Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Unions must focus on social justice in constitution debate

It is a bit of a leap to extrapolate that less intense opposition means Scottish trade unions are ‘shifting in favour of independence’. Nevertheless James Maxwell’s New Statesman article does, perhaps inadvertantly, put a finger on the difficulty trade unions face in getting their issues across when both referendum camps might be happier with a more simplistic debate.
Maxwell writes: “A pragmatic assessment of the likely risks and benefits of independence – rather than political conviction or ideology – now tends to inform the response of Scottish trade unionism to the nationalist challenge.”

The implication that the discussion can only be narrowly about independence or not, encapsulates the problem the unions face in trying to bring social justice – rather than just structures or institutions - to the centre of the debate.

Of course there is a pragmatic element in the trade union agenda. That is to avoid an unnecessary divide in the movement that would only serve to submerge the fundamental issues that unite us and need to be at the heart of the debate.

But it is on those very fundamental issues that the trade union strategy is very far from being merely pragmatic. On the contrary, it is entirely based on ‘political conviction’.

As UNISON depute Scottish convenor Stephen Smellie told the union’s 2012 Conference: “We are clear about the kind of Scotland we want – more equal, fairer, full employment, properly funded public services, no nuclear weapons... The question for us is will independence or the status quo or more devolution short of independence make it more likely we will achieve our vision?”

And the strategy of bringing those issues to the fore is paying off. The SNP dominated Yes campaign’s response to the STUC’s ‘A Just Scotland’ report suggests some influence in shifting the independence debate onto the ground of social justice.

Of course, we should always beware of believing our own propaganda. As Gregor Gall suggests, it might well be in the neo-liberal leaning SNP’s interests to present itself as the party of social justice, capitalising on the Labour leadership’s reticence to abandon austerity, to attract the trade union vote.

Be that as it may, the trade unions have a duty to focus on the equality, social and economic arguments because no-one else will. No-one else in the mainstream has.

A genuine attempt to ensure those issues take centre stage in the constitutional debate must not be confused with an impartiality based on the independence, devolution or enhanced camps being hesitant to push for their position too soon in case they can’t carry it.

It would be naive to believe those elements are not there and at some point the nettle will have to be grasped. Although, a neutral STUC stance may not be entirely out of the question – but that’s another story altogether.

It is a hard line to tread. The success of the broad-based Constitutional Convention in the devolution debate of the 1990s is not a model that fits this debate well. That model was based on an underlying consensus about devolution that united progressive campaigners with a much wider self-determination lobby. It is a different debate now and that broad consensus is harder to achieve.

As its stands, the majority of the STUC affiliates have no appetite for any decision just yet and, if asked, most would veer more towards enhanced devolution than independence. The Congress in Perth in a couple of weeks may get some sneak previews into likely positions – with undeclared camps dropping in opposite positions for ostensibly the same reasons - but it will studiously avoid taking a position.

That is a sensible route. Because the beginnings of success in bringing social justice to the fore in the debate would be totally lost in the media avalanche that would follow the STUC debating or deciding a position.

Of course, the sometimes uneasy trade union consensus will be tested as the referendum draws closer. Any significant events in the last few weeks leading up to the referendum may influence the popular vote much more than the long debate leading up to it.

One of those may be further punitive Westminster policies. At a time of vicious ideological attacks on our class from the Con Dems, it becomes more seductive to believe that a separate Scotland (real economic independence is of course a much bigger step forward than mere separation) is the only solution to bring a chance of social justice.

That view perhaps misses the point that Scotland is not a homogenous political mass. When the constitutional issue is taken out of the debate, where will the mainly rural right wing leaning SNP vote go? Not to any left alternative I would suggest. Add that to the die-hard Tory big city vote (perhaps no longer encumbered by an ‘English’ identity) and you have a recipe for a much less radical Scotland than many would like to believe.

And is there room in the debate for the wider solidarity issues echoed in the New Statesman story when it quotes Michael McGahey in 1968? ‘The people of Scotland are entitled to decide the form and power of their own institutions’, he said, but they had more on common ‘with London Dockers, Durham miners and Sheffield engineers than they have ever had with Scottish barons and landlord traitors.’

44 years later, Falkirk UNISON’s Gray Allan raised the same theme when he told the union’s conference: “Putting football and rugby aside, between public service workers across the UK there can be no barriers, no boundaries and no divides.”

Whichever way the Scottish trade union movement goes, whatever it articulates, it must be positively for something better rather than a reaction to something bad. Even then, there will be a risk of dividing those in the movement with equally deeply held socialist views as to the best way forward.

Whether we like it or not, that division would focus on the narrow SNP dominated Yes campaign and the unholy alliance that makes up the ‘Better Together’ coalition - both seeking a monopoly on patriotism and neither addressing the real issues.

The key issue is that if we miss the opportunity to put social justice at the top of the agenda, whether people vote Yes or No will make very little difference to achieving a fairer Scotland.

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