Hey Eddie – You’re Having A Rucking Laugh Aren’t You?

England rugby coach Eddie Jones has spoken out against the tactics used by opponents Italy in Sunday’s international match. He said, variously, that “wasn’t rugby”, that “fans were cheated” and that they “should get their money back.”

At best this is sour-graped pedantry. Yes, England were outplayed in the first half and went in for the break 10-5 down. But they bossed the second period and ran out 36-15 victors – moving to the top of the 6 Nations’ table as a result.  At worse, if you will excuse my being blunt, this is simply cobblers.

England are on a great run; unbeaten in a year and 16 matches. Despite many reservations – including mine – about Jones’s tactics, the team has been transformed in fitness, determination and tactical nous.

So when Italy determinedly and pre-meditatedly tried to frustrate the men in white by refusing to form a ruck it was almost the equivalent, as commentators have been quick to point out, of bowling underarm in a cricket test match.

Tactically, it clearly threw a spanner in England’s works.  They seemed slow to comprehend what coach Connor O’Shea had put into play and then pondered what to do about it – prompting the best line of the tournament to date from match official Romaine Poite: “I am the referee not your coach.”

A few points here, aside from the overbearing fact of an England win:  First, the referee is in charge of the game.  If he didn’t see a problem, then the players have to just get on and deal with it. Second, England are one of the leading Rugby nations. No offence but Italy aren’t (yet). If this David needed a no-ruck strategy as their slingshot to challenge Goliath, then that is surely fair enough.

Third, it’s exciting. Although there are modifications to the rules all the time (it seems), there is little startling difference from one game to another.  The Italians should be applauded for daring to be innovative.  Certainly most of my friends and workmates who follow the sport agree.

And fourth, it is actually good for England to be challenged in this way.  To have to recognise and then work out how to counter such a strategy (not so very difficult – in theory anyway – you can contrive to pull people in in order to form a ruck) –it is a great learning exercise for a team that  is currently meeting just about every challenge  (New Zealand excepted, but I would hope that will come).

The young men I coach came up with their own bit of innovation on Sunday too: Taking a restart, the ball was kicked along ground, not up in the air. Totally flummoxed the opposition and we duly scored a valuable try. Not the orthodox way of doing things, but no objection from the referee.

I was pleased at this innovation and my opposite number took note of it for probable reproduction in his own training sessions.

That our national coach doesn’t have such a similarly positive outlook is a shame.

 

This article also appears in The Huffington Post

How Useful Are The Things You Forget?

Dedicated to anyone who has lost something precious and personal, especially a handbag

Losing your handbag.  Whether carelessness or theft, it’s a thump to the guts isn’t it?  You feel winded, shocked, angry, assaulted, upset. You curse and scold yourself. The realisation of what you have to cancel, replace, make do without, have lost forever can be head-spinning, nauseating.

But just how well do we know what we’ve got where? What is in the handbag now travelling solo on the Tube, and what is in the purse safely in your coat pocket? And what is somewhere else entirely – sometimes somewhere so safe that we’ve forgotten where it is all-together.

And as you start to regain some equilibrium in this chaotic sea, the realisation of the possible harm hits home.  Oh heavens – those James Freedman warnings of why driving  licence and keys and bank cards  should never be kept together,  how easy it is for a malcontent  to clear out your bank account, steal your identity, burgle your home.

But is not the real puzzler, not what you’ve lost but what you don’t know you’ve lost?  The personal nuggets in the corners of the pockets in your bag. The bit of paper with the PIN numbers you should never write down.  The folded up and folded again cheque you’ve been waiting to pass a bank to cash. The business card of a key contact. Your kid’s first tooth. A letter from your long-dead much-missed grandparent. The USB stick with those photos on it.

It could be something or it could be nothing, but the disconcerting and unnerving thing is that we don’t know, and so we don’t know how useful the things we forget can be – both to us and others.

Just like life really!

Unions Need Good Governance

Good governance in action? (Not the NEC, but the Russian Federation Council in session)

 

As trade unionists we demand, fairly, that the enterprises employing our members are run properly. We challenge bad management and expose the worst excesses – the Philip Greens and CityLinks and Sports Directs.  In short we champion good governance.

That is entirely correct, but do we do as we say others must?  What does good governance look like for trade unions?

It is an important question and not just because of the expectations we have of other employers.  Yes, other employers, because we are significant employers too.  And unions also are subject to the same commercial norms as every other business.  Yes – business, because if we spend more than we earn, we will go bust, just like any other business.

Well if only it were that simple. Because of course we are not just like any other company or even voluntary sector organisation. We have specific reporting and accounting responsibilities – the AR21 required by the Certification Officer for example.  We also have peculiar obligations under the so-called Lobbying Act.

Then there are the not-so-merry dances required by the Trade Union Act and the exposure to punitive legal action for failing to comply.

Whereas most firms in most sectors have their own regulatory jungle to cut through, the dynamics of unions give us a distinctive set of circumstances.  We are proud champions of democracy, but this sometimes leads to confusion or even conflict as to where authority lies – at head office or in branches.  Often it is at Conference – but only when conference is in session! And from an employment perspective, who should union managers talk to first about some big issue or other – their own staff side reps or the elected policy makers?

We champion diversity and inclusivity, but the numbers of employees or elected reps are rarely, if ever, in proportion with our membership in terms of age, gender, ethnicity (and so on). And attempts to press the issue, by the use of reserved seats, or the creation of bespoke networks or sections can be resisted, tokenistic or viewed as a distortion rather than a facilitator of union values.

And on top of all this, we have an electoral process for selecting leaders that seems – on the basis of turnout – to fail to engage the clear majority of union members.

We are, of course, like all membership organisations – struggling to reconcile what we do on organising and servicing. Except we can’t necessarily chose who to recruit or who, in a controversial legacy from the “closed shop”  (and how old does it make me feel to need to  hyperlink that!) era, who to expel. And we do seem to have attracted a stalker to rival the hostility of most of the mass media in the form of HMRC, who have thrust themselves upon a number of unions over the last couple of years.

This unique cocktail of circumstances and constraints actually makes good governance even more important.  Because some of the inevitable consequences of good governance are the very things unions need to survive today’s sometimes existential challenges: A strong, clear sense of purpose. An esprit de corps.  Clear lines of accountability and management. A “good to know” not “need to know” culture. Searching, identifying and sharing “best practice” being an expected virtue.

In my book, we need to go no further in the search for what “Good Governance” looks like in our world: It is summed up in these key outputs. And all of these characteristics are impervious to the servicing/organising conundrum, internal pension reform, hostile government, bad employers and “heart-sink” members. These are things that we can –should, must – do for ourselves.

I hope I will be caught in a metaphorical cloudburst of comments and contributions that show how good governance is the norm and not, as I fear, still mainly an aspiration.

And before anyone gets carried away,  let’s not forget that the union movement is the largest membership based outfit in the country and what we deliver for and with our members changes lives and society.

This piece also appears on the Unions21 website. The Unions 21 conference on 21 March will look at what unions can do  to increase capacity and extend our influence – including some essential elements of good governance. You can  find ourt more and register for a place at http://bit.ly/2kgUGbh

Needed: Our own Garibaldi to Trump Trumpism

 

(photocredit – author)

Inauguration Night saw a demonstration of several hundred in St Peter’s Square Manchester, where I happened to be. One of very many, and very understandable:  His election statements were incendiary, explicitly and xenophobic. And yet….

And yet, of course, he won.  “Down with Trump”. Is that what we are saying?  Down with the outcome of an election we lost. Down with the will of the people? Down with democracy?

We are in potentially dangerous territory here. If we are democrats, then we can’t just accept the results we like.

But of course, “we” may not all be democrats.  That shouldn’t be shocking. Didactic politics are not only the preserve of the (extreme) right.  So, fair enough, if you do not believe in democracy, there’s no problem rejecting its unpalatable outcomes.

But that’s not going to account for very many people.  So the rest of us are facing a wrestling match with our principles.

Well, refuge can be sought in a number of places: The election was fixed – most likely by Russian smears and internet interferences.  The electoral system is unfair – Hilary won the popular vote.  Votes were miscounted in key states.

All these positions would lead us to challenge the election – to call for a rerun.  That is a different tack to excoriating the victor.

Even if you accept – as most do – that Trump has torn up just about every precedent and norm in the political playbook and we are in truly exceptional circumstances, do we abandon democracy? States of Emergency and other similar suspensions of the people’s mandate are usually the work of governments under pressure and are either short-lived or a staging post to autocracy. So are we the people really saying democracy no longer applies?

But look again at the poster.  “Oppose Trump and his racism” the emphasis is added but important.  This is not about the man, nor his position as president – it is about the racism that was undeniably evident during his campaign. Other placards and posters proclaim that in the “US, Britain Everywhere, Stand Up to Racism.” That  “Black Lives Matter”. The objection here is to racism. It’s easy at present to see Trump and only Trump on the flip side of the racist coin, and understandable  how the demarcation line  between objecting to his racism and respect for a democratic process, can be blurred.

Roll forward twenty-four hours and across the UK there is a huge response by women motivated by Trump’s unambiguous sexism.

And there, in the space of those 24 hours, we see the ability of race and gender to act as a prism. To provide the common platform on which to hold the powerful to account.  What is missing from that troika is something that unites and motivates people on the basis of our shared economic experience or views about society in general.

You might call it a class-based view of the world, but whatever the label the absence of it is the crucial element in the context of our own politics.

Because with no shared set of experiences or shared view, where is the basis for a wide-ranging inclusive, community based approach?  Where is the basis of a Labour Party revival?

That’s why the NHS is so important – it remains the exemplar of a shared set of views and experiences.  It’s why in London, public transport is such a key concern and touchstone.

And we have a major, almost existential problem here.  Because the UK landscape is so impoverished,   commoditised,  ghettoised, and atomised it is  hard to  identify and sustain  the very shared experiences and  values that are  necessary  for  progressive populism.

Instead, what we have is internet-driven individualism with increasing xenophobia used to explain short-comings and hardships.

Progressives recognise the challenge and necessity of recapturing populist values from the right. But thinking on how this can be achieved is still developing – or is muddled. For example, hostility to “liberal elites”, so visible in Trump’s rhetoric is seeping from the right-wing into the mainstream,  requiring contributions  from  surprising  quarters to  remind us that the left needs to expose reactionary nonsense,  not  ape it.

As talk of a “progressive alliance” gains ground, especially in the run-up to the two Parliamentary by-elections on 23 February, does this provide a hopeful way forward? I am irresistibly drawn to the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland as a loose comparator.  Would it be possible for the centre and left in Britain – or even in England – to set aside deeply established tribalism to the extent necessary to capture power?  Despite the energy and intellectual fire-power of groups like Compass, I am not hopeful.

So step forward Momentum.  Let’s be quite clear – more than half a million people joining or supporting the: Labour party is a big deal.  They didn’t split off to form a UK version of Podemos or Syriza.  There has been a clear reconfiguration of the Labour Party, whether that is to your taste or not. So now comes the crunch time, where the stated aims of this group need to be implemented and hopefully validated.  It will be big ask, even without the current internal “policy debates.”  550,000 party members, sure, but only 20,000 in Momentum (with another 200,000 registered supporters).

What is the answer? Where is our salvation? An under-explored area is the devolution debate. This is seen by some as a last refuge/fertile opportunity to build bespoke, local alliances that engage with voters and can achieve electoral success.  The down side is that devolution, certainly in England, is becoming a case of responsibility being decentralised, without the accompanying power. But I like the idea of the left in Britain almost being reinvented and rejuvenated by this city-statism (but, oh,  who will be our Garibaldi?)

But one thing is undeniable: Those few hundred in Manchester and the several tens, hundreds of thousands in London and elsewhere. These are all expressions of hope.

So let me take you back to St Peter’s Square.  The crowd is bigger now – respectable for a cold-ish Friday night and growing. Someone’s brought a big drum. A smattering of incessant whistles, and a throaty growl of appreciation for each speaker. A harbinger for the even bigger demonstrations to follow.

We the people are entitled to say to elected representatives – especially those who exert influence over our lives – racism, sexism, hatefulness, should be no part of what they say or do.

Bang that drum a bit louder, sister. So everyone can hear and join in.

 

#HeartUnions is here – but we need more support!

 

The role of membership data as a crucial asset in unions’ comms and campaigning work is being increasingly understood.  There has always been an obligation, borne of legislation/litigation and common sense, to know who we are talking to and what their membership status is. But the ability to look in more detail at the interaction we have with our members has the potential for us to improve the quality that relationship exponentially.

For example, knowing the email addresses of members who access union on-line services (including websites) enables us to cross-reference that with demographic data to see how effective we are being at reaching certain groups.  This can be fine-tuned in a number of ways:  we could focus on reps rather than members in general.  We could drill down to a granular level to see how much time has been spent on which page of the site.  We can track usage to see when people visit, and what their navigational pathway is.

This means we can tailor and improve our communications   both to and from our members. That’s valuable and important but of course it is limited by the data we hold on website visitors. And the biggest constraint on that is that the fullest – and therefore most valuable – datasets will only be for members.

I readily recognise that there is an arguable point of principle here: We should only be concerned with members because it is their subs that fund what we do.  And by joining, they have signed up for a club (see my piece last week on branding) in a way that non-members or “outsiders” have not.

But with union membership  stubbornly stuck  at  around 6m, and  showing no signs of rapidly expanding,  and with coverage of collective agreements and density  at  depressed levels,  I would argue that  we should, indeed must,  use every opportunity  to  extend our reach  into the workforce.  Once we connect with people, as I have described above, all sorts of other things can become possible. But we have to establish a communication channel to do that.

This is where models of organising and membership come into play.  If we look at many pressure groups, such as Greenpeace, we see that structures that are orientated towards supporters rather than, or in addition to, members.  This two tiered  offering  sees  people  pay a lower  level  of subscriptions –  or possibly  no subscriptions at all –  to sign up.  Their access is restricted in comparison to full-rate members, but that is ok, because their expectation from us is much more basic. This arrangement certainly has lower barriers to entry – but also reduced powers of retention.

Members matter but supporters can play a crucial role too

What would the relationship be with supporters as opposed to members? Here’s my “starter for ten”: Basic generic employment law advice. Local contacts. Campaign material. Information on how to get involved. Calls to Action.  But something that is supporter-specific, an event of some description would be good.  This could be allied to a wider political goal such as the recent “JC4PM” tour, or an appeal to turn out for a local or national demo.

There will be endless permutations of possible and actual support-offerings, but the bottom line is surely this:  we need to reach out to and engage with people for whom a full-blown membership package will not be attractive. We simply cannot afford not to.

Many unions are already engaged in this task.  Forms of organising from Unite’s Community section to the IWGB are actively pursuing new forms of engagement. The NUS explicitly offers a two tier service with their “NUS Extra” programme.  Multi-party campaigns, consisting of unions and other friendly groups,  such as HealthCampaignsTogether and Schoolcuts.org.uk, have a particular focus on a supporter model of engagement, but here there is a specific set of policy objectives as opposed to explicitly promoting trade unions.

In all of this, I believe signposting and co-ordination is key.  There is little value in each TUC affiliate providing generic employment advice.  Partly because that would be duplication and partly because if we ae engaged in a battle for the future of the movement, we need a strong central coordinating body  like the TUC, as the default provider of  such  advice and bespoke centre-of- excellence.

The collection and use of data can give unions individually a key advantage in optimising communications and campaigning.  But it is in the collective space that there is even more to gain by bringing fundamental messages about trade unions to the wider population in a coordinated fashion.

As we enter #HeartUnions week, it is worth remembering that we have no divine right to be the voice of working people. But by aligning   membership strategies with developing an offering for supporters, we give ourselves a hugely enhanced future.

How we can use digital information is an ongoing area of investigation for Unions 21. You can catch up on all their work as well as hear some top level speakers on the key issues we face at the 2017 Unions 21 conference on 21 March. Details, including how to register are here.

This post also appears on the Unions21 website