Many people know the phrase “beer and sandwiches in Number 10”. The expression came into being during Harold Wilson’s first term as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Whenever Wilson had any negotiating to do with trade union leaders, he would invite them to his official residence – Number 10 Downing Street, London – for talks. As for refreshments, it was said that beer and sandwiches were provided, instead of wine and canapes. It was felt that, as trade union leaders were clearly from socialist backgrounds (as was Wilson), working-class refreshments would be better-appreciated by the delegates.
It’s been a long time since trade union leaders were really listened to by Government. The waning influence of unions was mirrored by a dramatic fall in membership that only bottomed out two years ago.
Current union membership level hovers around the seven million mark – still an impressive slice of the working population, although a long way from the 12 million high watermark of the late 1970s. That’s something all trade unions need to work on.
It seems though that all we needed was a global epidemic for the Tories to realise trade unionists keep the country running. All of a sudden the Tories have realised that it is the “little man” who keeps our society running. In our hospitals, schools and shops, libraries and leisure centres, driving our trains and buses, looking after our children, our sick, our elderly, emptying our bins, delivering our post … all tirelessly serving the public day after day. Suddenly the ordinary NHS worker is a “hero”. Of course, some of us always realised that it is the ordinary British Worker, not the hedge-fund managers, bankers or other spivs who make our country great.
The Tories used to take a different tack. They spent a decade of telling public servants they do not deserve a pay rise. For years they’ve attacked the very unions who they now rely on to keep the country going in this crisis. Now they realise that they need the workers to help in solving the problems we face. You might think that the Unions would be somewhat chary of getting involved but they’ve acted in a spirit of national unity. The Tories need their backing so it’s beer and sandwiches at No. 10 again! What a pity that it took a worldwide crisis for the Tories to realise that you need to respect workers and listen to the unions which represent them. Let’s hope that they take that lesson forward from this pandemic.
- By Patrick Harrington. Patrick Harrington is the Director of the Third Way think-tank and General Secretary of the Solidarity union.
- Image by LuckyLife11 from Pixabay