Playing down the record

First published on Progressonline in the Young progressives column

Judging by David Cameron’s performance at PMQs, the union movement must be braced for a forthright attack if the Tories were to win the next general election.

Yesterday at the Unions 21 annual conference there was much debate about the last 13 years and the improvements for working people. A number of comrades at the Compass fringe were in full flow as they attacked Labour for doing too little and playing down the excellent advances that have been made for people at work.

Yesterday – the day of the conference – was the tenth anniversary of statutory recognition brought in by the government. We have also seen the UK sign up to the social chapter, four weeks’ paid holiday plus bank holidays, increased maternity and paternity rights, union recognition at GCHQ and tribunals strengthened. Not to mention the rafts of equality legislation and protection from victimisation for being a trade union member.

Those of my colleagues who play down these achievements do so at their peril. If we as union members make light of these hard-won rights, it will make it that much harder to defend those achievements if an assault comes their way.

One notable contribution at the Unions 21 conference, was regarding the link between the British Conservative party and the Australian Liberal party – both are funded by Ashcroft for starters. The Liberal party’s assault on working people, students and their unions has been relentless. Expect something similar over here if the Tories get elected.

Britain is a radically better place to live, work and prosper in 2010 than it was in 1997. Rights for people at work – for both union members and non-union members – have improved year-on-year. Many of these were won by the trade unions – not through the argument of force but the force of argument. Labour have listened on numerous occasions (admittedly not always) and things have got better.

The irony of the attention that the union movement is getting in the press, and the clearly wrong analysis that affiliate unions dictate terms in the Labour party, is that most affiliates have many pieces of unfinished business. They want a Labour government re-elected to carry on and deliver the policies we are all still waiting for. Many will be thinking, if only we could buy some policy change!

The second irony is that Cameron at PMQs may have done what no Labour person could have achieved – reignited the threat of what a Tory government will bring – ie a return to the 1980s – and send the union bosses into the arms of Brown ready to show a united front on why we need to re-elect a Labour government that will govern in the interests of all working people, not 3000 people waiting for an inheritance tax cut.

The Tories claim Labour is too close to the unions – hardly surprising when Labour was founded by unions and unions remain embedded in the Labour party… but even this doesn’t always mean they get everything they want – far from it.

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Richard Angell is parliamentary and equalities manager for Community Union and a former national chair of Young Labour

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