Brexit blues and polling problems

In this edition, we have invited the union affiliates to our sister organisation, the Jimmy Reid Foundation, to contribute articles on the issues and challenges facing them and their members. While there are obvious differences between the issues and challenges facing one union compared to others, there are also similarities. So the FBU in Scotland is currently seeking to get the process of the harmonisation of terms and conditions from eight fire and rescue services into one completed before engaging in negotiations on the enlargement of the role of the frontline firefighter. Meantime, the EIS is facing off plans to giving even more power to headteachers and organising to get a pay rise that constitutes restitution for years of austerity. And, the TSSA in particular has opposed the merging of the British Transport Police into Police Scotland. In the background to these are Westminster austerity and Holyrood managerialism. The Scottish Government is still hemmed in by the legacy of austerity prior to the increase in new tax raising powers (via the Scotland Act 2016) as well as by continuing austerity through the Barnett formula (despite the Scotland Act 2016). Yet the SNP has chosen to respond in a certain way to deal with these pressures, essentially through increasing centralisation and managerialisation. The belief, on its part, has been that ‘better’ and ‘tighter’ management can deliver cost savings and efficiency gains which can offset the fall in real terms funding. Not only have the cost savings not been sufficient to offset the cuts but the new style and form of management has come with costs too – it is less accountable, transparent and responsible with a technocratic view that it and only it knows best about how to run an organisation.

Brexit continues to mesmerise politics in Scotland and Britain. Fundamentally, the talks between Britain and the EU about the negotiation of capitalist terms of secession and re-engagement where the governing party in Britain is committed to leaving but not committed to exactly what form of new relationship to enter into. This is because the referendum in 2016 could not and did not determine what the alternative to EU membership was – precisely because it could be so many and varied outcomes (with ‘leavers’ voting to leave for a host of different reasons); the Tories are split over the issue so are subject to their own processes of internal negotiation; and even if there was a settled will of what Brexit should mean, there is the no small matter that this is a process of negotiation with external partners – the EU and then other trading blocks and countries. But regardless of this, there are some things becoming clearer as time goes on such as the desire of many Tories to see our lightly regulated labour market deregulated even further. The SNP continues to try to make hay for the cause of independence by seeking to protect ‘Scotland’ from Brexit – hence the rammy over legislative consent and the issue of the power grab of returned powers from Brussels. But it remains to be seen how effective this strategy will be. On Brexit, Labour has been in a something of a mess too. It says it accepts the result of the referendum, that Brexit means leaving the customs union and single market, and that it wants a ‘jobs first’ Brexit. Now, it is in favour of a policy of Britain being part of a customs union.

There are a number of problems with ‘jobs first’ and these can be first be seen by this position being essentially the same as that of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI). The CBI wants as little disruption to as possible – and as much stability and continuity as possible in – the conditions for creating profits – hence its approval of Labour’s support for a customs union. But it masks this in a populist language of jobs and investment – and shows no concern for the quality and conditions of those jobs. Labour’s policy has so far been insufficiently developed so it can easily cede ground to the likes of the CBI. But even if this was not the case, Labour has not done much to argue that under Brexit it would use the new found freedom to right a number of wrongs – from employment rights to public ownership. It has these policies, but it does not often make the link to Brexit. It must do much more to make these links. Now, of course, there are other arguments on the left about Brexit, ranging from it being a looming disaster to it not turning out to be as bad as expected. One of the emerging arguments is that there should be a referendum on the terms of exit, with the possibility of rejection of those terms meaning no Brexit – or certainly a delayed one – and a fresh referendum on EU membership. These are thorny issues for Labour and the left to deal with.

They are ever the more so when Labour is not in the commanding political position it should be. Consider the mess the NHS is in, May’s refusal to use the state or legislation to curb the likes of Carillion or her evident woodenness. Polls from the mid-2017 onwards have seen Labour’s lead slide into sometimes poll leads for the Tories. Labour should be miles ahead of the Tories if it is to take the keys to No 10 Downing Street anytime soon. Recall the situation in the run up to the 1997 general election – after snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, the Tories were on the ropes, stumbling from one crisis to another as the ‘green shoots’ of economy recovery did finally emerge but not to John Major’s benefit. The problem for Corbyn and Labour runs deeper than the absence of poll leads suggest. This is because within Labour there are two dominant, related views – that a Labour victory requires only one more heave, and that a general election is imminent. One more heave won’t work if Labour is not in a commanding poll position. Labour’s policies are, on the whole, saying the right things on public ownership, the City, housing etc but Labour often lacks the killer instinct when confronting the Tories. Too often the Tories get off lightly. Whether led by Theresa May or not, the Tories are going to prove more resilient than expected, if for no other reason than that the DUP would rather see hell freeze over than Corbyn and McDonnell in Numbers 10 and 11 Downing Street respectively. The same is true in Scotland. Labour has experienced some unforced errors (like over its alternative budget) while the SNP is toiling despite getting its budget passed. The SNP appears increasingly irritated by criticism in this situation and does not look forward to another election for its depute position – which is ironic as the post has no formal or actual influence.

This year, as every other year, International Women’s Day falls on 8 March. The experience of the union movement – and the progressives fighting within it – tells us that the campaigns against sexism and misogyny in the media and entertainment industries will take more than black garments and white flowers to build into an unstoppable force. And, class is not recognised in this equation. Much more media time has been given over to the battle by well-paid women broadcasters in the BBC to gain pay equality with their male counterparts than the longstanding and difficult struggle by a heavily feminised workforce at the Picturehouse cinema chain to gain the (independent) living wage.

Erratum- In the November-December 2017 edition, an oversight occurred in the film review of Belonging: The Truth Behind the Headlines.  The review stated that: ‘Morag openly spoke of the fact that having worked at Grangemouth refinery in the past …’ when in fact Morag (Livingstone, the film’s director) worked in the oil industry in general and not at the Grangemouth refinery in particular.

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