STEPHANIE RODGERS IS RIGHT. It is impossible to build a mass movement for progressive change by ignoring or rejecting, “issues faced by the majority of people in society.” In fact, a movement in which demands for action on these issues are not thrust forward constantly is, almost certainly, not a progressive movement at all.
The longing for emancipation, like lightning, cannot be caught in a bottle. It is as wild and dangerous as it is beautiful and brilliant – and it will not be gainsaid. Nor should it be, because the quest for social progress is about nothing if it is not about creating a world in which an ever-increasing number of people are free to live happy, rewarding and fulfilling lives.
The past successes of the Left owe almost everything to honouring the emancipatory impulse, and its failures are almost all attributable to the fear generated by emancipation’s disruptive effects. Where this fear takes hold, it typically manifests itself in attempts to narrow the movement’s objectives; manage its members’ expectations; and strictly control their conduct.
Nowhere is this narrowing, managing and controlling strategy more in evidence than in the trade union movement. Even in “the glory days of compulsory unionism” it was, more often than not, the standard operating procedure of organised labour.
It’s years ago now, back when I was a young union official, but I can still remember the extraordinary speech delivered by a regular rank-and-file delegate to his union’s annual wage negotiations. He passionately condemned year-upon-year of compromise and surrender by the union’s leadership, and ended by thumping his clenched fist on the bargaining table, and shouting: “I say we FIGHT!” The impact of his words on the other rank-and-filers was electric, and the union’s paid officials all looked to me, a fellow bureaucrat, to break the delegate’s spell, lower the members’ expectations, and generally calm the whole discussion down. When I said simply, “I have nothing to add to _____’s contribution”, my colleagues were aghast. The vote was to strike, and the strike was won, but I was never again invited to join the inner-sanctum of official union negotiators.
It was only when the unions were prevailed upon to widen the scope of their concerns that their enormous progressive potential was revealed. Not only did Sonja Davies’ championing of the Working Women’s Charter open up the whole issue of the role and status of women in the trade union movement, but it also forced male trade unionists to think about how women were treated in society generally.
In a movement peopled by “hard men” and “militants” this was a challenging proposition. Was the bloke so quick with his fists on the picket line equally pugilistic on the home front? What did it mean that his wife was more frightened of him than any scab? And why, when the bosses’ advocates told such awful sexist jokes in the hotel bar after a deal had been signed, did so many of the union delegates join in the laughter? When the debate was about working-class sexism and homophobia, that old union standard “Which Side Are You On?” took on a new and unsettling meaning.
Through the 1980s and into the early 1990s the debates raged. More and more women began taking the lead in union affairs; more and more issues were making their way onto the agendas of union conferences. Over six years, the Fourth Labour Government’s Trade Union Education Authority trained thousands of union delegates. For decades the labour movement had limited its purview to “bread and butter issues” – no more. Workers needed little encouragement to begin thinking of their movement as something much more than simply a provider of “bread and butter”.
Just how ready they were to assert that wider view of workers’ – and human – rights was demonstrated at the end of 1990 when National’s Bill Birch introduced the Employment Contracts Bill. In a curious way, the ECB’s objectives weren’t that far removed from those of the old-style unionists: to narrow, manage and control. (All the legislation did was cut out the union middle men!) The Council of Trade Union’s affiliated members were having none of it. In the first four months of the following year scores of thousands of them marched and met and voted and declared: “I say we FIGHT!”
Would that their officials had learned as much about democracy and emancipation as they had! A union friend of mine once observed of the Moscow-aligned communists in the Socialist Unity Party: “They’d rather keep control of the losing side, than lose control of the winning side.” Never was that more true than in April 1991! Ignoring the wishes of their rank-and-file members, the leaders of the largest CTU affiliates voted down (by a narrow majority) the motion to call a General Strike against the ECB.
Narrowing, managing, controlling: isn’t that the story of the last thirty years? And isn’t the need for a movement driven by the emancipatory principle greater now than it has ever been? We have seen our lives narrowed, managed and controlled to the point where even the idea of rebellion now seems implausible, impossible, absurd. But an authentic human identity is only available to those who insist on being something more than the means to someone else’s end. Who we are now, and what we may yet become: both conditions drive us forward. In this respect, “progressive politics” and “identity politics” are one and the same.
If, in our “left-wing movement”, it’s become a sin to struggle for anything more than just “bread and butter”, then I, for one, range myself proudly on the side of the sinners.
“I say we FIGHT!”