London Whether meeting with organizers, union leaders, foundation and nonprofit executives or ACORN’s own organizers, almost always the conversations with drift over the difficult prospects for the next five years in the wake of the Conservative Party’s re-election, led by Prime Minister David Cameron, and the hope and fears accompanying the election of Jeremy Corbyn, as a left leaning head of the opposition Labour Party. One union program manager with Unite, the UK’s largest union, told me from the second we sat down that she had still “not recovered” from the election and the prospect of five years of pain.
It isn’t hard to understand why once I understood the gist of the government’s proposed amendments to the Trade Union Act. Any strike would require a two week notice to the employer. 50 per cent of the members would have to participate in the vote and have their ballots tallied by mail, which is often difficult in the public sector particularly where many members do not vote. A majority would have to approve. Any communications on social media would have to be submitted and approved two weeks in advance. It goes on and on like that. Is there any way to stop it? Not much from what I was told. A majority government means that they can ram through virtually anything and are likely to do so. There is also no constitution or bill of rights in the UK, that might protect freedom of speech, so don’t look for help there. Unions have little leverage to modify the new amendments and are hoping to get worksite voting and voting by smartphones as compromises so that they can make the numbers, but the deal is a long way from being done.
There’s a proposed multi-billion pound rollback of the tax credit program, which provides broad based welfare benefits. The program started small but now is approaching thirty billion pounds and under fire. It’s a complicated situation, but the end result will be devastating to poorer families, many of whom in cities like London are depending of the payments to offset the exorbitant costs of housing in the city.
There had been a lot of excitement about the election of Corbyn as the new leader of Labour, but there is virtually a civil war in the party ranks at the top, no matter how enthusiastic the base – and many new party members – have become. One union official who had voted for him told me he was simply “un-electable.” Their hope was that he would raise some issues and step aside for someone younger and more appeal-able two years before the next election. Some organizers were aghast as the communications disasters that Corbyn has already blundered into, and found that discouraging if there weren’t some quick fixes. Others thought he was raising some important and difficult questions for the majority which could shape the future in a more progressive direction whether he ran or not, and they held out hope. Organizers are terminally skeptical and optimistic, and some maintained hope for Corbyn, because “you can never tell.” One working for an on-line campaigning organization thought he could see from the constant stream of petitions and interest that came in on a daily basis and hunger that would have to be served.
A foundation executive, interestingly, held out hope for some communities taking advantage of the devolution of power being offered by Westminster that admittedly would transfer problems down the line, but also might offer the opportunity for more powers and a semblance of home rule in areas like Manchester for example where there is interest in aggregating a number of councils into a block. The Labour Party leads in many cities, especially in the northern parts of England so there might be something there. In fact some observers though the 2016 election for Mayor in London might be an interesting barometer for judging the popularity of Corbyn’s program and strategy and whether it could get some traction.
The one thing that was clear and unquestioned was even making the best of it, there are five years of hard times facing the people of the United Kingdom.