Polly Toynbee has inevitably fired a vitriolic salvo against Jeremy Corbyn, holding the supposedly ‘dismal, spineless’ Labour leader responsible for the Brexit vote. The anti-EU vote in many Labour-held constituencies shows not Corbyn’s weakness, but highlights instead the long-term withering of labour movement organisation in wide swathes of England and Wales, which no leader could have reversed in just nine months.
The systematic closure of factories, mines and other union-organised workplaces during the Thatcher years has left a bitter legacy of an atomised working class that has yet to rediscover a progressive voice. New Labour certainly wasn’t that voice and many champions of ‘remain’ in the Parliamentary Labour Party, including Margaret Hodge, Tristram Hunt and Stephen Kinnock, keen to oust Corbyn, might well ask why their own constituents largely backed Brexit.
Still, Toynbee belatedly recognises the importance of effective unions. Alas, I cannot recall her advocating ‘unions into all workplaces, [as] political educators about rights and solidarity’ during the Blair-Brown years, which saw the retention of the most drastic restrictions on collective union action in western Europe. Relentless outsourcing and enfeebled unions, rather than migrant workers, have led to the real decline in living standards for so many.
Ironically, she now chooses to concentrate her fire on the first Labour leader in living memory to actively promote trade unionism. Having attended last week’s Unison conference in Brighton, along with nearly 3,000 others, I know that Corbyn received a very warm reception the day before the referendum vote and nigh unanimous support from delegates as word emerged on Friday afternoon of still another attempted ‘coup’ at a time when both the Tory government and party are in disarray.
Camden UNISON Branch Secretary