The alternative to individual rich interests is people power
In the cash for access row the Conservatives have portrayed Labour’s relationship with the unions as equivalent to, and just as insidious as, their own relationship with a handful of rich donors. This is highly disingenuous. The Downing Street dinners only illustrate what we have all known all along: that rich people naturally gravitate towards the Conservative party, but whoever is in power they will always, as individuals, try to wield a disproportionate influence in their own interest.
People who aren’t wealthy, that is the vast majority of us, know that we will never be listened to unless we band together to make our voices heard. That is why the trade unions were formed. To suggest that the small, cumulative contributions of millions of workers are the same as a large cheque from a single hedge-fund manager or someone like billionaire Lord Ashcroft is patently ridiculous.
On the Today programme yesterday morning Ed Davey, the Lib Dem Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, unwittingly illustrated this point perfectly. He was criticising Ed Miliband for not speaking out against a potential strike by tanker drivers. Inevitably he implied that the Labour leader was in the pocket of their union Unite, as it is the biggest contributor to his Party. Mr Miliband may or may not support the strike: personally, I would like to think that drivers who are transporting thousands of gallons of fuel around the country are fairly paid, well-trained, and not under pressure to cut corners. If they have to strike to secure that, it is a sad reflection on a profiteering industry.
Mr Davey then went on, apparently without seeing any irony, to sing the praises of a scheme in which energy consumers can band together to get a better deal from their energy suppliers.
He said: "I think what it could do is rebalance the relationship between the big companies and their customers, and I think that could result in more effective competition, with consumers having some muscle to wield collectively…..people acting together in a co-operative manner could actually make the market work more effectively."
So, Mr Davey can see all the merits of collective bargaining for consumers, but when workers do it, it is a negative thing.
When millions of union members help to support a party, in the hope that it will take their publicly stated interests into account, that is an open and democratic process. When rich individuals buy a place at the Prime Minister’s dinner table for a private confidential chat, that is an entirely different thing.
© Bernadette Meaden has written about religious, political and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is a regular contributor to Ekklesia.
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