Margaret Thatcher's legacy, the crushing of trade unions, has created a society blighted by poverty wages and despair – Joyce McMillan

Have you given up watching the news, yet? Millions in the UK tell us that they have, and it’s difficult to blame them.
The marginalising of workers’ voices that began under Margaret Thatcher has helped create a profoundly troubled UK economic scene (Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)The marginalising of workers’ voices that began under Margaret Thatcher has helped create a profoundly troubled UK economic scene (Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
The marginalising of workers’ voices that began under Margaret Thatcher has helped create a profoundly troubled UK economic scene (Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The avalanches of huge and intractable global problems are agonising; and now, the people of the UK are also having to contend with all the signs of a looming winter crisis of unusual severity.

One one hand, the UK rate of Covid infection remains among the highest in the western world, with at least 100 Covid deaths a day apparently seen as a price worth paying for an open economy. Yet on the other, that economy is experiencing unprecedented difficulties, as the full impact of Brexit, combined with pandemic-related disruptions, slams into our supply chains and energy market. Grim times indeed, for those on limited incomes who cannot panic-buy, or stump up for higher power bills.

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According to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, though, all is well in the sunny uplands of ‘global Britain’, as he tells us from a New York rooftop that he “does not believe” that anyone in Britain will struggle to put food on the table this winter. Instead, he believes that the labour shortages he has engineered, by slamming up the shutters on 40 years of freedom of movement between Britain and the EU, will cause wages to rise, and that people will consequently be fine.

And one can certainly see why that solution to Britain’s chronic low-wage problem would have a certain appeal, to a Conservative raised on 45 years of crass free-market ideology. The current labour shortage will certainly raise wages in some parts of the commercial economy, notably for HGV drivers, and for workers in hospitality and food production.

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The idea that this wage hike will raise all boats, though, seems vanishingly unlikely, given the huge Brexit hit on the export potential of thousands of British companies; and as for the public sector – well, Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak are already applying the crudest kind of austerity thinking to the huge surge in government spending during the pandemic. Benefits are down, National Insurance is up; and public sector employees in England will generally see a fall in their real-terms income this year.

All of which raises a vital question about what exactly the UK has become, over the last few decades, if the only way that we can begin to correct our national addiction to poverty wages – even for a limited numbers of workers – is to engineer a move as profoundly disruptive and destructive as Brexit. There is, of course, another way of ensuring that wages are maintained at a decent level, even in times of substantial freedom of movement of labour; and there are successful examples of it all around us, here in northern Europe, perhaps most notably in Germany.

That method involves respecting and encouraging the representation of workers through trade unions, and including them in the decision-making of companies and government at all levels. It involves recognising that a model of capitalism which proceeds by always reducing workers’ wages and conditions to the minimum possible, seeking out cheap labour, and threatening those who try to organise unions, in fact finally corrodes and disrupts the society on which it depends; and it seeks to avoid such crises by ensuring that labour market rules and proper representation are enforced for all workers, regardless of origin.

And it is increasingly evident, as the story of Brexit unfolds, that the British government’s failure to attempt any of this, over decades, is substantially responsible for the sense of disaffection, powerlessness and hopelessness, in parts of the labour market, that contributed to the Brexit vote. This week, a UK HGV driver went online to explain why so many drivers will not return to their jobs this year; the picture he paints, of a non-unionised labour market characterised both by the ruthless use of migrant labour to reduce wages, and by a complete failure to enforce decent working conditions and standards, is just part of a disgraceful long-term story of declining labour conditions and failed regulation in many sectors of the UK economy.

It is not difficult to see, of course, why Britain’s political leaders have been so reluctant to adopt a more rational and co-operative approach to economic management. We have been saddled not only with ideologically driven Conservative governments who barely acknowledge a legitimate role for trade unions in political life, but also – crucially – with a Labour Party which has rarely, since the early 1980s, dared to challenge the spasm of snobbery and divisiveness with which Margaret Thatcher sought to crush the trade unions during that decade; and which shows few signs – despite fierce internal strains – of doing so under Keir Starmer.

And the result of this marginalising of workers’ voices – and of the present government’s preference for “disaster capitalism” over the proper and humane management of a mixed economy – is the profoundly troubled UK economic scene we see today. To say that this outcome suits the Johnsonian right is to understate the case, of course; it is the kind of perfect storm of economic disruption from which their wealthy friends know only too well how to profit.

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Theirs is an ideology, though, now notorious across the planet for its destructive short-termism, for its disregard of climate change outcomes regardless of fine words, and for its inability to value either humanity or nature as highly as money. And as those on the centre-left across the world begin to resist this catastrophic cult of cash, the fundamental civil right of organised workers to be heard and represented must be one of the vital foundations of our efforts to build back towards a sustainable future – one that works to avoid catastrophe and crisis, rather than actively seeking it out, as an opportunity to make a quick buck.

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