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The 'Britain Needs a Pay Rise' March Should Have Been a Bigger Deal

People are getting poorer, but protests are getting smaller.

by Aaron Bastani, Photos: Adam Barnett
20 October 2014, 5:00am

On Saturday tens of thousands of people went on a Trade Union Congress (TUC) organised march through the streets of central London, Belfast and Glasgow under the banner, "Britain Needs a Pay Rise". It was much smaller TUC demo in March 2011, even though things have got worse for Britain's impoverished workers since then.

Those who went were drawn by a range of grievances, including not only low pay, but also cuts to public services and high inflation for the things that really matter like energy, food and rent. Unlike other protests that have happened since 2010 - which placed greater emphasis on cuts to public services - the TUC chose to focus on low pay this time round. When you look at the statistics it is easy to see why. What's more difficult to understand is why Saturday's march wasn't a bigger deal.

Last year the Rowntree Foundation revealed that over half of the 13 million people living below the poverty line, some 6.7 million, are in "working families" - an increase of 500,000 on the year before. That massive increase means that for the first time the majority of those in poverty are also in work. One in three Londoners live in poverty, two-thirds of whom have jobs. But they're trapped in the world's most expensive city because it's one of the few places that people can find work. Only inner London has returned to pre-recession levels of job creation. 

Given all of that, the TUC - an organisation with over six million members - was able attract between 80,000 to 90,000 to march in London. That sounds like quite a lot, but they got half a million to march in March 2011. Back then things were, relatively speaking, less bad for the poor. So why have expressions of collective frustration declined while the experience of collective misery has grown?

One answer is the absence of any meaningful messages to get behind. While there were various groups on the march with different levels of coherence to their politics, the official message of the protest - "Britain Needs a Pay Rise" - was an example of a message that doesn't really work. While it's true that the vast majority of us have seen pay decline since 2010 there are many who are doing exceptionally well out of austerity. "Britain" doesn't need a pay-rise. Britain includes people on the Sunday Times rich list, and they're richer than ever before. It's the working class that needs a pay rise.

Last Monday it was revealed that the bosses of Britain's one hundred largest companies had seen seen their earnings increase by 21 percent in the twelve months to June. So what's wrong with that? Well, that increase is part of a broader story that goes back over a decade. At the turn of the millennium that same group of top brass earned 47 times more than an average full-time employee. By the middle of this year that ratio stood at 120 times more. One part of British society is getting richer for the simple reason that they're not paying the other part enough.

The call of "Britain Needs a Payrise" ignores that reality. That demonstrates a problem with the Labour Party and the unions. While they say they're acting on the behalf of "working people", they don't want to talk about capitalism. That means they come up short in terms of having big ideas that people can get on board with.

Whatever you think of UKIP, it has a really clear message about hating on the EU and immigrants. The Tories are totally unequivocal in their condemnation of Labour's running of the economy. Labour and the unions just have weak notions that things should be a bit less unfair, please. Labour blames the nasty Tories, but fail to spell out what they would do differently, because they would do very little differently. That means that "shows of strength" - like yesterday - are little more than choreographed exercises in impotence. Or, "being made to look a fucking mug" as one trade union member friend succinctly put it. 

Much of the leadership of the trade union movement looks and sounds like an appendage of the Labour Party, and their main plan seems to be to help Labour win a general election victory next May. Which is weird because Labour looks set to continue with austerity if it does win. This uneasy alliance leads to some bizarre contradictions. It was only last month that Frances O'Grady, the General Secretary of the low wage hating TUC, welcomed Ed Miliband's proposal of increasing the minimum wage to £8 an hour by 2020. That measure, if implemented, would barely keep it in line with inflation and it would still be a poverty wage. It's not easy to get behind something when the organisers aren't precisely sure of what they want themselves.

What's more, there's no particular reason for the unions to back Labour and keep giving them their money. Why should the unions - a well-funded set of organisations with millions of members - stick with Labour - a bankrupt organisation with little more than a 100,000 activists? The answer seems to be more about ideology than getting union members what they want. If Labour do win in 2015, and keep on with austerity, things might finally change and others might follow the lead of the RMT and PCS unions in cutting ties and funding.

Until that happens, their continuing support is all the more weird because people across the UK have had enough of the Labour party. That is evident in Scotland with the rise of the SNP, and the momentum of the "Yes" vote for independence (Labour backed "No"). It's also slowly happening elsewhere with the emergence of UKIP, an organisation not only gaining lapsed Conservatives, but also blue-collar Labour voters who lost faith in the party during the last 20 years.

Perhaps the defining moment of Saturday's march was when the Focus E15 mums, a group of mums protesting against the housing crisis in East London, started shouting at a group of people ahead of them holding a Labour Party banner. That wasn't pointless sectarianism. It was an expression of the fact that in Stratford, the Labour Party have never been on the side of the campaigning mums. The Labour mayor of Newham, Sir Robin Wales, has recently dismissed them as a "bunch of Trots" and described them as "despicable". In March, Wales was part of an all-expenses paid delegation sent by Newham council to Cannes for a property fair. He is currently being investigated by the council for misconduct as a result of his behaviour towards the Mums. If anyone sums up the sheer hostility that the top layer of the Labour Party has for "ordinary people", it's Sir Robin.

Britain's political institutions have never looked so weak. In the 1950s the Conservative Party had three million members, now it has fewer than 100,000 whose average age is 68. Rather than offering an alternative and capitalising on that situation, the trade union movement looks like just another dying old part of British public life.

If the TUC were as fierce on pay as Nigel Farage is on Romanians, I bet it would see half a million coming to protests, as was the case in March 2011, rather than tens of thousands. More importantly it would be gaining members rather than losing them. It can't because of its ties with a Labour Party whose own politics are to the right of not only trade union memberships, but increasingly much of the British public.

The British Labour movement seems determined to always do what it has always done, to keep what it has always had. That has meant defeat ever since the 1980s. Maybe it's time for something different.

@AaronBastani / @adambarnettDOP

More stuff about this kind of stuff:

Ed Miliband's Big Minimum Wage Pay Rise Is Actually Pretty Small

Boris Johnson and His Luxury Housing Lobbyist Bedfellows

Visiting UKIP-Town