hard – and with considerable success – to organize fast food workers and win them better pay.
And in contrast to previous Labour leaders who shunned the politics of the street, Draper remembers Corbyn helping to leaflet outside McDonald’s as part of the campaign – characteristic behavior from a man who stands unashamedly on picket lines, marches alongside protesters against war and racism, and offers solidarity to workers on strike more used to embarrassment or outright condemnation from his Labour predecessors.
“He’s the leader I’ve been waiting all my political life for,” says Draper. “He reflects everything I want to see in a leader.”
Corbyn’s ambitious program would tackle many of the biggest issues facing Britain, especially the precariousness of work for millions who cannot get secure jobs but labor instead on zero-hours contracts.
Draper believes this has lessons for the movement itself. “We too need to return to some of our old values, remember that the rights we have today we got through fighting for them – against the furious hostility of the bosses. We need to recapture that spirit.”
It makes it all the more important that trade unionists across Britain throw themselves into the fight to elect a Labour government, whatever the seeming odds against our doing so.
But if that fight fails, will it all have been a waste? Manuel Cortes, leader of the TSSA rail union, doesn’t think so.
“What is so critical about this election is that Labour are offering a clear alternative to the Conservatives for the first time in more than three decades of neoliberal consensus,” he argues.
“A Labour victory on the program Jeremy is setting out would lead to a new economic settlement.”
Cortes accepts that opposition to Corbyn within the party is strong, but he believes that “the anti-austerity message is now accepted by the majority within Labour.
“There’s a consensus around the public ownership of the railways, which is especially important for my union and the other rail unions. We’ve campaigned long and hard for this to be Labour Party policy. Ed Miliband, to be fair to him, went some way towards reviving the idea of public ownership but with Jeremy it’s unequivocal. And beyond the railways there’s everything around restoring trade union rights. Jeremy’s policies are absolutely in tune with the aspirations of our union.”
Cortes holds that Labour now realizes Britain needs a new kind of economy, where marketization and privatization are no longer the answers and the race to the bottom on pay is ended.
“I hope Jeremy Corbyn will be prime minister,” he says. “But even if he fails, he has changed the Labour Party.
“We can’t go back to a position where the only show in town is neoliberalism. Anyone who comes after him will have to fight for the leadership on the basis of economic policies that defy and challenge the Establishment. But don’t get me wrong – I want Jeremy to lead the Labour Party for a long time yet.”
Corbyn is not universally popular even within the trade unions.
But a Labour leader who is unashamedly a trade unionist has certainly kindled a fighting spirit in the labour movement – and that, given the systemic crisis that still grips Britain, Europe, and beyond, is sorely needed.