Bill Shankly, the late, great manager of Liverpool Football Club, on hearing about the introduction of a new offside rule that said a player isn’t offside unless he’s interfering with play, famously said,
If a player is not interfering with play or seeking to gain an advantage, then he should be.
A pithy Scot, Bill Shankly, with a way of cutting through BS and getting to the point. I’ve been thinking about him whenever I’ve listened to the furore on the media – and the braying of David Cameron and his cronies in the Commons – about the supposed transgression of Unite the Union in trying to influence the selection of a by-election candidate in Falkirk, and whenever I hear the Tories sneering that Labour is ‘owned by the unions’.
You see, in my opinion, if Unite (or any union) is not trying to influence which Labour candidates are selected, then they’re not doing their job properly. The whole faux-outrage about it is just another Tory-led media attempt to smear the Labour party, and it’s a massive case of ‘much ado about nothing’.
We live, tragically, in a society and an age in which the odds are stacked against ordinary people having any meaningful influence on the course of events and policy. Corporations pay millions of pounds into Conservative party coffers, employ ministers in meaningless posts as a backdoor way of buying influence, and own most of the media in order to try to tell us what we think and to turn the well-off against the poor, and even the poor against the poorer. If you’re in any doubt about how that works, read this.
In this context, you and I have few avenues for trying to spread a different vision, or even to defend ourselves against the predations of the powerful and conscienceless who pull far more strings than they should in any sane world. Social media is one, and I believe a vital one. Unions are another – even though they’re not the force they were before their evisceration by Margaret Thatcher.
This is where Cameron makes a miscalculation in his sneering, though. He makes the mistake of thinking most people must view unions with the same contempt and disdain that he and his privileged pals do. Most people aren’t stupid (though it has to be said there are still too many who are), and they know that the unions are not some eminence grise pulling strings behind the scenes – no, that’s how the Tory party works. Unions are a greatly weakened but still essential defence for ordinary people against the whims of their ‘betters’. They’re not capable of holding Labour under ‘tyranny’, as one Tory MP ludicrously termed it.
With their guffawing disdain, the Tories are simply preaching to their own choir. The only people who’d buy a crock of bull manure like that are their own backbenchers and those who are going to vote Tory anyway – or possibly UKIP. But if his hope is to win back defectors to UKIP, it’s a forlorn one. Farage is so much better at the ‘sneering everyman’ act, even though as a former financier he’s no more ‘everyman’ than Eton-educated Cameron, and those prepared to be fooled by Farage aren’t going to want to accept the ‘lite’ version. Cameron might have appealed to some Sun readers with his pathetic attempt at character assassination, but they’re hardly going to vote Labour anyway.
Ordinary people, those being shafted on a daily basis by people they see getting ever richer and more remote, are not going to be fooled. Unite represents over 1.4 million working people, and union membership in the UK is still around 7 million. About 23% of adults in the UK belong to a union, and if you add in all their family members and friends, the vast majority of people in this country have links to unions and know that they’re not a force for ill, let alone ‘tyranny’.
This broad-based mandate – which outstrips by light-years any claim to legitimate authority that David Cameron and the Tory party might scrape together – is a Good Thing, and we should be trumpeting it. Ed Miliband did a decent job in the Commons of pointing out that being backed, or even influenced, by the unions is a far better, cleaner, more decent thing than being bought and owned by small cadres of rich and selfish people. But he didn’t go far enough. His attempt to distance himself from the unions and position himself to appeal to White Van Man and the city is as misguided and pointless as Cameron’s preaching to his own choir.
Most British people, in most of the country, are still grateful for the unions – just as we’re still grateful for nurses, doctors, teachers, the NHS and our public sector workers. I want my union to be doing everything it can to influence the selection of Labour MPs – or of any other party, for that matter. It’s what they’re there for.
We need people with a different vision, and with the interests of ordinary people genuinely at hear, as our candidates and MPs. The corporations and the wealthy will be doing everything they can to influence the ‘game’ in their favour, and we need our representatives to be no less diligent, creative and determined.
And we need our leaders – political and union – to embrace that, show pride in doing everything they can to help the disadvantaged, and attack head on, in the clearest terms, the pathetic false construct of government and media that says its undemocratic (and leaves unspoken the facts of how influence is purchased by the right). If they’re not, then they should be.