UK COVID-19 death toll hits 100,000 and The PM offers an insincere apology.

In late March 2020, the medical director of the NHS Stephen Powis said that keeping the UK COVID-19 death toll to under 20,000 would be a good result. Ten months later, almost to the day, the UK’s official death toll from COVID-19 hit 100,000, a few days after an Oxford University Study found that the UK had the worst daily death rate per capita for coronavirus in the world.

On Tuesday Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was “deeply sorry” for every life that was lost. His apology was quickly followed by this statement:

I think on this day I should just really repeat that I am deeply sorry for every life that has been lost and of course as I was prime minister, I take full responsibility for everything that the government has done. We did everything we could to minimise suffering and minimise the loss of life and will continue to do so.

Boris Johnson addressing the nation Tuesday 26 January 2021

Back in May 2020, I wrote a blog which listed the many failings of the UK Governments handling of the crisis. The Prime Minister and his colleagues ignored scientific advise and allowed the virus to take hold throughout the population in February and March 2020. The Prime Minister, in particular, took pride in the fact that he planned to keep the country open even when most other European nations were going into lockdown. It was only when NHS hospitals were near breaking point that Britain followed other nations and implemented similar restrictions.

COVID-19: Boris Johnson 'deeply sorry' as over 100,000 coronavirus-related  deaths recorded in UK - kmfm
Above: Prime Minister Boris Johnson giving his address to the nation on Tuesday.

Probably the greatest failing by the Conservative Government in the fight against COVID-19 was not its response to the crisis but the decade of underinvestment in the country’s public health system. Sir Michael Marmot from the UK Institute of Health Equity published a damning report in December 2020 which highlighted that during the last decade of Conservative Government:

  • people can expect to spend more of their lives in poor health
  • improvements to life expectancy have stalled, and declined for the poorest 10% of women
  • the health gap has grown between wealthy and deprived areas 
  • place matters – living in a deprived area of the North East is worse for your health than living in a similarly deprived area in London, to the extent that life expectancy is nearly five years less.

The report also made clear that the above trends, in particular the health gap between wealthy and deprived areas, corresponds with data during the COVID-19 pandemic which found those from poorer parts of the UK were hit harder by the virus.

In May 2020 I posted a blog about the state of UK Social Care where for decades successive governments have failed to resolve the funding crisis, or indeed to build proper links between the health and social care systems. In October 2020 Amnesty International published its report As if Expendable which outlined how many older people were kicked out of hospitals and placed back into residential care homes, without first even being tested for COVID-19. This shameful action, along with not supplying social care providers adequate supplies of PEE was responsible for many thousands of deaths. The Amnesty report highlights that the UK Governments treatment of people in the social care system during this time breached both domestic and international law:

The UK is a state party to international and regional human rights treaties which require it to protect and guarantee fundamental human rights relevant to the concerns addressed in this report, including notably, the right to life, the right to highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, the right to non-discrimination – including on the grounds of age, disability or health status – the right not to be subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment.

As if Expendable, Amnesty International report 2020

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has yet to atone for what happened during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in the social care sector. Whilst this was not just the fault of his government’s failure, his statement on Tuesday shows he still accepts no-fault and claims they did all they could to ‘minimise suffering’ and ‘loss of life’, a claim the Amnesty International report demonstrates is false.

On the issue of face masks, the UK Government lagged behind most many other nations, initially implying that these were not effective, only later to make them mandatory on public transport. The justification for this U-Turn is that by mid-2020 there was more scientific data, which is fine except many other nations applied this scientific advice much earlier. A Centres for Disease Control and Prevention paper published 2004 found that during the 2003 SARS outbreak that wearing a face mask frequently in public places, frequent hand washing, and disinfecting one’s living quarter were effective public health measures to reduce the risk for transmission. Nationalist Britain knows best self-confidence could well have been a factor in the UK Governments refusal to learn from international experience.

Another example of government arrogance in the UK during this crisis was the development of the track and trace system. Whilst most nations have struggled to develop an effective track and trace application, the UK managed to spend 22 billion pounds of public money on a system that did not work. In June 2020 Boris Johnson claimed in parliament that the UK was developing a “world beating” contact tracing system. After billions were given to private contractors, many with personal links to members of the government, the system was found to have failed as it relied on excel spreadsheets to record the data and resulted in 15,000 cases not being recorded in September and October 2020.

The failure to develop a functional track and trace system has led to one of the greatest policy failures that have contributed to England being in its third COVID-19 lockdown. Very few people would disagree that having schools closed and students having to learn remotely is negatively impacting on students. And most people can understand how difficult it is for any government to balance public health against long term educational outcomes. But when the Conservative-leaning paper The Telegraph runs the headline The biggest mystery in politics: why is Gavin Williamson still in a job? you know that the Education Secretary has performed poorly. The recent example where after Christmas schools reopened for one day in January before closing again due to high infection rates, despite the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) warning the UK Government on 22 December 2020 that with the new strain of COVID-19 leaving schools open was contributing to the rising infection rate. A poll conducted earlier this month found that 92% of teachers believe Gavin Williamson should resign as Education Secretary, which is hardly given surprising his abysmal performance in recent months.

Coronavirus: UK epidemic growing as R number goes above 1 - BBC News
The Above graph shows how COVID-19 infection rates rose sharply after UK schools reopened in September

Yet the blame for schools does not sit fully with the Government. Her Majesty’s loyal opposition can also take much of the blame for this fiasco. In April 2020, at the height of the first wave of coronavirus pandemic in the UK, newly elected Labour Party Opposition Leader Kier Starmer called on the Government to set out plans to end the lockdown. Starmer, former head of the Crown Prosecution Service and a QC would argue that he meant that there should be a plan which included contact tracing, social distancing guidelines and other measures to make it safe to reopen. But the optics of the call was pressuring the UK Government to lift restrictions and specifically calling on them to reopen schools. Unlike in a court of law, in politics, it is about the key message, not the detail buried on page 7 of the affidavit.

The Oppositions position on schools has been nearly as confusing and contradictory as the Governments. The Party, still recovering from its 2019 election loss (which I wrote several blogs about in early 2020), under a new leader was trying to rebrand, reposition and appeal to voters it had lost. This has not been helped by the internal factionalism (which I also blogged about in May 2020) and the party still not being clear where it sits politically and ideologically. In April 2020 shadow Education Secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey’s position was that schools should reopen when safe, a position that was consistent with the education unions. Shortly after this Long-Bailey was replaced as Education Secretary by Kate Green, who has been clear that she wishes to distance Labour from the education unions in an attempt to present the party as more ‘moderate’.

Green and Starmer’s position throughout this has been motivated by a policy of triangulation and policy by focus group whereby they are appealing to middle-class parents who want their kids back at school. Like the Tories, Labour’s position has been motivated by politics, not science. That former Conservative Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt called for schools to close earlier this month before the opposition is telling. Meanwhile the leader of the opposition was being grilled by media for his confusing position. Many believe that Green was appointed due to her loyalty to Starmer just as Williamson has kept his role due to loyalty to Boris Johnson. One would be more concerned if either appointment were based on ability as this would say a great deal about the capability of the other 648 MPs in the Commons if these two are the best and brightest on offer for education.

The issue of schools reopening is a personal one for me. In my blog earlier this month, I told of how my partner who works as a secondary school teacher in London caught COVID-19 and how we both spend Christmas and New Year recovering from the illness. When Greenwich Council tried to close schools in the borough due to skyrocketing infection rates, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson threatened legal action to keep the schools open. By this time, most schools in the area had a significant percentage of students sick, or in isolation having been in contact with someone infected. In many schools, pupils were sent home due to the number of teachers off sick with COVID-19. To argue that continuing with this situation is any better for secondary school students is nonsense.

Much of the concern over school closures is the impact on students’ grades. When the Government announced GCSE and A-level exams would be cancelled once again in 2021 this added to the anxiety. One of the issues here has been this Government’s shift towards having student grades mostly assessed through examinations. This style of assessment favours certain learners over others, as exams favour those with short term recall skills. Many other countries have moved away from a full examination model of assessment to a mix of exams and course work assignments during the year. But aside from implementing a poor education assessment model for students, the pandemic has highlighted the risk of placing so much emphasis on examinations as, if for whatever reason, these cannot go ahead, it becomes difficult to determine student grades. The UK Government’s position on education and assessment is blinkered and ideological, which has meant it struggled to come up with sensible pragmatic solutions to this problem during the crisis. Worse, the Education Secretary has demonstrated he lacks the intellectual rigour and leadership to address these issues.

A coherent and strong opposition would have easily made political mileage during this time, however to date, the opposition has opted for triangulation and timidity. The opposition MP who has made the clearest and most articulate statements regarding school closures during the pandemic has been Lisa Nandy the Shadow Foreign Secretary, who came a distant third in the 2020 UK Labour leadership contest. What Nandy had to say was hardly earth-shattering, merely that the Government needed to get testing and track and trace working properly before it would be safe to reopen schools. To be fair, Starmer, Green and Long-Bailey probably also thought they were saying the same thing, but what people heard was quite different.

Prime Minister Johnson’s non apology on Tuesday was an insult to the British public. Yes, this was a difficult crisis and all governments have made some mistakes at this time. But the UK has done particularly badly and the statement on Tuesday shows he has learnt nothing. The Conservatives won the 2019 election with the sizeable majority that they did largely due to Brexit (see my blog post immediately after the 2019 UK election) and divisions within the opposition. Boris Johnson is not a strong leader and in this crisis, he has proved to be woefully inept. It is well known that Johnson likes to compare himself to former Conservative Prime Minister Winston Churchill, in which case the COVID-19 pandemic has been his Gallipoli.

At a time when the country is in its third lockdown, when over 100,000 people have died, when the economy is in recession and the number of jobless is set to rise, few now are looking to the next election which will likely be held in 2024. Yet that still motivates leaders of the UK’s two main political parties. Polling numbers in recent months have been fairly close between Labour and the Conservatives. Where polling has been much more consistent is in Scotland, where the SNP maintain a strong lead heading into the Scottish Parliament’s election on 6 May 2021. Support for Scottish independence also maintains a strong lead and as I predicted in my blog post nearly a year ago this issue continuing to feature prominently on the political agenda, despite fierce opposition from political leaders in London. Without a doubt, independence campaigners in Scotland, as well as Northern Ireland and Wales, continue to win support for their independence calls on the back of the UK Governments inept handling of this crisis.

There is however hope on the horizon. The Governments rollout of the COVID-19 vaccinations will hopefully in time slow the movement of the virus to a point where current restrictions can be lifted. It is a wonder of modern science that within a year of COVID-19 emerging that scientists, including those at Oxford University, have developed a vaccination. Despite concern by some about the speed with which this has been released, the evidence so far is that widespread vaccination will stop the spread and save thousands of lives. Credit where credit is due, the UK Government have been quick off the mark to get this vaccine available to the most vulnerable with the aim of immunising as many people as possible over the next year. And to the oppositions credit, they have supported the Government on the vaccine rollout.

There is still a long way to go until this crisis ends and the Government have a lot to answer for badly mishandling things to date. The Prime Ministers apology on Tuesday did not cut the mustard and was an insult to the families of those who have died. Lessons from the mistakes over the last year need to be learnt and with this, the Prime Minister needs to cut the bombast and bravado and instead learn humility and humbleness. The successful rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine will be essential not only for ending the crisis but also for rebuilding trust in public trust British state after it has managed this pandemic so badly.

A COVID-19 positive New Year

Two years ago I wrote a short pithy little blog about New Years and the self-reflecting navel gazing that traditionally occurs during this time. It can be viewed here.

The end of 2020 was quite different. This is the case for most of us, but for me it ends a very eventful year. It also ended with me having testing positive for COVID-19. I have spent much of the last week feeling unwell and exhausted.

2020 was not easy for anyone. A global pandemic which as of 31 December 2020 had killed 1.8 million people and infected over 83 million. It has plunged the world economy into an economic recession that could well take years to recover from. For many this year will be very memorable for all the wrong reasons.

Boris Johnson Sleeps With the Virus | Spitting Image - YouTube
Spitting Image depiction of The Coronavirus with UK PM Boris Johnson

2020 was not an entirely bad year for me though. Both in terms of my professional and personal life, 2020 was actually been positive. Just under a year ago I started working in the House of Lords with Baroness Greengross. I have had the privilege of working in the House of Lords at a time when it adapted to the pandemic by having virtual proceedings and moved to online voting. Whilst having worked remotely much of the year, I still have an office in Westminster which I will return to in 2021.

Personally, things have also gone well. I started a new relationship earlier in the year and we recently moved in together. Also, throughout 2020 I have continued to build and strengthen my friendship networks in London, especially in the South East where I live. I am very lucky to have good friends around me, especially at a time when I have come down with COVID-19.

The virus itself came from my partner who works as a teacher at a London secondary school. Infection rates have been climbing steadily in recent weeks and just before Christmas she caught the dreaded lurgy. When we both got tested on the 18 December she tested positive and I negative, but within a few days it was clear I had also contracted the it.

I could write a whole post about how well the UK government have responded to the pandemic in 2020. I may do this at a later time. Suffice to say 2020 ended with London in Tier 4 restrictions meaning much of the city was closed and people advised against going out or leaving their local area. Needless to say having to stay home for New Years Eve was no great hardship when very little was happening in the city. Earlier plans of heading to Edinburgh for Hogmanay will also have to wait until another year when Scotland is not under COVID-19 restrictions.

So, is the virus as bad as it has been made out? Well for me the symptoms were flu like, high temperature, headaches, blocked nose and sore throat. The fatigue is probably the worst feature of this virus. From Boxing Day till 29 December I was mostly bedridden and living off ibuprofen and Lemsip. Luckily I can still taste food, though it became clear my sense of smell had dulled when I could not smell Vicks Vapour rub or coffee – which anyone else would think my flat stinks of right now. The worse feature of the virus was the fatigue and reduced energy levels which I started feeling the week before Christmas and persisted long other other symptoms had passed.

As of now I feel better. My concentration is improving but still reduced. I am very aware that despite having done little over the last few days my body is still tired. I hope energy levels restore to something resembling normal fairly quickly in 2021. I am lucky in that already the symptoms of COVID-19 begin to fade which is not the case for many others who have caught this virus.

2021 will also be a very different year. We all hope the situation starts to improve in the coming weeks and months, but the reality for the UK is that restrictions on peoples lives will remain in place for some time yet. International travel will also remain limited. It is highly unlikely that I will be able to visit family and friends in New Zealand until 2022, as quarantine restrictions and flight options being very limited and expensive at this time. Zoom has been great for keeping families connected throughout 2020 and will continue to provide this important role again in 2021. It is not the same as actual face to face contact which once this pandemic is over is something many of us will relish.

Four days into the New Year and the UK Government has announced that England will be returning to a full lockdown. This will include schools doing remote learning, something that SAGE told advised should happen before Christmas. How long this lockdown will last and how soon things finally return to normal in 2021 is not clear.

One thing that is the same as New Years two years ago, I have once again changed my calendar.

All the best for 2021.

Trump loses the Presidency, but Trumpism lives on

Two weeks after one of the most tumultuous elections in US history it is now clear that Joe Biden has won. This was not clear on election night as much of the in-person vote favoured Trump in key swing states. But as the postal votes came in it became obvious that in Arizona, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Nevada and Michigan were going with the Biden/Harris ticket. Whilst traditional swing states of Florida and Ohio went to Trump this would not be enough for him to get the required 270 electoral college votes to win.

My previous post outlined the importance to America and the world of a Trump defeat in these elections. It also outlined the many limitations the US political system put in place to make much needed political, social and economic reform in that country difficult (though not impossible). It also highlighted the absurd electoral college system that twice this century has allowed a presidential candidate who received fewer votes than their opponent to win the presidency. The 2020 election could well have been the third such election based on election night results, but postal ballots make it clear that Trump is on his way out. In an election where one of the main dividing issues now is whether or not to believe science, those worried about COVID-19 were more likely to postal vote and thus these votes were more likely to go to the Democrats.

Trump is mounting a legal challenge to the election result claiming the election was rigged. In many cases, the state authorities running the ballot system were under the control of the Republican Party. Trump is unlikely to succeed in any of his legal challenges and even if he does this will unlikely result in him gaining the required 270 points to win. There is little chance of a repeat of the 2000 Presidential election where the Supreme Court ordered the recount of votes in the State of Florida to stop, a disgraceful chapter in the history of US elections and one which exposed how flawed the US system really is.

In 2016 Donald Trump received 62,984,828 votes nationally. In 2020 his national vote increased to 71,927,381. Biden’s apparent victory was down to increased voter turnout nationally and specifically increased turnout and in the swing states listed above. When looking at the results in both Congress and Senate, the Republicans have reduced the Democrats’ majority in Congress, and the Senate is now split with Republicans only losing one senate race last week and now having a runoff election in January 2021 which will decide which party has control of the upper chamber.

No description available.
The above map gives an interesting break down of votes by demographic.

The projected ‘blue wave’ that many pundits predicted (and this author hoped for, but did not expect) did not eventuate. There are plenty of possible explanations for this but ultimately it comes down to the simple fact that support for Donald Trump and indeed for the Republican Party did not collapse in 2020. If anything, the Republican Party held the line with their base and even won some new support despite a woeful mishandling of the pandemic and having a President who was blatantly dishonest and self-serving. This is disappointing, but not at all surprising. Trumpism did not just come out of nowhere, and nor is it likely to disappear anytime soon.

The election for Congress saw the Republicans reduce the Democrats’ majority. This was probably the Democrats greatest failure this election, given they only gained control of Congress two years earlier in 2018 and already their grip on power here is slipping. This is reminiscent of 2006, where Nancy Pelosi led the Democrats to victory during the Mid-terms as President George W Bush’s popularity was waning. By 2010 the Democrats had lost control of the House in Obama’s first mid-term. Despite the loss, Pelosi remained the Democrat leader in Congress, and in 2018 became the speaker once again when Democrats capitalised on anti-Trump sentiment to gain control of The House. The issue for Pelosi and the team around her in Congress is that twice they have won during mid-terms when opposition to a Republican President is strong. Now a Democrat is President, Pelosi cannot just be an oppositional figure, she and her team need to put forward a policy agenda to address the issues facing the country. Just like when Obama was elected President in 2008, Biden’s win this year is happening in the middle of a serious economic crisis. Democrats in Congress need to be offering policy solutions to this crisis. Now maybe time for new Democratic leadership in Congress that can step up to this challenge.

Doctored Pelosi SOTU video leaves Dems furious at Facebook, Twitter -  Business Insider
Nancy Pelosi tearing up her copy of Donald Trump’s state of the union speech in February 2020.

The Senate currently hangs in the balance with Republicans holding onto more senators this month than expected. In early January 2021 a runoff election will be held for the two Senator seats in the state of Georgia. The race between Biden and Trump was very close in this state which has traditionally been safe Republican. The change in Georgia was down to voter registration and turnout campaigns led by Stacy Abrams who narrowly lost the Georgia Governor race in 2018. This campaign is one Democrats should be looking to replicate nationally as it has been widely praised as successful.

In early 2018 I wrote a blog post about hope in which I said the following about the Obama Presidency of 2009 to 2017:

Obama promised hope and intended to deliver that through the US political system. The problem is that system is flawed. He gave people hope in a political system which could not deliver on the promise.

Hope – A powerful but dangerous tool, April 2018

When trying to understand US politics we need to understand that it is indeed a flawed and inflexible system. This criticism could be made of most democratic systems, but the flaws in the US are stark and very hard to shift. In another 2018 blog, I wrote about the issue of Gun Control, a prime example of where the US system, despite public opinion has successfully blocked any form of gun control for decades.

In August this year, Rolling Stone Magazine published an article by Anthropologist Wade Davies called The Unraveling of America. I would recommend anyone who has not yet read this to do so. In this article Wade outlines how the COVID-19 pandemic has furthered the decline of the United States. Wade claims that one-fifth of all COVID-19 deaths were from that country. He highlights how the United States has lost its moral authority on the world stage, citing the below example:

Trump’s performance and America’s crisis deflected attention from China’s own mishandling of the initial outbreak in Wuhan, not to mention its move to crush democracy in Hong Kong. When an American official raised the issue of human rights on Twitter, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, invoking the killing of George Floyd, responded with one short phrase, “I can’t breathe.”

The Unraveling of America  
Anthropologist Wade Davis on how COVID-19 signals the end of the American era. Rolling Stone August 2020.

And indeed, the Black Lives Matter Movement has like COVID-19 shown the world that the United States Government is neither interested nor capable of looking after its own population. Given this it is little wonder many throughout the world no longer view it as a moral authority on the world stage. Wade also argues that Donald Trump is a symptom of the decline, rather than the cause of it.

On the morning of the US election results, the BBC Today Show interviewed former UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt. He expressed concern that an uncertain result would be used by dictators in countries like China to discredit democracy. The reality is that the United States is a poor example of a functioning democracy in 2020. The country’s widespread voter suppression, its antiquated and undemocratic voting system, its cumbersome and difficult to change constitution, its poor record on climate change, its institutional and systemic racism, its increasing inequality and last but not least its shocking record on the international stage of supporting dictators like Pinochet and Suharto, discredit it as any sort of moral authority. When looking for examples of modern, functioning democracies we should look at places like Germany, Scandinavian nations like Norway or Sweden, New Zealand, Canada, Uruguay and Costa Rica. Even in the United Kingdom, though in recent years has faced considerable challenges in response to Brexit and a fairly ugly General Election in 2019, not to mention a voting system that does not deliver proportional outcomes, the political culture in the UK is still much healthier and far less divisive than in the US.

This is not to beat up on the United States or to say that it does not still have the potential to play a positive role in the world. The point is that for the United States to do this it needs significant reform. Biden, even if he gains a majority in the Senate will not be able to deliver this in one term. And the level of opposition this administration will face internally from Trump/Republican Party supporters is formidable. But this too can change. In 2020 increased voter turnout stopped Trump getting a second term and may still help the Democrats narrowly win a senate majority if Georgia goes their way. Hope can be dangerous if it gives people the false idea that a broken system is ok. But in understanding that there is a fundamental problem, there is then the opportunity for real change, something which would be cause for some cautious optimism. At the very least, the more people understand the problem, the greater the chance of things improving.

Singapore & COVID-19: how neglecting the poorest in society harmed the whole city state

Throughout 2020 there have been many fascinating twists and turns in the tale of how we as a species have tried to overcome the COVID-19 virus. Some nations like the United States or Brazil have not managed so well, whilst others like New Zealand or Vietnam at first seemed to be faring much better, though now have also seen the virus sneak back in.

In a pandemic like this there is no playbook, and governments and health officials are forced to learn and adapt as they go along. One can understand that along the way there will be various mistakes, and all but the very angry and militant few would seriously expect governments to get everything right during this time.

One important lesson early on in the crisis was back in April when Singapore, who were seen as one of the world leaders in defeating this virus suddenly faced a spike. Singapore was far better prepared than many other nations having learnt lessons from the 2003 SARS and 2009 H1N1 outbreaks. Singapore is well known for its focus on public hygiene and encouraging its citizens to wear face masks and wash their hands is nothing new. By early April it seemed Singapore were weathering the storm, but then things went wrong.

As outlined in this April CNN report, clusters of migrant workers living in poor overcrowded housing were found to have the disease. From here the virus quickly spread again meaning the city state went from very few cases in March to over 1000 in April. It took Singapore until August to reduce COVID-19 infection rates to their March 2020 levels.

The above graph shows the COVID-19 infection rates in Singapore from March to October 2020

In contrast to many other nations Singapore has still managed this pandemic very well. But by neglecting its most vulnerable and not providing safe and healthy accommodation to its migrant workers, the country undermined the public health for all people living in this city state.

There will be many lessons coming out of the 2020 pandemic. But the lesson here is clear, if you do not look after the poor and vulnerable in your community, ultimately you undermine the health and wellbeing of everyone.

Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Government: Style over substance or a guiding light for progressive politics?

Just over three years ago, a few weeks before leaving New Zealand, my friend Rob and I were in Burger Fuel on Cuba Street the hipster trendy part of Wellington. Piko was renting an office space in the old Wellington Trades Hall and we were doing painting and renovations of the space. In our crappy paint-covered work clothes we sat in Burger Fuel when Rob alerts me to who had just walked in the restaurant.

24 hours beforehand, Jacinda Ardern had replaced Andrew Little as leader of the Labour Party. We both knew Jacinda so said hello and talked about the Stand with Pike campaign we had been working on which Jacinda had pledged to support a few hours before. This slightly awkward conversation with the new leader of the opposition did not last long. None of us, I suspect even Jacinda, knew that in a few weeks’ time she would achieve one of the greatest upsets in New Zealand political history and become Prime Minister.

Sixth Labour Government of New Zealand - Wikipedia
Cabinet Minister’s photographed with the NZ Governor General after being sworn into office, October 2017.

In just over a month New Zealand is holding a General Election. A First term Labour Government under the leadership of Jacinda Ardern will be aiming to win a second term in office. Jacinda Ardern is held up globally as a modern progressive leader and is praised throughout the world for her compassion and humility. In her three years as Prime Minister, she has faced terrorist attacks, volcanic eruptions and now the COVID-19 pandemic. In all these crises, she not only got the country through but showed the world that she was an articulate and competent leader. Jacinda is a world leader at a time when the likes of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Jair Bolsanaro and Scott Watson are running the show. It is hardly surprising that Ardern is seen as a beacon of hope in contrast, but what has her government really achieved?

Jacinda’s response to the recent COVID-19 pandemic will likely be viewed as her crowning achievement, albeit one which was as much due to the actions of civil servants and the support of the wider NZ public as it was the Government. However, in a world plagued by COVID-19, ending community transmission of the disease in New Zealand is a significant achievement, and one the rest of the world is quite envious of.

However, I believe Jacinda’s greatest achievement was in the wake of the Christchurch Mosque shooting where over 50 people were killed. Jacinda Ardern’s immediate response to a targeted attack against the Muslim community was that this was an attack on the whole country. Her words “they are us” sent a powerful message to Muslims both in Aotearoa/New Zealand and throughout the world. A flatmate of mine in London on hearing Jacinda’s words said to me that no UK Prime Minister had ever said that he as a Muslim was part of UK society, highlighting how powerful Jacinda’s message really was. A few weeks later I had a three-week contract in Saudi Arabia and was talking to some of the local labourers over a meal break. On hearing I was from New Zealand these workers were very excited, and told me how wonderful they thought Jacinda’s words after the attack were. The other impressive thing in response to this shooting, was Jacinda’s response the following morning that semi-automatic weapons would be banned. This was a rare example of decisive political leadership in New Zealand politics, which I am sure in years to come will save many lives.

When Jacinda took over as Leader of the New Zealand Labour Party in August 2017, many thought her chances of winning the election seven weeks later were slim. Labour was polling at around 24% when Jacinda took over, whereas the right of centre National Government was consistently polling over 40%. When adding the relatively high Green Party polling numbers at the time to Labour’s there was still little likelihood that NZ would elect a centre-left government a few weeks later.

During the election campaign, Jacinda pulled off a meteoric rise in support for Labour that astounded political commentators. In part, this was due to the arrogance of a third term National Government, who a year earlier had changed to a leader who did not have the charisma and eloquence of his predecessor. By contrast Jacinda presented herself as the fresh face of politics, with a message of positivity and optimism.

On election day I had moved to London. I woke up on Saturday morning and watched the results online. Labour had increased its votes, but National was still the largest party in Parliament. Even with the Green Party Jacinda did not have enough seats to form a government. An economically centrist and socially conservative party called NZ First held the balance of power. This party had previously been in government with both National in the 1990s and Labour in the mid-2000s. In the past, it had gone with the major party who got the most votes and had been hostile to the Green Party, who would be needed in a coalition with Labour. However, the NZ Tories made a tactical error during the campaign of targeting the NZ First leader Winston Peters and releasing details of a pension overpayment. After four weeks of coalition talks, Winston Peters announced he would form a coalition government with Labour and the Green’s.

It is fair to say that this coalition has not been easy to manage. The politics of NZ First are quite different from the socially liberal progressive values of NZ Labour and the Greens. NZ First have acted as a hand brake on many policy areas, even on issues wherein opposition they had sided with Labour and the Green Party. An example of this was probationary employment periods, where having opposed them when National introduced them, recently fought to save them when Labour tried to scrap them. A coalition partner that is more interested in self-promotion and being oppositional is far from ideal.

It is easy for both Labour and the Green Party’s to say they could not achieve all they wanted in their first term in government because of a difficult coalition partner. But this can only go so far. There are certain policy areas where the current Labour-led government have simply not yet delivered. At the beginning of 2019, Jacinda Ardern announced that it would be the year of delivery. Yet in policy areas such as decreasing homelessness, or the now ill-fated Kiwibuild program to build houses to combat the NZ Housing Crisis – delivery simply has not happened. Yes, these are difficult policy areas, but they are also policy areas where Labour took a strong stance in opposition. Twenty years ago, homelessness was rare in New Zealand, yet over the last decade, the streets of Wellington and Auckland now compare with cities like San Francisco for rough sleeping. The current government’s handling of homelessness has been described as an abject failure by commentators. I have blogged about the Housing Crisis in the past and pointed out then that politicians the world over have failed to address this issue. Labour’s promise of 100,000 new homes in ten years has now been abandoned and frankly, the government’s record on this issue to-date is little better than its predecessor.

There are other policy areas where the record is much better. On election to government, NZ Labour kept its promise to make the first year of tertiary education free, as a way of trying to reduce student debt. The Government have finally modernised the country’s abortion laws so that abortion is no longer listed in the NZ Crimes Act. The minimum wage has been increased under the NZ Labour-led government from $15.75 to $18.90, bringing it closer to the NZ Living Wage rate of $22.10, that campaigners are currently pushing for. A cynic might suggest that in policy areas where there is a stronger cabinet minister, much more has been achieved.

The attack line of the opposition and much of the NZ media is that this is a government that has only a handful of competent ministers and that the Labour-Led Government are being carried by the popularity of Jacinda. The recent departure of two fairly senior cabinet ministers suggests there is some truth to the claim that certain ministers have not been performing. Further, it seems there are a few cabinet ministers who have picked up larger and larger portfolios when one of their colleagues is forced to resign, rather than new talent being brought in from the backbench. Megan Woods has been brought in both to salvage the Kiwibuild fiasco, and more recently immigration and border control to fix up the mess of an underperforming predecessor. Meanwhile, Chris Hipkins is now minister for Health, Education, State Services and Leader of the House which is in no way a sustainable workload, especially during a global pandemic. It seems a smaller and smaller clique now surround the Prime Minister when there are many other talented backbench MPs who are ready for ministerial portfolios.

The media in New Zealand have been critical of this government. For years the National Party have made a concerted effort to build a close relationship with the parliamentary press gallery, attending every social and ensuring that the right egos were stroked. With some very worthy exceptions, the quality of NZ political journalism is poor and focuses much more on personality than policy. In this context, it is impressive that Jacinda managed to win the 2017 election for Labour. However, it is generally agreed it was very much Jacinda’s popularity as a leader that won Labour the election. The media remain critical of Labour, particularly certain members of its current front bench who were there prior Jacinda becoming Party leader when Labour was consistently polling under 30%. Many on the left claim the media hold a political bias and in the case of “journalists” like Mike Hoskins, this is very true. However, critical reporting of certain ministers and performance in their portfolios is more than justified.

New Zealand changed from the British First Past the Post system to a Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) voting system based on the German model in 1996. Had New Zealand stuck with the First Past the Post voting system, Jacinda Ardern would not have won the 2017 election. In my series on the 2019 UK election, I pointed out the foolishness of the UK Labour Party’s continued support of the First Past the Post electoral system. When you compare the 2017 elections in the UK and NZ, Labour achieved a similar result in both countries. However, in NZ proportional representation meant it could form a government, though other factors were at play in the UK. The challenge for NZ Labour though, is this is the first time since electoral reform that the party that got the most votes did not form the government. The combined Labour and Green Party vote was higher than National’s meaning the centre-left block has more MPs, but still many have questioned the legitimacy of the government due to this. Psychologically, government ministers may feel this too, possibly explaining a reluctance to be too bold in certain policy areas.

At the start of 2020 polling was neck and neck between the government and opposition in New Zealand. Despite an inept leader, National continued to poll around 40%. The COVID-19 crisis changed things dramatically. Recent polling has Labour on 53% support with National down to 26%, its worst polling numbers in 17 years. The National Party have now changed leaders twice in three months, gone through numerous internal scandals and continue to haemorrhage support. It seems unlikely their new leader Judith Collins will be able to pull things back enough for an upset victory in a months’ time. In a country where the National Party have won roughly two out of every three elections since the Second World War, and who despite losing in 2017 gained over 40% of the vote, the current collapse in support is significant.

The government’s handling of COVID-19 and Jacinda’s strong communication style throughout this crisis has clearly shifted public opinion. That NZ stopped the spread of the virus has meant Labour is polling very well, and Jacinda now holds the record for the best preferred prime minister polling numbers. Whilst it is always risky to pick election results, it now seems unlikely that NZ Labour will lose the coming election in September, despite polling numbers from earlier in the year suggesting this was more than likely.

But Jacinda and her government should not be complacent. Whilst there are undoubtedly areas where this government has performed well, there are other policy areas where there is need for improvement. In a three year term, there is only so much that can be achieved, but this is a government elected on hope, which, as an earlier blog post outlined can be dangerous if you do not live up to expectations. The added challenge now is the COVID-19 crisis and managing the global economic recession that is now hitting. Whilst eradicating the virus has helped the economy as lockdown restrictions could be eased earlier it has also meant the country’s borders have to be tightly controlled. In a country where tourism is a major part of the economic, this is not good news at all.

Critics have dismissed the Jacinda Ardern government as being one of style over substance. This is unfair given the challenges this government has faced and the policy achievements it has had. However, it is a government that has much work to do if it wins a second term. And its over-reliance on Jacinda as party leader is a huge strategic risk, especially when the governments front bench is perceived, rightly or wrongly, to be lightweight. If current polling is accurate and NZ Labour win with a commanding majority next month, they will have a real opportunity to not only address these issues but significantly shape the direction of NZ politics for many years to come.

Global Governance – why we need it, and why it currently does not work.

Shortly after moving to the UK, I attended a screening of Gaylene Preston’s documentary My Year with Helen tracing the former NZ Prime Minister’s unsuccessful bid to become the next United Nations Secretary General in 2016. What became apparent throughout this documentary, was that the United Nations is neither a democratic nor meritocratic organisation. Instead it is a body where decisions are made by those nations with veto powers, or who’s economic and military might needs appeasing. And the selection of people for leadership roles is an exercise in horse trading, not selecting competent or experienced leaders.

Helen Clark Becomes Fourth Woman to Run for U.N. Top Job | Time
Above – Former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark unsuccessfully ran for the position of UN Secretary General in 2016.

Helen Clark has now been appointed Co-Chair the review of how the World Health Organisation (WHO) responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. This will be an interesting review, as clearly there were many ways in which the WHO could have responded better to the pandemic. However, much of the failing was that many nations ignored WHO guidance or acted independently rather than be part of a global response to the pandemic.

As I posted back in April one of the single most irresponsible actions during this crisis was the decision by United States President Donald Trump to de-fund the WHO. The Trump administration having ignored WHO guidance caused many thousands of preventable COVID-19 deaths within the United States. In cutting funds to the WHO during a global pandemic, they have also undermined the global effort to minimise the spread of this dangerous virus.

The United States undermining global governance structures and pursuing its own political agenda ahead of everything else is nothing new, and certainly not something limited to the Trump administration. Nor are the United States the only nation guilty of this. China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States all have the power of veto meaning they can block any resolution from the UN General Assembly, even if it has majority support. These nations are permanent members of the UN Security Council and can veto any nomination for UN Secretary General.

There are countless examples of one nation being condemned by the United Nations for breaching human rights conventions, yet another nation can do far worse and the UN will take no action when a nation with the power of veto is protecting them or is in fact the nation breaching human rights. Any hopes that in the post-Cold War era the United Nations would become a stronger more united entity have been long since dashed.

A similar situation exists with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) where hundreds of very worthy conventions protecting the rights of workers all over the world have been agreed by member nations, then subsequently ignored. My recent post on global unionism outlined the problems these organisations have getting ILO conventions to be upheld, especially in regions of the world where sweat shops and low paid manufacturing are common.

On the issues of climate change, human rights, workers’ rights and economics global governance is crucial. The nation state as we know it today is a human construct only a few hundred years old, and it already is out of date and not fit to meet the challenges of the modern world. This is not to say nations should not have governments, but that trying to solve the big problems facing the modern world through national governments will not work. And we see on issues like climate change, national governments have failed to respond appropriately as the world lurches towards a crisis.

The recent rise of nationalist politics has seen a retreat away from globalism. In part this is due to a rejection of free market economics being foisted on the world through a process called “Globalisation” prior to the 2008 economic crisis. This agenda tried to merge an economic ideology of Neo Liberalism, with the inevitable trend of Globalism whereby enhancements in technology mean travel, communication have become much easier and subsequently more common. Sadly, this coupling of the free market and globalism, has meant the inevitable rejection of the former has seen a decline in support for the latter.

Britain’s decision to leave the European Union can be seen as one example of this rejection of internationalism. Though the EU being a continental/regional rather than global governance body means the issues are more complicated, as one reason for Brexit was a desire of some in the UK for Britain to have a stronger global voice independent of the EU. Another factor though for Brexit support was the ineffectiveness of the EU, both in terms of democratic structures and results. Similar criticism can be made of global governance organisations and has resulted in a decline for their support.

There is no easy solution to the question of enhancing global governance to make it more effective. Were the five nations with Veto powers to relinquish this stranglehold, the UN may stand a fighting chance of gaining more legitimacy. However, the prospect of this happening in the short term is unlikely. This does not mean the power of Veto should not be constantly challenged and called out whenever one of the five nations uses this power.

Removing veto powers will not in itself resolve the pressing issue of establishing global governance structures that have the power to make decisions that are desperately needed right now. Trying to establish a global democratic structure, when many of the nations who belong to it are in no way democratic is a difficult contradiction to overcome. Further, the logistics of trying to engage people across the planet in a democratic global governance structure would be complicated. The risk is that yet again, those most engaged would be those from economically better off countries and their interests would continue to dominate the global political agenda.

The other difficulty will be getting nation states to relinquish certain powers to a global governance structure. It would make sense for the WHO to take control of the global response to COVID-19 and this would have most likely resulted in greater consistency and many thousands of lives being saved. But politically, few governments want to give up power and nor would their citizens likely accept being governed by an international force even if the motivations are good. Getting people to accept global governance and allowing it to have greater power would require a profound shift in public opinion throughout the world.

These are big questions, with no easy answers. The concern right now is that the future of global governance is not being discussed or debated nearly enough. Having a US President de-fund the WHO during a pandemic is shocking, but far worse is that few seemed terribly bothered or concerned when this happened. The challenges facing humanity in the 21st century require strong global governance and addressing this challenge should be a top priority for all policy makers.

Never too late: Prevention in an ageing world

In late February the International Longevity Centre’s (ILC UK) held a launch of their Prevention in an ageing world report which highlights the importance of prevention to reduce long term illness and disability in later life. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the release of this report was overshadowed, ironically by a virus where prevention was key to saving lives.

This report highlights that in response to the 2008 financial crisis, global spending on prevention in healthcare was one of the first areas to be cut. It also has been one of the last areas of healthcare spending to get a funding boost as the world started to recover from this economic slowdown.

Life expectancy has been increasing in recent decades; however, many people are not living these extra years in good health. The UK Government has a strategy of supporting people enjoy at least 5 extra healthy, independent years of life by 2035. Unless the Government invests in prevention in health care systems it will struggle to achieve this goal. According to the ILC UK there are 27.1 million people in the world living with preventable disabilities, and this figure is set to increase significantly over the coming decades unless policy makers start to seriously address this.

One of the other issues addressed in this report is that investing in people living longer healthier lives will have an economic return. This would allow older people to continue working so valuable skills and experience can be utilised. People being healthier in older age means this demographic are likely to be spending more thus contributing to the economy in that way. Focusing on prevention in healthcare will help ease pressure on the NHS and hospitals by reducing the number of people needing acute care for preventable conditions.

The ILC UK have published three key themes which would help make prevention in healthcare a reality. These are listed below:

Never too late: Prevention in an ageing world - ILC UK report ...

The COVID-19 pandemic has further highlighted the importance of prevention in healthcare. Those most vulnerable to the virus were those with underlying health conditions. The UK Government have today announced a strategy to tackle obesity and part of their justification for this was that excess weight puts individuals at risk of worse outcomes from coronavirus. So, whilst the ILC UK report may not have received the initial attention that it deserved, its content is relevant during this current global health crisis.

Trade unionism: does it have a future?

In mid-2016 the former president of the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions Helen Kelly (no relation) came to speak to PSA staff at morning tea. Helen had been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer and would sadly die later that year. At the time some of the PSA staff thought it would be an idea to start singing at meetings or union gatherings. These would either be Waiata (Maori songs) or old union protest songs. On that morning the decision was that we should all sing We shall not be moved. Helen was very polite and thanked us for the welcome, but then responded: “I’m sorry to break it to you, but we’ve been moved.”

Filmmaker Tony Sutorius on Helen Kelly's last stand

Above: Former NZ Council of Trade Unions President Helen Kelly

Helen went on to give a speech I heard her make in various forms throughout her term as CTU president. As a movement, unions ‘needed to evolve’ to organise the current workforce. Most workers ‘had no contact’ with unions and our structures were a barrier to most workers getting involved. Helen and I worked together for most of her time as CTU President. We did not always see eye to eye on everything but on this, she was absolutely spot on.

In these blog posts about my time in the union movement, I have talked about some of the challenges that unions face organising workers in the 21st century. I have discussed some of the debates in the movement regarding small or industry-specific unions vs larger general workers organisations. I have talked about the role of peak bodies, and the role they are meant to play, and how at times they can be disconnected from the members they serve. This disconnect is even worse with the global trade union movement, who do important but often completely ignored work. I have also mentioned the toxic role that competitive unionism has on trying to organise workers.

It is easy to feel demoralised about the state of trade unionism in the early 21st century. At times it can feel like parts of the movement are stagnant and at times moribund. There are plenty of exceptions to this and it would be wrong to dismiss the good work that many in the movement do day in day out. And there are some unions with well thought out strategies, democratic structures that empower their members to improve their workplaces, industries and wider society. But the brutal fact is that most union organisations and structures are not strategic, they often lack democratic accountability and simply are not organisations or structures that are appropriate for organising workers in the 21st century.

I am not going to give specific examples of unions that are not performing. And these comments are not specifically aimed at New Zealand, England or any other country. The union movement globally needs to seriously rethink its structures and its culture. One of the difficult issues in trade unions is it can be seen as disloyal to criticise the movement as a whole. Also, union leaders can see any criticism of the way their union is run as a personal slight. This inability to accept criticism is unfortunate, especially when only one in five workers are members of trade unions, and in many sectors, there is no trade union representing workers at all.

My personal experience of working in the trade union movement was one of the greatest experiences I ever had. I was privileged enough to attend international conferences as a youth representative. I was put forward for leadership roles and to be exposed to the structures of the movement at all levels. Also, I made lifelong friendships and still consider myself part of the union family. However, the limitations and frustrations of working within the existing union structures over time became wearying. I felt like much of what we were doing was servicing, aka maintaining the status quo. Much of the time was spent on personal cases looking after members on the job, which is, of course, vital work, but unions need to be more than social workers and legal counsel. I was privileged enough to be working with colleagues who were doing ground-breaking work – an example the Care and Support settlement for care and disability workers in 2017.

The biggest frustration was that union structures have not evolved. In the last 20-30 years, the increasing number of casual, fixed term or contractor roles has increased significantly. The Union movement is set up to organise permanent employees – and this was fine in 1955 when the workforce was mostly that. In 2020 it is not. For example, in construction, there has been a shift towards contracting and people setting up as self-employed or starting their own small businesses. Another example is Uber, where people are freelance drivers contracting to Uber, rather than employees. Unions in London have tried to argue these drivers are employees and want people who work them to be treated as such. Problem is many uber drivers, construction workers and others engaged in this way are not actually seeking to be permanent employees with fixed hours or salaries. The union movement wants a workforce that fits with their structure, rather than finding new ways to organise people in contractor type setups.

The rise of casualisation and fixed-term employment has led to work being more precarious and helped to drive down wages and conditions. Understandably the union movement wants this to stop. Trouble is, while this precarious work does cause all these problems, it also allows greater flexibility, something both employers and many workers desire. A rigid system of shifts and rosters works in some industries, in others, flexibility works for everyone. There are clearly employers who take the piss such as McDonald’s in the UK who put their staff on zero-hour contracts despite the fact these workers were given regular work rosters each week. But there are plenty of examples of industries where variable hours are necessary such as event management. For too many unions they want the world of work to fit in their box.

One of the issues unions face is that they have been told since the 1970’s that they are dinosaurs. When unions are more moderate or pliable to the employers or business they are called ‘modern’ or sensible. This is what the rival union trying to undermine the Tramways Union in 2007 was called by the employer. The reaction to this is a view that defending the old ways of organising or running the union is principled and a way of resisting neoliberalism. That some unions change by becoming ineffective wet blankets does not mean everyone who changes is a sell-out. There is a difference between ideology or principle and strategy and tactics. Yes, the goal is to get through the brick wall, but this does not mean smashing your head against it is the only principled course of action.

Above: Manufacturing & Construction Workers Union Graeme Clarke speaking at the 30th anniversary of the Wellington Trades Hall bombing.

The other issue is that unions do not understand the capitalist system they work within. For all their talk of socialism, the role of unions is to improve the pay and conditions of workers within the current economic order, in effect making it more palatable for workers. One of the things that keep capitalism going is the process of creative destruction, whereby the old and inefficient is replaced by the new and vibrant. A recent example of this is again the rise of uber, which has undermined the Black Cabs in London. Sections of the union movement have fought hard to defend the black cabs, and at times it seemed, were wanting to work with Transport For London (TFL) to wipe Uber out. When over three million Londoners have Uber accounts, and thousands of people drive/work for them this is foolish. Worse, many Uber drivers are looking to organise to campaign for better rates per job, and the old union movement structures are unable to accommodate or are standing in the way of this happening.

That unions defend their own outdated structures is one thing, that they then fetishize inefficient or outdated businesses or structures of capital is just bonkers. Yes, it is understandable that unions want to resist redundancies or restructuring where workers lose jobs or are engaged in inferior employment conditions. But becoming the defender of the old, when often the old was not that great for workers, is both uninspiring and ultimately defeating. Rather than react to or resist change, unions need to understand the process of creative destruction and respond accordingly. Part of the problem is the workers themselves will often not wish to accept that their industry is dying. When New Zealand abolished car tariffs in the 1990s the campaign to save car jobs fell flat. They were arguing for jobs whereby people were reassembling cars that had already been built overseas. These reassembling jobs were created to satisfy government tariff restrictions, meaning the cost of cars in NZ was considerably more expensive. Instead of trying to defend this, the unions needed to campaign for these workers to be transferred into new industries and to be given retraining. They needed to put pressure on industry and government to ensure people were not thrown on the scrap heap.

The other thing unions do is they rely far too heavily on the state to protect the rights of workers. Yes, of course, it is the government’s role to legislate to ensure workers have decent employment and health and safety laws. Unions should be pushing for governments to do this. However, they cannot rely on legislation alone to improve employment conditions. The role of unions is to be an independent collective voice for workers. They need to be a movement that can both win and defend better terms and conditions of employment regardless of who is in power. As my previous post outlined, unions affiliations with certain political party’s can be problematic. It can mean political relationships and loyalties are prioritised over organising. This can also mean strategies are made which rely on the centre-left winning elections, which in many countries only happens occasionally if at all, and even then there is no guarantee that centre-left governments can or will implement the wishes of the union movement. To really make a change, they need to build political support for policies that make it difficult for governments of any colour to resist.

In recent years the New Zealand CTU has called for the reinstatement of industry bargaining, based on the old award system that existed before the 1980s. This system still operates in Australia, and similar systems operate in certain European nations. The idea is that instead of just bargaining between the union and employers, there will be a second tier of bargaining across an industry which is facilitated by the state. The idea is that this will improve the minimum standards of employment across the union movement. The Award system was introduced in New Zealand and Australia as a way of quelling militant unionism at the end of the 19th century. The benefit is that it sets a baseline for pay and conditions, but it can also limit the ability for well-organised workplaces to campaign for conditions that are better than that in the award or industry agreement. For example, in the bus driving sector, awards would benefit the companies where there is no union, and drivers are paid minimum wage with no overtime rates or other benefits. In all likelihood, bus drivers in the bigger cities where union membership is much higher, this sort of industry agreement would be used as leverage to remove conditions like penalty rates that were significantly better than what would likely be in an industry-wide agreement. The other problem is that an industry agreement would apply to people regardless of whether they were members of a union or not. From this, there is little opportunity to build a union movement that can fight to improve workers’ rights. The experience in Australia which kept its Award system was that union membership was much the same as New Zealand where Awards were scrapped in 1987. Further, often the Award conditions in Australia are not that great, especially if the state generally has right-wing governments. In New Zealand, calls for industry agreements have to date had no traction, even under the present Labour Government. The union movement has failed to convince even its own membership, let alone the wider voting public, of the merits of such a change. Sadly, this has been the only real big picture strategy from the NZ trade union peak body to improve employment law, with most other proposals focussed more on tinkering with current legislation rather than challenging fundamentals.

When I started my journey into radical socialist politics in early 2001, I met with lifelong socialist and trade union activist Don Franks. He told me many on the left often threw their hands in the air and say “the trade union movement is fucked.” The problem with this as Don pointed out, there is nowhere to go after that.

Trade Unionism is about people working together to achieve a common interest, something which people have done throughout human history. Where there is injustice, humans will band together to fight against it collectively. It’s what we do. Trade unionism is human nature – working together to achieve a common goal and to help out one another. Talk about the trade union movement dying is nonsense. In the past, I have talked about certain unions being moribund – this does not mean I think unionism is. What is moribund is old ways of working, old inflexible structures that do not correspond to the modern world and the modern workforce.

The future of trade unionism needs to be about engaging the 80% of the workforce who currently do not belong, cannot belong or who have next to no contact with trade unions. It is about building a new democratic movement that is run by workers for workers. This movement would need to actively engage in politics at all levels, and rather than blindly aligning to a party it will have a strategy built by members that advance the interests of working people and creates a political climate where no government want to attack workers’ rights. There needs to be a structure that accommodates for the fact that people often work multiple jobs, across multiple professions or sectors – at present people may need to join 2-3 different unions to cover their different roles. There also needs to be a union movement where if someone becomes unemployed they remain in the union and continue to be supported by the wider movement – rather than the current situation where unions throw the unemployed on the scrapheap the same as the rest of society does.

Building a new responsive union movement that is appropriate for the 21st century will require a lot of work and energy. Many parts of the existing trade union movement can provide a basis to build the new one that is needed, but sadly quite a lot of it rather than being a useful foundation will actually be little more than a hindrance. In the same way that capital uses creative destruction to discard the inefficient and outdated for the new and dynamic, the union movement must be brave enough to do the same. While it is great to celebrate the history of the union movement and record its past struggles, we cannot preserve union organisations out of nostalgia if they no longer do what we need them to. And in this, I do not just refer to smaller craft unions, many of the larger or multi-sector organisations can be just as useless.

One of the difficulties or fears union organisers have is that they will struggle to find work outside of the union movement. I am living proof that union organisers can go on to do other things, but I also have to say that it can be difficult. In part, this is due to hostility from certain employers towards unionist who they view as troublemakers. But even in left circles, working for a trade union can be a barrier to gaining other roles, as a perception exists that unions are ineffective at campaigning or strategy. Many unions and unionists are great at campaigns and strategy, but many others are not and this undermines the credibility of the whole movement. Many unions are stuck with organisers and other employees who would love to get out but do not feel they can. At the same time, many other unionists would love to get a job in a union but struggle for years to get in. For that reason, I left when I knew it was right for me, and always thought at some stage I would move on. Part of being a strong sustainable union movement must be creating an environment where people can get involved and do their best work, but also go back into the wider workforce and do other things when its right for them to do so. Having people with broader work-life experience than just organising or union work is crucial. Otherwise, you create this weird subculture of union workers who lose the ability to relate to the wider working class. Some people want to just work for unions their whole working life, and that is great, they should. But for too many, including those in union leadership roles, they do not feel they can be employed outside the union movement so stay out of fear.

There is no blueprint for building a stronger more effective trade union movement. There are many, who each and every day wake up and do exactly that. I have had the privilege to work with and learn from these people. Both union staff and active union members make a huge difference every single day, and they rightly should hold their head high with the work they do. And it is for them, and for the workers everywhere who want and deserve a better working life, that we need to build a much stronger, vibrant, democratic, and successful trade union movement.

Earlier posts in this series:

Why Trade Unionism

“Its a shit job, it pays shit money and if you don’t like it you can fuck off” – My introduction to bus driving

Tramways Union: From new driver to union president in 18 months

Go Wellington bus driver lockout 2008

Buses, bikes and pedestrians collide: Unions supporting health and safety

Tramways Union: Strikes, sex scandals and solidarity

Wellington buses now: how a local authority harmed public transport

NZ Public Service Association & the Soviet Union partnership plot

Public Service International – global unionism

Local Government – crucial and undervalued

Working in the Public Sector – the defence force goes on strike

Union peak bodies: a beacon of hope for all workers

Trade unions and political affiliations

Earlier Blog posts about Nick:

School uniforms and the young Nick Kelly

Why the Labour Party

Radical Socialism

University and Student Politics

The Iraq War

Student Fees

VUWSA Campaigns

Blogs and the Political Establishment

The Student Union Building

VUWSA President – the realities of leadership

Post VUWSA Executive

Trade Unions and political affiliations

Trade Unions are often affiliated with the main left or centre-left political Party in their given country. In parts of the world trade unions are aligned to either communist or social-democratic factions, and these unions will compete for members on that basis.

My experience of unions both in New Zealand and to a lesser extent in the UK has not convinced me that unions affiliating to a political party, usually Labour, is always a good idea. Unions are political by there very nature, and they need to actively engage in politics. But is openly aligning to a political party the best way for a union to do this?

Westminster - WikipediaThe Beehive & Parliament Buildings, Wellington - Eventfinda

The Labour Party was founded to be the political and parliamentary arm of the labour movement in the early twentieth century. The idea was that eventually, most workers would join a trade union, that they would be the majority, and in turn, they would put representatives up through their party who’d get elected and would be accountable to the movement. This was the parliamentary road to socialism, the alternative to revolution and Bolshevism.

The reality in 2020 is of course very different. In New Zealand, roughly one in five wage workers belongs to a trade union, a figure that is consistent with the UK and many other democratic societies. Most workers do not join a union, a matter I will address in my next post. This has two implications. Firstly, it means that the Labour Party cannot get into government by winning the support of trade unionists alone. Given the significant decline in union membership since the 1970s globally, increasingly Labour or Party’s of the left have needed to have a broader appeal and having relationships with unions has become far less useful. Secondly, given union membership is low and has declined drastically in recent decades, what value have long-standing political affiliations with the parliamentary party’s really achieved?

I am not arguing that trade unions should not affiliate to Labour or any other party for that matter. But if they do, they need to answer one simple but important question. Why?

An effective trade union is democratic, and member led. For a union to set a successful industrial strategy, it needs its members who work on the front line not just to buy into the strategy, but proactively have input and make the calls on what should happen. The political strategy is no different. If a union is affiliated to a political party, you should be able to walk up to the train drivers, cleaners, Postie or whatever professions the union covers, ask the member why the union is affiliated to the said political party and for them to a) have a clear understanding of why and b) have been part of that decision-making process.

What often, though not always happens is a far less democratic process. Union members will elect some delegates or shop Stewart to represent them onsite. From there these representatives will send a representative to the regional forum. From there one person from each region will sit on a national committee. This national committee or a subcommittee within the committee will make a decision about political affiliation. Possibly, the matter will go to a biannual conference and will be debated by the select few union members who could take the time off and were selected to represent their workplace at the conference.  In very few cases, do unions that politically affiliate have strong ongoing democratic decision-making processes where the full membership decide whether their union, which they joined to protect their employment rights at work, should join a political party. In many cases, union members may not even be aware that their union are affiliated, or that part of their membership dues is donated to a political party.

Unions should have a political strategy. At the very least union peak bodies should have a very clear idea of what employment and health and safety legislation should be. At a sector level, you would expect education or transport unions to have clear positions on what government policies they should or should not support. Having worked in trade unions I am sad to report that this often is not the case. In many cases, unions are focused on the day to day servicing of union members and do not have a clear vision or strategy to improve things. In some cases, political affiliation is an easier substitute for union leaders than having to work with members to develop an independent union political strategy.

As much as Labour or left Party’s have less need for strong relationships with trade unions, the same could be said for unions towards them. In New Zealand for example, since the Second World War, the centre-right National Party have won two out of every three elections. In fact, in most English-speaking democracies the party of the political right is the natural party of government which wins more elections than it loses. So why align with the party that usually loses?

When Centre-left Party’s do get into government, this is not always good news for unions or their members. In 1984 the New Zealand Labour Party came to power and began a programme of new right economic reforms, resulting in the single biggest transfer of wealth from working people to the very wealthy in the twentieth century. Throughout the six years of this government, union leaders were mistakenly calling for loyalty to the Labour Government, even when their members were losing their jobs or facing significant pay cuts. This is an extreme example, but one which illustrates why blind loyalty to a political party, regardless of the policies they advocate is very foolish.

On the flip side, there have been occasions where unions have been able to win major policy concessions under Centre-Right governments. Another NZ example was in 2016 when zero-hour contracts were banned in that country under a National (conservative) Government. This same government implemented a $2 billion pay settlement to increase pay for care and support workers. Yes, in both cases, Labour and other opposition party’s were calling for change, but ultimately the centre-right government made concessions due to the successful political strategy of unions.

While undoubtedly there have been times when unions having a close relationship with Labour or left Party’s has been successful, it has certainly not always been the case. For unions to evolve to what they need to be in the 21st century, they need to be extremely focused and democratic organisations with a clear idea of who they are, what they are doing and why. Unions may still be able to do this while having formal affiliations to a party, but in far too often this simply is not the case.

 

Earlier posts in this series:

Why Trade Unionism

“Its a shit job, it pays shit money and if you don’t like it you can fuck off” – My introduction to bus driving

Tramways Union: From new driver to union president in 18 months

Go Wellington bus driver lockout 2008

Buses, bikes and pedestrians collide: Unions supporting health and safety

Tramways Union: Strikes, sex scandals and solidarity

 

Wellington buses now: how a local authority harmed public transport

NZ Public Service Association & the Soviet Union partnership plot

Public Service International – global unionism

Local Government – crucial and undervalued

 

Working in the Public Sector – the defence force goes on strike

Union peak bodies: a beacon of hope for all workers

Earlier Blog posts about Nick:

School uniforms and the young Nick Kelly

Why the Labour Party

Radical Socialism

University and Student Politics

The Iraq War

Student Fees

VUWSA Campaigns

Blogs and the Political Establishment

The Student Union Building

VUWSA President – the realities of leadership

Post VUWSA Executive

Union peak bodies: a beacon of hope for all workers

The role of the Union peak body is to provide national or international leadership for all union members. The union movement structure in NZ and many other countries is to have several sector-specific unions, which then affiliate to a peak body. In some countries, there is more than one peak body,  for example left or right unions will want to group separately.

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in the late 19th century advocated the idea of ‘one big union’. Whilst there are the sector-specific issues facing certain professions, the general role of unions is to empower members to fight and win improved working conditions. One big democratic union where joined up thinking and an overall strategy is present would be far more effective. This could still have departments focusing on sector-specific issues, but they would not be separate from the main bigger group.

Industrial Workers of the World - Wikipedia

The reality is that unions grew up as guilds and craft unions in the 19th century, and this legacy is carried through to the present day. 19th and early 20th century models of unionism are expected to serve the interests of workers in the 21st century in an ever-changing workforce.

In this context, peak bodies exist as the national or international voice of organised labour. At a national level, peak bodies like the Council of Trade Unions (CTU) in NZ or the Trade Union Congress (TUC) in the UK are the main group who lobby government on behalf of all union members. They also are the main go-to for media wanting comment on workers’ rights issues generally. Like international union peak bodies, national peak bodies can suffer the same issue of disconnect from their rank and file membership. At times peak bodies can operate in a bubble and risk being captured by officialdom and the political establishment.

The major challenge with the structure of peak bodies is that their affiliate members are often in direct competition with each other. As mentioned in my earlier post, there are multiple unions trying to organise bus drivers in New Zealand. When briefly working for a union in the UK, one of my jobs was to talk to bus drivers asking them to join Unite union when most drivers on that site were members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) Union. When unions are trying to defend their declining empires in a Game of Thrones-style power struggle.

There is also a big verses small union battle, which sometimes is ideological but more often union officials battling to keep their patch. The small local union model is arguably more accountable as their officials are more accountable and their focus will be solely on their local members. The big unions argue that they have more resource and have more sway with employers. Having worked in both I have seen the strengths and weaknesses of both. In the big unions, they often have members from many professions or employers, it is easy for workplaces to be neglected if there is not a proper organising structure. Equally, in small unions, the sole focus can be bread and butter local issues and the bigger picture gets neglected, ultimately harming their members.

My view is that neither big or small unions function particularly well in the modern-day workforce. There are many notable exceptions to this where both do very good work. But few have found the balance of good local support for members, tackling national and international issues and crucially not wasting considerable time and resource fighting another rival union encroaching on their patch.

Were I to try and design a model that may possibly work, it would be to have the union peak body running all the back-office functions. Combining the legal, policy, membership systems, and even campaign work into one big back-office function would allow a concentration of resource and stop duplication across the movement. Peak bodies would also become the employer of all union staff and pay scales and other employment conditions of union workers would be consistent rather than certain unions in certain sectors paying more. The unions could maintain their separate brands and democratic structures and have their sector focus but would be working cohesively as a movement.

The role of the peak body is primarily to provide the vision for the movement. Their role is to head national campaigns that improve employment and health and safety legislation. And help affiliates work and campaign together to bring positive change. But more than this, the peak body should be a shining light to the whole movement. It should be advocating for the future of work to be one where workers are empowered and no longer exploited or alienated from the systems of production they work in. In short, this peak body’s need to be a beacon of hope and a movement for real change, not just a semi coordinated alliance of union organisations that are defensive and only try to maintain the status quo.

For unions and their peak bodies to achieve this, they need to radically re-think their structures and models. They also need a fairly fundamental rethink of how they operate in an evolving 21st-century workforce. The next post in this series will consider what some of these changes need to be.

Earlier posts in this series:

Why Trade Unionism

“Its a shit job, it pays shit money and if you don’t like it you can fuck off” – My introduction to bus driving

Tramways Union: From new driver to union president in 18 months

Go Wellington bus driver lockout 2008

Buses, bikes and pedestrians collide: Unions supporting health and safety

Tramways Union: Strikes, sex scandals and solidarity

Wellington buses now: how a local authority harmed public transport

NZ Public Service Association & the Soviet Union partnership plot

Public Service International – global unionism

Local Government – crucial and undervalued

Working in the Public Sector – the defence force goes on strike

Earlier Blog posts about Nick:

School uniforms and the young Nick Kelly

Why the Labour Party

Radical Socialism

University and Student Politics

The Iraq War

Student Fees

VUWSA Campaigns

Blogs and the Political Establishment

The Student Union Building

VUWSA President – the realities of leadership

Post VUWSA Executive