Kevin McKenna: Exposing the lies at the root of the new war on trade unions

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WHEN you witness the success of a campaign rooted in selfless conviction you feel almost privileged. Such events are so rare in modern politics that they elicit a sort of wonder and nostalgia: “So this is what the Labour Party used to look like.”

For the last ten years we’ve observed a struggle that defined what honest, left-wing political activism ought to possess: fairness, equality, justice, truth and basic human dignity. All of these were at stake when the former Labour MSP Neil Findlay commenced his battle to win pardons for hundreds of Scottish families whose livelihoods were destroyed in the aftermath of the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike.

In Holyrood this week it was announced that these miners will be pardoned after an independent review found they were punished in a “grossly excessive manner”. Mr Findlay said afterwards that the miners had been “victims of a political war waged on them by the Thatcher government”.

It’s worth revisiting some of the tactics of Mrs Thatcher and the Metropolitan and Scottish police who acted as her private militias during that struggle. From the beginning, she regarded this as a cultural battle which had to be won if her pitiless vision of a Britain defined by the survival of the fittest and might is right was to be won. MI5 spooks were placed at the heart of the NUM leadership to undermine Arthur Scargill, a fact later acknowledged by Stella Rimington, then head of MI5.

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The excellent BBC drama Sherwood is currently exploring the question of spy-cops acting as agents provocateurs during the strike. Mr Scargill himself was falsely accused of corruption based on false information provided by MI5.

Mrs Thatcher, boosted by the proceeds of North Sea oil, ring-fended £7Bn to pay off the miners and kill what remained of an industry that was still profitable when the strike ended. She had also stockpiled massive reserves of foreign coal to ensure the miners’ defeat.

The ruthlessness of the British state continued long after the strike. Miners who’d been wrongly charged – many simply for defending themselves from police violence – were handed grossly punitive sentences and then blacklisted to ensure they never worked again. This wasn’t simply a war against the miners, it was a cultural and social pogrom against working-class communities across the UK.

Now, three decades or so later, the anti-trade union rhetoric which characterised Margaret Thatcher’s war on working-class communities is seeping back into public discourse. Threatened strike action by public sector workers – hailed as the heroes of Covid last year – is being met with cries of “Marxists!” and “hard left” and “Russia sympathisers”.

This new war on trade union activity dovetails with narratives about the crippling rises in the cost-of-living and inflation. The message is simple: those greedy unions are holding the country to ransom again and demanding wage rises we can’t afford. It’s a carefully-constructed lie which proceeds with the help of hand-picked media professionals and Tory glove-puppets in the lobbying industry.

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A report published yesterday by Unite demonstrates in fine detail that the roots of the cost-of-living crisis are to be found in the eye-watering profits of multi-billion-pound corporate entities. Unite analysis of the FTSE 350 shows that the profit margins of the UK’s top companies were 73% higher in 2021 than pre-pandemic levels in 2019.

Even as we were being fed the approved Covid story-arc of low sales inevitably leading to closures and redundancies the truth pointed to something else: that profits were still rocketing. The report states that even when you remove energy firms from the equation the average profit margins of these companies reached 52%.

Official numbers from the Office for National Statistics reveals that corporate profits rose by almost 12% from October 2021 to March 2022. “In the same period labour costs fell by 0.8%, accounting for inflation,” the report says. “This jump in UK wide company profits is responsible for 58.7% of inflation in the last half year – as opposed to just 8.3% due to labour costs.”

The study builds on widespread and unchallenged academic research into the benefits that come from increasing the wages of low-paid workers. It’s common sense, really. Basically, the local economy is boosted exponentially for every extra pound in the wage packets of modestly-paid workers rather than the profits of corporations which provide massive dividends to overseas investors and institutional shareholders.

In February, research by Acuity Analysis for the trade union movement showed that collectively, the UK’s largest energy companies generated almost £374Bn in the six years to 2020. During this time five companies made £15.3Bn net and paid out almost as much again in shareholder dividends. Two of them also received furlough payments totalling £52m in 2020.

These massive profits were not deemed to be sufficient, though, to save the jobs of the 19,540 workers who were made redundant between 2015 and 2020. The collateral economic damage to businesses in the communities where these job losses occurred can only be guessed at.

The Unite report came a few months after research by Oxfam revealed that during the pandemic a new billionaire was minted every 26 hours. The world’s ten richest men, according to Oxfam, doubled their fortunes from “$700Bn to £1.5trillion – a rate of $15,000 per second or $1.3Bn a day – during the first two years of a pandemic that’s seen the incomes of 99% of humanity fall and over 160m more people forced into poverty”.

The defamation of trade unions has intensified as Boris Johnson’s position becomes more desperate. The Prime Minister is propped up by donations from a hidden oligarchy of Britain’s super-rich. He’s backed by a media largely under their control. It’s why he’s about to go to war on their behalf with his own Chancellor over plans for a Covid windfall tax. These people can never have enough money. There can be no limit on the numbers of workers who must be jettisoned to protect their riches.

It helps when the leader of the Labour Party would rather mock his predecessor than hold to account a dishonest Conservative leader presiding over a corrupt, racist government which is contemptuous of its own laws.