Speaking at the annual Durham Miners’ Gala today, TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said that while unions’ links with political parties have barely been out of the headlines in recent days, it is unions who are best-placed to start to make politics real and relevant again for millions of ordinary working people.
‘The past few weeks have been a tumultuous time for unions. Some members of the government seem to think attacking democratic unions is clever but they risk alienating millions of ordinary union members in the electorate.
‘But while our opponents have been trying to dish the dirt, it’s worth remembering that when it comes to the funding of political parties, union political donations are the cleanest in British politics.
‘Let’s not forget that the Conservatives source most of their funding from City banks, hedge funds and big business. Donors like two of the shareholders behind Circle Healthcare, the company which last year was awarded a £1.2 billion contract to run an NHS hospital – Hinchingbrooke in Cambridgeshire. Meanwhile, the government is planning further privatisation of the NHS. That’s the real scandal people should be talking about.
‘But the UK political system needs a better representation of ordinary working people, not less involvement. Our democracy is flagging and is in desperate need of revival. People are fed up with a Westminster clique that seems completely detached from their lives.
‘All the mainstream political parties are struggling to attract members. Voters feel disengaged from a political process which many feel no longer listens to their views. While they struggle to cope with the biggest squeeze on their incomes in a century, many believe politicians simply don’t understand how tough life has become in the real world.
‘But our democracy could indeed be stronger and more vibrant if our parliamentary ranks included more bus drivers, cleaners, engineers, nurses, teachers, car workers and miners. And as a grassroots movement of ordinary workers, unions are uniquely placed to make this happen.
‘But that’s not what our political opponents want. They don’t want to see union members sitting in Parliament and are also inclined to see unions as an inconvenient burden on business, believing bosses should have the right to manage and employees shouldn’t have a proper voice at work.
‘And as if that’s not enough, the same individuals who have been laying into unions are also relentlessly attacking the living standards of millions of working people and their families, seemingly blind to the austerity which is hurting so many.
‘For millions of people in Britain today, life is a desperate struggle to make ends meet. As the TUC’s Austerity Uncovered bus tour recently revealed, ordinary people are suffering. What little work is available is often insecure and won’t pay the bills, the bedroom tax is ripping families’ lives apart, many in our communities are forced to rely upon food banks, and the lifelines that so many depend upon are being heartlessly withdrawn.
‘Nowhere is the harsh reality of the government’s punishing economic policies starker than here in the North East. This is a region being savaged by the cuts, with 65,000 public sector workers – nurses, dinner ladies, classroom assistants – losing their jobs. These redundancies will mean a huge reduction in the spending power of thousands of local households. And high streets across the North East will pay the price as families rein in their spending.
‘The wages here are the lowest anywhere in England, leaving North East workers struggling to get by. If wages had kept pace with prices since this government came to power, full-time workers in the North East would now be almost £2,000 a year better off. The North East is long overdue a pay rise and so is the rest of Britain.’