In the 1978 film ‘Blue Collar’, Harvey Keitel, Richard Pryor and Yaphet Kotto play workers in a Detroit car factory. Fed up with both management and their union they take drastic measures which mean things don’t end well. Over forty years later, Detroit, like many industrial towns here in the UK, has lost the old industries that provided work for thousands and the once dominant unions are largely peripheral. Many people living in those areas are either unemployed or poorly paid and insecure work ahead of them. The COVID crisis has exposed the total inadequacy of the modern employment model. Workers who would have once enjoyed company sick pay now rely on a meagre government alternative or food banks run by charities. To their credit, the fledgling IWGB (Independent Workers Of Great Britain) a rank and file union formed as a result of the indifference of the traditional ones to the plight of those struggling in the gig economy, have stood up for those workers and initiated legal action.
So where are Liberals and their party the Liberal Democrats on all this? On the sidelines is the best description, yes spokespeople have made some statements on the hardship caused by the current crisis but the world of work is not an area that they seem to want to venture into. Maybe it is because in the coalition years, Liberal Democrat ministers introduced measures that reduced rights at work? The real problem is the party is an organisation dominated by the professional middle classes most of whom have never had their hands dirty over a sustained period of time. The world of manual labour and shift work is one they have never inhabited nor are they ever likely to.
To her credit Layla Moran has developed relationships with the teaching unions as part of her role as Education spokesperson but which of her colleagues has reached out to bodies that represent millions of people? Not many, if any would be my guess. This means Labour continues to be seen by many working people as their party – hardly a surprise given our record.
The Labour Party will no doubt put a lot of effort into winning back those who lent their votes to the Conservatives last time and with an electable leader combined with little competition they will no doubt enjoy some success. That leaves the Liberal Democrats on the sidelines plotting to win just a few more parliamentary seats from the Conservatives in suburbia and the Celtic Fringe. In the short term, that is probably the best we can hope for given the parlous state of the parliamentary party. But in the longer term, our constantly imminent breakthrough will only arrive by expanding the voting base of the Liberal Democrats. Having a national trade union officer would be a good start, even the much smaller Green Party have one of those! We also need to campaign in working class communities, develop policies relevant to the daily lives of the people that live in them and get some faces at the top of the party that they can recognise as having lived similar lives to them. The choice is simple: stay on the sidelines or take a bold step forward.
In the months and years ahead we will see which it is to be. There have been some encouraging statements in the current leadership campaigns but only time will tell if those words are turned into action. Oh, and if you can still find it after all these years, give Blue Collar a watch. It is actually a pretty good film.
David is a member of Horsham Liberal Democrats.