Thursday, 10 July 2014

My Twitter zenith, or A Plague On Both Your Houses

After this morning, I think I can retire from Twitter. Oh yes. I now know what it is like to be a minor celebrity.

Yes, after my most successful-ever tweet (below), I felt indecently pleased and smug, in the way that professional writers who have just coined a phrase or politicians who have minted a fine, populist sound-bite must do. How unutterably sad of me.
But to work. The flippant point was a real one: David Cameron betrays an astonishing lack of self-awareness in criticising Britain’s unions for the lack of democratic legitimacy surrounding today’s strikes. After all, he became Prime Minister on the back of the votes of only 23% of the British electorate* (I’m afraid my earlier calculation of 21% was slightly out).

Not only is Cameron left drowning in his own chutzpah, but the solution which he is proposing, to insist on a vote threshold, is barely logically coherent. On that logic, as many have pointed out, we could say goodbye to an awful lot of Tory councillors, or even MPs, depending on how and where you set the threshold (which has not been disclosed, of course).

I don’t particularly agree with the reasons for the strike, but I will defend to the death people’s right to call one. It must be noted that Britain’s unions have, relatively speaking, been remarkably quiet over recent years, in the face of some of the harshest cuts of the postwar period. They are there, after all, to defend their members’ interests, even if many don’t seem to do very much of that these days.

And it is clearly not right to single out unions’ balloting for special treatment when our own democratic processes get off scot-free, without any kind of threshold being imposed. That is merely populist union-bashing, pure and simple.

That said, I am fairly sure that practically all the nearly 300 people who retweeted those 140 characters will disagree with what I am about to say next. I would almost certainly include in that list one Derek Hatton, 1980s leader of Liverpool City Council, not usually a figure lauded at this blog (and I am pretty sure I would not be on his). Yes, this morning I got a retweet from Degsy.

The problem is that Cameron has also got a point. And that two wrongs, as my mother always says, do not make a right.

It is indeed scandalous that the NUT can call a strike based on a vote held in 2012 and in which a risible 27% of its members voted. And various other unions are almost as bad. But sadly, this is pretty much par for the course.

It points up what we have known for some time, that such unions – not to mention, supposedly mainstream unions such as Unite, see Centre Lefts passim – are prey to manipulation by a small knot of hard-left activists, whose politics have no base in the modern world (or, often, reality).

It is those nutty activists who are, slowly but surely, destroying any vestige of credibility that their once-proud organisations held in their communities. It is they who sew up the plum positions on their committees through organising votes on a tiny turnout. It is they who are leading the march leftwards into political oblivion, which could still next year culminate in the disaffiliation of Britain’s largest union from the Labour Party, if Len McCluskey carries out his post-election threat.

No, the twin problems are these: first, that Cameron has a point but his criticism is shrill and his solution is stupid. And second, the union leaders have a point but many of them really no longer represent anyone but themselves (by the way, I am talking about the leaders, not the members and there are still honourable exceptions, such as Community).

A plague on both your houses, I say. A plague on both.

*That is, 36% vote-share on a 65% turnout = 23% of the electorate.


  1. Good piece Rob. Hypocrisy and crass populism from Cameron, but most unions also have little reason to boast and parade their moral superiority.

    1. Cheers Ben. No indeed, unions have got a serious problem. Len McCluskey, for example, was elected on about two-thirds share of a 15% turnout. So around 10% of Unite members.

  2. But, to be fair, that was 35% of the vote when there were more then 2 options. While many claim there isn't a difference between Lib/Lab/Con, there was also green, ukip, monster raving loony etc.

    The strike votes are Yes/No. So the comparison isn't fair...

    1. I think that's a red herring. The problem in all cases is turnout, but in the case of unions it's beyond doubt that a tiny proportion of members decide everything.

    2. I would agree that turn out is critical, but the numbers you presented were 23% for Cameron (share * turn out) vs 27% (total turn out).

      27% * strike_percentage would be a fairer comparison?

      I agree that there is a problem with the unions, I'm just a huge fain of fair stats and comparisons.

  3. I wasn't really trying to make a direct comparison here but, yes, if you wanted to that would be fairer. If we assume that strike% must be >50% and probably not more than, say, 80%, that leaves us with a range of about 13-22% of electorate. Makes it look worse for unions rather than better.

  4. Sorry but though no fan of Salmond, your argument is flawed. Checking for weapons at a border post is common practice anywhere. Preventing basic goods, that a population needs for everyday living from entering, is not. That IS indiscriminately targeting civilians, just as the Israeli shells are.


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