“We need to reshape society”

Maria Exall, an activist in the Communication Workers’ Union’s Greater London Combined telecoms branch and Vice-Chair of Labour Unions (the Labour Party-union link organisation), spoke to us.

How should the labour movement be responding to the Covid-19 crisis?

The immediate issues for the labour movement are the same as the issues for the wider working class and the whole country – the lack of PPE for people to do their jobs, problems with safety at work and elsewhere, the threat to the NHS, and so on. These are issues for workers, for their families and friends and wider society. There’s the question about when and how we should get out of the lockdown. But then there’s the wider questions of how the economy will look as we emerge from the crisis. There’s going to be the threat of mass unemployment, with the collapse of whole sectors.

The big challenge for the labour movement is not to go for the lowest common denominator but be far more ambitious – on creating socially useful jobs, including green jobs, with strong workers’ rights; on tackling inequality; on having a welfare system that is genuinely supportive not punitive; on rebuilding public services in a comprehensive and democratic form. It’s obvious to many what the problems are, but the question is can the labour movement take the initiative with radical solutions?

The care sector highlights the problems we face, unable to deliver decent standards for the people it looks after or for the huge number of workers it employs. If we don’t campaign for public ownership and strict standards across the sector then we are simply not rising to the challenge.

The government had no choice but to support workers’ incomes to some degree or the economy would have collapsed immediately, like bailing out the banks in 2008. The issue is we should be putting conditions, including in terms of taking public ownership or public stakes, and looking at that on a sectoral basis and not just individual companies.

In my industry, telecoms, the absurdity of private ownership is shown by the fact that the regulator expects all the firms to compete, but now in this crisis they have suspended that and are trying to work together cooperatively to desperately provide the service people need. That’s true in many sectors of the economy. Integrated and democratic public ownership is the logical conclusion. It’s not a retro idea, it’s the modern and progressive one.

TUC Congress passed policy for public ownership of the banks, but the unions are not campaigning on it. Now is the time. We should totally reject the idea that banking and finance are somehow unnecessary – we can see that now with the problems about restarting the economy, about loans to small businesses and many other issues. The problem is they are run according to neo-liberal principles and policies, with zero public accountability. If we can integrate this case into a wider argument about reformulating the kind of economy we have it can win support. But to win the argument the labour movement needs to make it.

We need to take the widespread feelings floating around about cooperation and solidarity – which you see in people respecting distancing and things like Clap for Carers – and infuse that with labour movement and socialist values; and bring in concrete demands about reshaping society.

What challenges is the pandemic posing for unions on the ground?

In order to keep running key services – including telecoms – employers and managers obviously rely on key workers. That potentially gives workers quite a lot of power in the workplace, because it’s very difficult for management to push too far.

On the other hand there are all kinds of pressures, psychological and political as well as practical and physical, for workers not to take action. It is difficult in the emergency situation, but we should be optimistic that the case for workplace justice is actually even stronger now and has got more public support – as in the Royal Mail dispute, though it’s currently suspended. In that case the ball is in the employers’ court, but we are continuing to put pressure on.

Workers are organising. In telecoms we’ve had many groups of workers in companies where we don’t have recognition or a previous strong base getting together and collectivising themselves so they can talk about things they are being expected to do – and getting in touch with the union.

There’s a contradictory situation in that there are major threats to the union organisation we have, but on the other hand some workers are imposing a kind of rough workers’ control over at least aspects of production.

I hope that many more workers will see the value of sticking together, see unions as a force that is organising for safety and organising to push the government, and that this will lead to recruitment. But unions and union activists have to take the opportunity.

In terms of threats, the organisations that run balloting for industrial action have suspended operations, so in effect the legal right to strike is gone. But we’ve seen various groups of workers take unofficial action over safety and their rights in the crisis…

Regardless of the legal situation, people need to organise unofficially at workplace level to exert pressure. In some ways employers are in a vulnerable situation, because of their heightened reliance on particular workers and because of public exposure.

Even if there were ballots, if someone says hang on there’s an issue with PPE or whatever, you can’t have a lengthy process. You need the ability to walk out pretty much straight away. Workers can do that unofficially, but also unions should be using health and safety law, which allows walkouts legally in this kind of situation. The whole thing depends on strong organisation on the ground that can make management feel underconfident, so we need to step that up.

More broadly, of course, it reraises the political question of the anti-union laws and campaigning to abolish all those restrictions.

What’s your assessment of the Labour leadership outcome and developments since? What should the left be organising around now?

Keir Starmer has got a strong mandate for essentially soft left politics, which I think is reflected in the new shadow cabinet. He and Angela Rayner are saying to the unions they want to continue with Corbyn’s policies. The opportunities for the left and for remaking Labour haven’t gone, but what we do need to do is assess honestly not just the new leadership but the missed opportunities of the last five years.

I’d raise two key things for the left to rebuild itself.

The first is democracy. The left’s attitude to party democracy has been very mixed; it has never pushed for it consistently. There’s been a lot of left-populist rallying to the leader, rather than the idea of a democratic labour movement. The idea of “digital democracy”, meaning plebiscitary ballots, has gained ground and that is dangerous. We need to reassert ideas about accountability and bottom up control. That includes a sovereign conference, but there’s not just one fix, one structure that needs changing. It’s about many structures but also the wider political culture.

An essential aspect of all this is strengthening and enhancing the link with the affiliated unions. Much more can be done locally in particular to develop an empowered union base for the party, rooted in workplaces. At the moment that is usually absent.

The flipside of all this is the need for democracy and a culture of serious, comradely debate in the organisations of the left, most notably Momentum where they have been sorely absent. Again, the idea of everything being about the leader has been a problem. Unions and socialist groups should be modelling good culture to the movement, not bad!

I’m not totally pessimistic as there are thousands of activists who have been involved in making Labour more active and democratic at a local level, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that we have made that much progress in the party as a whole.

Secondly, the left also needs to be much more consistent on equalities issues: antisemitism is glaring, but more widely issues of racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia. On the left’s watch these issues have actually gone backwards in many cases. I’ve been around a long time in the labour movement and seen many awful things, but I think there’s a trend that is new and concerning. Transphobia has been a serious problem: it reminds me of homphobia in the 1980s. I was very pleased all the leadership candidates were good on it.

But in the ’80s the progressive left ran with these issues whereas now on the left you can’t make that assumption, on various questions. We have a lot of ground to make up to show the left is serious, and in the first instance to be serious. We need to repair a damaged reputation but also learn real lessons.

If you want me to summarise, the opportunities we’ve lost while the left has been ascendant are to do with left populism as a poor substitute for consistent democracy, support for equality and working-class politics.

One aspect of why democracy is key is the ability to get left-wing policies acknowledged and campaigned for.

Yes, it’s absolutely linked. We should not retreat on policy, particularly when it’s so clear that members still support left policies. Yes, it may be difficult under Starmer, but then our progress was not that great under Corbyn – a lot of the policy was dropped in right at the end and much of it was under-developed. The 2019 manifesto was all very last minute: we should have been campaigning around it for years. We’ve been too slow, and we should push this forward now.

What do you think of the idea of Labour joining a national unity government to fight the pandemic?

It’s obviously not a good idea, and I can’t imagine a situation in which it would be a good idea. It would mean submerging ourselves in the huge Tory majority. Although as far as I can see the Tories don’t want it at the moment.

The Tories seem determined to push ahead with a hard Brexit at the end of the year. What should we say about that?

The Tory Brexiters want a hard Brexit because they want a new nationalist form to continue and radicalise their neo-liberal politics. We need the opposite: international cooperation, ideally on a socialist basis but Keynesianism, at least, to stop economies and societies collapsing. The Brexit question is part of a bigger question about how countries can work together against the pandemic, about how to deal with mass unemployment, about climate change. The idea we should be retreating back to national borders and a national viewpoint is ridiculous. There are many views on Brexit in the labour movement, obviously, but we should absolutely reject what the Tories are trying to do.

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