by Matthew Danaher, UNISON ///
In 1999 I was part of the 76% of the UK electorate who didn’t cast a vote in the European Elections. It wasn’t deliberate, but neither was I that bothered when the next day a friend asked me who I had voted for.
Now however I would not dream of abstaining in the Euro-elections next year. I will be actively working to encourage members of my union – UNISON, and their friends, families, and communities to turn out and not just vote but to actively participate in the political process.
There are three key reasons for doing this. First, the European Parliament is important, as readers of this blog know. The ideas that are discussed in the Parliament are directly relevant to the lives of workers in Britain, whether it’s health and safety, working time, public service provisions, trade union rights, or equalities the decisions taken by the 766 MEPs impact on us every day.
Like me in 1999 many of our members do not realise the extent of the Parliament’s reach, or they do not believe that they have the ability to influence the decisions taken by voting for the people that will best represent their interests. Our job as a union is to help our members make their voices heard at every possible opportunity.
Secondly, my focus as a community organiser who works with UNISON’s Polish Worker’s Network; it is an opportunity for us to enable our members who are EU migrants (and particularly Eastern European) to organise themselves as part of Britain’s political life.
They may not be entitled on the whole to vote in the general election but they can vote in European and the simultaneous local elections. Part of our role as their union is to educate members about the political process and how to influence it. Primarily though we should be providing mechanisms for migrant workers who are at the forefront of delivering public services and utilities in this country to tell politicians what their self identified needs and interests are. Engaging in electoral politics is an essential part of that.
Furthermore the European elections are a brilliant opportunity for well organised communities and groups of workers to assert themselves. Due to low turn-outs the fact is that in some regions EU migrants could easily influence the allocation of seats; and if they organise together with their British colleagues around common goals through the unions and community organisations we can make a real difference. If we agree with the ONS that there are about 4 million EU citizens in the UK that is a substantial proportion of the electorate, especially given that turnout in the last Euro-elections was just over 15 million.
We would expect that, if our members see that their collective activity with the union has visibly altered the outcome of the election, then that is going to encourage continued participation in UNISON and in wider civic society.
Thirdly, and equally importantly, as a union that organises and represents thousands of migrant workers from around the world, not just Europe, it is important that we organise as many of our members as possible to use their votes for a positive, progressive, and social Europe that defends the social chapter and fights for more equality and better rights, rather than reactionaries who want to tear up equalities legislation, abolish working time regulations, and kick out a sizable percentage of the very people that look after your elderly aunt in the care home, and keep clean that hospital you had the operation in last year.
My colleague Narmada Thiranagama has written for the Institute of Employment Rights about many of the reasons why people should vote against the jokers in UKIP; our members need to mobilise effectively to make sure these reactionary charlatans don’t come first in the elections and our migrant members can play a key role in that.
How can our migrant members organise themselves and their families to have an impact on the election? If we give them a compelling narrative that engages and encourages the telling of positive stories of how working people have influenced the European wide fight for progress, people will feel it’s worth participating. This will mean creating vibrant channels for communication between members and between our members and the politicians who want their vote, using the tried and tested methods of community organising, hustings, face to face meetings in workplaces, and communities, 1 to 1 conversations between activists and members, and an active and lively social media presence.
2014 is just the start, in 2019 we could see the first UNISON sponsored Polish UK MEP.