By nailing down the unions, the Labour leader seeks to make his name: ‘Coffin Ed’. He hopes the Sun’ssub-editors won’t get away with writing ‘Red Ed Miliband’ in future. Needn’t have worried: they’re long dead, the Labour Party members who sought to be ‘grave-diggers of the bourgeoisie’; along with the blood-red life they shared.
Here they are, in amongst the newly elected members of Coventry City Council, photographed in April 1928 – nearly three decades after the formation of the Labour Representation Committee, a group of MPs (mainly Liberal) representing the interests of working people; seven years after the constitution of the Labour Party; two years after the General Strike.
You can spot the Labour men (and one woman) because they are the ones not wearing robes like other councillors, nor the wigs that mark out the council’s legal officers: they wouldn’t do anything to differentiate themselves from their electorate, the undifferentiated mass of working people.
Among them is the maternal grandfather I never knew. Not much to go on here: another man in a dark suit; collar and tie; short back and sides, parted on the left. From this you’d say there wasn’t much to get to know; but getting to know you wasn’t the point. Individual appearance didn’t come into the picture; my grandfather appeared for the great unknown. He was there to represent the collective interests of people personally unknown to him. Yes, he had a name, but in those days for ‘James Latham’ you were invited to read ‘Everyman’; or – only 10 years after the end of the War he refused to fight in – ‘the rank and file’.
Today’s unions – Unison, Unite – are named after the idea of collective interest; but only in the same way that children are named after their grandparents. The name changes, even when it stays the same; the union stays a ‘union’ even though it has already changed beyond recognition. And what’s already dead is now being certified by Coffin Ed, who seeks to demonstrate – but not on the streets! – that individuality is paramount, even in the party of previously undifferentiated Labour. Thus Miliband’s Labour-union reforms are couched in the form of a personal invitation, designed to offer ‘a more active and individual choice’ to ‘individual trade union members’ because this is ‘better for these individuals’.
Brothers and Sisters, even if some union leaders go through the motions of pretending otherwise, we’re all individualists now.