CLASS: working for the labour movement

4 Oct

by Rachel Yates & Carolyn Jones

As the Labour Party determines its policy going into the next general election and conference delegates ponder the meaning of “predistribution” and the likelihood of “responsible capitalism”, there is an overwhelming sense that another world is possible.

Neoliberalism has failed. Austerity has been rejected as a solution. Osborne gets booed when he opens his mouth and Clegg’s only chance of reaching number one is as the joke song in the charts.

But none of that puts Labour in power or progressive policies back on the political agenda.

So how do we construct and popularise our alternative, progressive vision? How do we ensure trade unions -the organised wing of the 99%-  are listened to when determining industrial, social and economic solutions to modern day problems?

Most importantly, how do we ensure that those elected to represent us, listen to and act upon the concerns of ordinary working people amidst the din of Westminster chatter?

At the TUC congress last month, Ed Balls displayed a shocking level of ignorance towards issues of central concern to trade unionists – employment rights, trade union freedoms, pensions, pay and jobs. And while it is true that a Labour Government would have to reach out to people beyond the ranks of the trade union movement, it is also true that the distance placed by New Labour between the party and the unions undoubtedly contributed to the loss of 5 million members and a dramatic fall in support at the ballot box.

So it is essential that the labour party reconnects with working people and puts forward policies that identify with their concerns. That is why the creation of the new think tank CLASS (Centre for Labour and Social Studies) is such a good initiative.   Kick started by GMB, PCS and UNITE and supported by an ever growing number of trade unions, CLASS aims to inform the debate on a wide range of policy areas.

And IER are proud to have been asked to assist in shaping the creation of CLASS. The Institute has over 20 years experience of running a think tank for the labour movement. IER’s remit is restricted to employment rights and trade union freedoms. But CLASS intends to cover a far wider range of issues, creating a trade union based hub dedicated to developing and disseminating progressive arguments.

Keith Ewing, President of IER and a Management Committee member of CLASS said: “The Institute welcomes the opportunity to take part in this profoundly important venture.  In doing so, we hope that together we can help turn the intellectual tide by developing and taking forward progressive ideas on a wide range of social, economic and political questions. 

 By bringing together leading thinkers, CLASS will begin powerfully to counteract the neo-liberal messages being generated constantly by right wing think tanks and their friends in the corporate press.  We see this as an ambitious initiative that will help develop policies for trade unions and their members, and in doing so will fill the huge policy void on the Left.

 It will contribute to a ‘new reality’, a new vision, and a renewed sense of hope”.

The structure to be used by CLASS builds on that developed by IER – bringing together academics, lawyers,journalists, trade unionists, bloggers and pressure groups like UKuncut all under one umbrella organisation. The aim that unites these forces is the desire to reconnect trade unions, politicians and public opinion to the progressive cause of labour.

A glance at CLASS’s programme of work shows how effective such a force can be. Despite running on a very small staff compliment, CLASS has managed a colossal amount in a very short time, utilising its network of experts to produce policy papers and think pieces on education, welfare, industry, banking, housing and inequality.

IER Chair and member of the CLASS Management Committee John Hendy QC said:

 “I think CLASS is a vital tool in getting the message across that there is an alternative to austerity and the destruction of the welfare state. CLASS has access to leading academics who show what the workable practical alternative is. The neo-liberals proliferate think tanks to advance their philosophy of greed and to justify the thesis that the survival of the rich is essential and that the poor must pay for it. CLASS is crucial in rebutting this nonsense.”

At the TUC it launched Why Inequality Matters, based on the research conducted by the authors of the Spirit Level, Professor Richard Wilkinson and Kate  Pickett, and produced in association with My Fair London and The Equality Trust -an excellent example of working collectively to strengthen the message.

CLASS is now busy developing projects for the future, including a timely reminder of the origins of the welfare state. Coinciding with the 70th anniversary of the Beveridge Report, the project will highlight the significance of that report – not only for its content but also its context.

In the midst of World War 11, with a budget deficit and national debt that makes’ today’s look negligible, the Beveridge Report laid the basis for the radical reforms of the 1945 Labour government. Learning from our past, the project will chart an alternative course for a welfare state fit for 2015.

Geoff Shears, Treasurer of IER and Vice President of CLASS said:

The Institute recognises that real progress-in terms of collective bargaining, trade union rights, workers’security -requires real and effective resistance to the onslaught of neo-liberalism. We therefore offer our support and experience to CLASS in its programme to establish a strategic framework which will inform the fight-back against austerity in favour of economic growth, advancing the fundamental cause of equality.

 It is no accident that many of the unions who have for many years supported the IER are now also working with many other progressive organisations in support of CLASS. We see the role of the unions as vital and the Institute intends to play its part”.

When the Mail Online covered the establishment of CLASS, it accused CLASS’s Policy and Media Adviser, Owen Jones, of wanting a class war. But whether the Mail recognises it or not, class is very much back on the political agenda.

In January 2012, the Pew Research Centre issued a report that said tensions between the rich and poor in the U.S. are increasing and at their most intense level in nearly a quarter-century. Their survey showed that Americans now see more social conflict over wealth inequality than over previous “hot-button” topics of immigration, race relations and age.

The awareness of class conflict has grown significantly and the economic divide has moved to the political forefront amid high unemployment, increasing poverty and anti austerity protests.

How appropriate then, that the labour movement’s new think tank is called CLASS.  And the joy of CLASS is that it does what is says on the tin – it puts class back on the political agenda.

Rachel Yates is Centre Coordinator for CLASS. Carolyn Jones is Director of IER. This article first appeared in the Morning Star

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