Expanding Democratic Control

Contribution to the seminar Expanding Democratic Control: Employment, Energy and Environment, organised by the Party of the European Left (7/11/2021) in the framework of the Peoples‘ Summit (COP26 Coalition).

New alliances need to be built if we are to take democratic control of what is important and what is ours. 

I am Stuart Fairweather – Convener of Democratic Left Scotland, Workplace Trade Union representative for Unite the Union at Dundee City Council, chair of my union branch and chair of Dundee Trades Union Council – the trade union centre for my city. I list these not to illustrate credentials but for another purpose I return to. 

Briefly I want to talk about three things in relation to democratic control: Who? What? and How? 

In terms of who I list what I do voluntarily in the movement. Here in Scotland we had a recent Scottish Trade Union Congress associated campaign: Step Aside, Brother! This called on men in the movement to give up some of the positions they hold and to create space. 

I, we, particularly older white men, need to think about who does what in our movement. Whose voices are listened to? This relates directly to our capacity to assert control and the need for control. It speaks to how, which I will consider in a moment. But before doing so it needs to be stated that many in our movement have become habituated, reformist and focussed singularly on the wages struggle. These sectional interests are not unimportant but they are not enough. They are not enough to challenge the climate catastrophe. 

When considering what we want to attain control over and how we do this, we need to refresh our ideas but we also need to refresh our movement and it’s leadership. Roz Foyer’s election to the position of General Secretary of the STUC, Sharon Graham’s election to General Secretary of Unite (that organises across Britain and Ireland) are positive in this regard. Positive and essential. But we need change at all levels of the movement and we need to listen to ‘new’ voices.

So what do we want to control? I think we should continue to work for public ownership of energy and transport. But we need to also look at industrial democracy within the care sector, within the education sector, and in local government. 

I have spent the last fortnight supporting a strike at the University of Dundee by members of Unite and other unions. On the surface the strike is about a response to an eight month campaign by highly paid university management to cut by half the pensions of the lowest paid university support staff. The vast majority of whom are women. More fundamentally however this is a dispute about who controls the university. 

A refreshed Unite branch at the University have taken on management and initiated continuous strike action. After two weeks of action on Friday, 5 November, in recognition of COP26 taking place in Scotland, the strike committee handed over the picket-line meeting to environmental campaigners and students to discuss ‘defending our future’. 

The striking university support staff listened politely to the speaker from Friends of the Earth, the Scottish Green Party and Extinction Rebellion. It was unclear to what degree connections had been made. However when 30 minutes later a planned climate action demonstration marched past the picket-line led by primary school and young people, real learning was apparent. 

This was about mutual solidarity not as a slogan but as a reality. Those present were considering who controls the campus, who controls the city, who controls our impact on the climate. It is this kind of energy that will propel our movement. 

So what about how? This is not so easy. But learning from the moment in Dundee that I was trying to describe is important. And by learning from the 100,000 marching in Glasgow’s torrential rain on Global Action Day for Climate Justice we can make a start. 

At that day I marched with my daughter and with comrades from the European Left, from Austria, England, France, Germany, Portugal, and elsewhere. In the rain with a samba band playing in front of the Democratic Left banner I thought about a story from the Left’s past about Claudia Jones establishing the Notting Hill carnival in London.

That carnival, like the climate march in Glasgow, was about taking control of space, geographic, political and cultural space. But to do this we need to learn something else from Claudia Jones who in the 1950s spoke about the intersectional nature of race, gender and class. We need to build alliances that recognise this. Refreshing our movement does not mean disconnecting from our history, it means making space so that we can take control.