Why Labour Must Reinforce Their Traditional Role in Defending the Unions

Jack McGee discusses why, going forward, the Labour Party must reaffirm its commitment to the defence of the working classes.

On Sunday, 17th May, the Telegraph declared that ‘the behaviour of the teaching unions has been nothing short of shameful.’[1] Despite the support of the Sage Committee in their refusal to reopen schools without the sufficient infection tracing capacity[2], many unions and teachers have been attacked for their sense of entitlement. One comment beneath the Telegraph article read that teachers should ‘hang their heads in shame’ and Michael Gove has called for unions to ‘look to their responsibilities’ if they ‘really care about children.’[3] The demonisation of teachers and school support staff is an example of the shameless politicisation of the Covid-19 pandemic by the Conservative Party and right-wing political commentators, using the anxiety felt by thousands of workers across the country to disguise and justify their traditional hostility towards trade unions.

Teachers represent over half a million workers across the UK, of which around 216,500[4] work in primary schools, which are aimed to be slowly reopened from the 1st of June according to Government proposals. In total, there are over 4.7m students in state funded primary schools in England alone,[5] and, despite plans for the phased reopening of schools to reception, year one and year six students only, these figures highlight the potential risk teachers are exposed to, with children of that age less likely to engage in social distancing practices and often requiring close interaction with teachers. Furthermore, the layout and size of many school buildings and corridors makes social distancing impossible, with further risk to teachers coming from contact with shared classroom resources, such as textbooks and stationery. Altogether, whilst the risk to children may itself be low, the closure of schools in France as the rate of infection once again grows[6] highlights the importance of teachers’ unions in defending the health and safety of their members.

The debate surrounding the reopening of schools links to a wider conversation regarding the role of trade unions in our modern society, with one right-wing media outlet describing their actions as ‘militant’,[7] seeking to point score for political purposes whilst children around the country suffer from a lack of education. Not only does the latest conflict between the unions and the Government highlight the contempt members of the right wing have for the working classes, it also reinforces the continuing importance of trade unions in our modern society, unifying and amplifying the concerns of the teachers and defending their collective interests in the face of ignorant governance. This is only further exemplified by the decision of some private secondary schools to remain closed[8] for the remainder of the academic year, with state funded secondary schools announcing their plans to reopen in line with the Government’s advice.[9] Whilst the decision to remain shut ultimately lies with the private school, given their financial independence from the Government, it does highlight the incredible double standard existing between fee-paying and state funded schools, with their financial and technological advantage allowing them to remain closed and ensure the protection of their staff.

Ultimately, this reinforces the importance of the relationship between trade unions and the Labour Party and serves as a reminder of the movement’s founding principles to defend and promote the interests of the working classes. Over the past ten years and four elections, Labour has consistently failed to win the majority of votes cast across the working and lower middle classes, culminating with the loss of every social demographic in December 2019. This represents a failure of the Party to present itself as an electable force for change for working people, and I believe that the Covid-19 lockdown and conflict between the teachers’ unions and Government presents an opportunity to realign the Party’s principles to the defence of the working classes which transformed it from a fragmented movement to the largest political party in Europe. Trade unions, like the Labour Party itself, exist to defend and unify working people – with the recent conflict between the teachers’ unions and the Government emphasising the importance of Labour’s resumption of its traditional role as the true party of the people.

Jack is 18 years old and a member of the South West Hertfordshire CLP. He is a prospective Geography and Sustainable Development student at university this coming term. 

He tweets at @jackemcgee


[1] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/opinion/2020/05/17/teaching-unions-betraying-children-claim-protect/
[2] https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/may/22/ministers-rejected-school-reopening-plan-recommended-by-sage-experts
[3] https://www.politicshome.com/news/article/michael-gove-tells-teaching-unions-to-remember-their-responsibilities-amid-row-over-school-reopening-plans-74553
[4] https://www.besa.org.uk/key-uk-education-statistics/
[6] https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2020/05/26/scho-m26.html
[7] https://twitter.com/BBCNews/status/126105864653390233
[8] https://www.westminster.org.uk/news/covid-19-important-update-for-westminster-school-community/
[9] https://www.timeslocalnews.co.uk/tunbridge-wells-news/more-secondary-schools-reveal-their-phased-plans-to-reopen
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