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Birmingham march for jobs


On 16 May, 7,000 Unite union members from every region marched through Birmingham to demand government protection of jobs. They were joined by self-styled Brummie and former CBI chairman Digby Jones, who explained that he was “losing his marching virginity” (there had been no student politics for him). But this was more than just a union stunt. It was an honest response by people who care about British industry to a government which doesn’t care, and which has replaced industry with credit and speculation.

Although confined to the Midlands at this stage, the march was in reality a national demonstration, with workers from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England all making their case. When it comes down to the nitty-gritty, workers do not allow themselves to be weakened by divisive notions of devolution.

The march was held against a background of the worst depression since the 1930s. Manufacturing has been particularly badly hit by the banking crisis. In the worst six months on record for the car industry and a fall in production of 60 per cent, the weakened pound has done nothing to save jobs. Union members were taking action of their own accord at oil refineries up and down the country and at Visteon. It was inevitable that the union should want to be seen to be doing something.

Statements on the Unite website did nothing, however, to inspire confidence that the union had any inkling of the size of the problem or what the remedy should be. The leadership offered by the joint general secretaries has been woefully lacking in political astuteness. Patronising the membership with praise for their talent, ingenuity and hard work, they could only urge them to “trust the system”, “obey the rules”, “help the community”, “save to become homeowners”, “retrain”, “work harder”, and campaign for “fairness”. Then when this did not work, feign surprise and disappointment at the extent of job loss, repossessions, poverty and misery, which they ascribed to “the greed and irresponsibility of the few”.

This is deception. This recession is not on a par with previous recessions. It will be longer and deeper. Already, the working class is being primed by Labour to expect swingeing cuts in public services, based as they are on tax revenues from the City. The much-trumpeted windfall, mistaken for a real increase in the tax base, has all gone. Responsibility is being shifted to workers for “living beyond our means for years”.

Yet, as Digby Jones told the marchers, British manufacturing is “fit for purpose”. This is “not bail-out time”. The government has to come up with subsidies to keep people in work, particularly the young. We do not yet know how many decades of debt will burden them. However, we do know that it is not the fault of a few bad apples, but the inescapable consequence of living with capitalism, and delegating responsibility.