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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > November 2017 > Rebooting the rank and file

Rebooting the rank and file

Britain’s unions have been on the slide for 40 years, but a fragile optimism is stirring
Thousands gathered in protest in a march through London against the Conservative Party’s austerity cuts

Richard Williams has a story like many others in Britain’s post-crash economy. He’s a young selfdescribed “creative” trying to make his way working for himself. Based in his native South Wales he talks with a quiet resolve about how he’s striving to build a business designing marketing material for housing companies.

His tale is, however, exceptional in one regard: he’s recently joined a trade union. Previously he had no links to the labour movement—”you could have put me down as highly sceptical”, he said. “Never thought I’d be a member.” Yet he found himself joining Community, the union that traditionally represented steel workers, when it teamed up with a social enterprise, IndyCube, who provide the shared office space in Cardiff that Williams uses. Members of IndyCube automatically join the union, and get free access to its legal and invoicing services. “I’m tiny, and I have to deal with large firms all the time—now they have to take me seriously”, he explained. “Ultimately, it’s about power.”

IndyCube is growing fast—its first London site will open soon— and aims to attract 100,000 members over the next five years. It’s a hybrid organisation: part office-space provider, part union, part co-operative. “We launched ourselves in Newtown, the home of the co-operative movement pioneer Robert Owen—and that was for a reason”, said founder Mark Cooper, nodding back to a 19th century in which, from the Tolpuddle martyrs to the London match girls, workers combined in different ways to see off the cruellest forms of exploitation. “We are supporting today’s independent workers to help each other out”, he added. This is just one example of how some unions, like Community, whose membership has long been falling, are finally seeking to reinvent themselves and renew their relevance for the 21st century.

Throughout the 20th century, whether you were friend or foe of organised labour, there was no doubting it mattered. Unions mobilised, and sometimes moderated, the power of workers. They secured better terms and conditions and often flexed their muscles through strikes, routine events in the British economy of the 1970s especially. As a result, they were often resented and not widely loved—”somewhere between necessary and a necessary evil” is the memorable line from historian David Kynaston’s book Modernity Britain. But they were, in those more egalitarian decades, an essential part of who we were.

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In Prospect’s November issue: Joris Luyendijk and Stuart Ward try to uncover the way Britain is perceived by Europe and the rest of the world. Luyendijk—who lived in Britain for six years before recently moving back to his native Netherlands—explains that the Brexit vote has shown Europe that Britain needs time alone to find its identity again, while Ward—a native Australian—argues that its Britain’s imperial backstory that stops it from truly understanding what the world thinks of it. Elsewhere in the issue Jeffrey Lewis argues that US foreign policy has helped North Korea develop the nuclear bomb and we explore the effect that the Palestinian museum near Ramallah is having on the creation of a national identity. Also in this issue: Sameer Rahim profiles Armando Iannucci, Joseph Stiglitz on Britain’s tricky political situation.
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