More Thoughts on the MU/GS Campaign by Graham Sibley

Did you know, that Rishi Sunak is a massive Star Wars fan?? 

(Politicians are human beings after all, it seems!)

When this emerged, at the height of the pandemic, a friend of mine responded to the chancellors tweet by suggesting that he might try watching the films-which were largely made in the U.K.-without sound, to see how the films worked without their dramatic scores (which were mainly recorded by British musicians). The point was duly taken, and the chancellor graciously conceded the issue regarding increasing support for the arts and film industries. What followed from the treasury was gratefully received, but characteristically given under the heading of ‘too little and too late’

My reasons for starting with this is are: how often have we heard the statement of: ‘We need to build bridges and make contacts with political figures in order to safeguard our industry’. True: we absolutely do – but what,  in concrete terms, has this actually achieved? 

Despite the overwhelming economic, educational & social case for supporting the arts, we still seem to be dealing with attitude of: ” It’s all nice to have but not vital”-and so we trundle on with cuts, diminishing funding and a population steadily growing more ignorant of its musical culture…

High profile potential successes such as the ‘Brennan Bill’,  show what can be achieved with well targeted lobbying, but they offer little when the overall trend is downwards in terms of musicians conditions.

Something is indeed better than nothing and no one can guess what life might be like if these overtures weren’t made, I suppose….but a trumpeted headline of “This will make the U.K. the best place to be as a composer or musician”  will have a hollow ring to a tutti violinist in a U.K. orchestra who earns a quarter of what their German counterpart does or an eighth of an equivalent American player for example….

What is to be the MU’s role to be in this in the future?

We hear much in terms of stability & change from some GS candidates in their manifesta but what does this actually translate into for the average MU member? Most of us have lost much in the way of faith we had in our political system (or it’s politicians), and have a jaundiced weariness with ‘political speak’ that permeates the conversations I have with colleagues across the sector. Inevitably, this has spilled into a general suspicion of all high profile political organisations including trades unions in general and, in our case, the MU in particular. 

Many of my colleagues ‘couldn’t give a monkeys’ for any internal wrangling that have dogged the MU in the past or the issues that have led to the somewhat rushed calling of an election for a new GS.  Never mind the fact that this election would have been unlikely to have taken place had the EC not reversed its  unanimous decision to extend the term of the sitting GS by an unprecedented three years. (Even taking into consideration that this tone deaf decision was made public whilst many MU members were shoring up their precarious finances driving vans for Amazon or Ocado!) Though most musicians principally regard union membership as a ‘fig leaf defence’ in the face of unscrupulous contractors or rapacious employers-this decision didn’t go unnoticed: they just wanted to work, be properly paid (on time), have reasonable conditions and make a living whilst pursuing their vocation-and is that so much to ask?

However: underlying the attitudes of apparent political indifference to the above, and much else in public life, is a general mistrust; an unspoken and unarticulated mistrust of the status quo. Politicians, authority, union leaders whomsoever..

“They’re all the same”….

We’ve seen some interesting decisions come out of the EC which, despite protestations to the contrary, are hard to see as genuinely democratic: activities at conference led to considerable disquiet amongst those who have followed events.

It’s not that these things are ‘against the rules’ it’s the fact that there’s a failure to see that the gulf between the spirit of those rules and the world outside is growing wider.

I’m not trying to ‘throw bricks’ at the EC or the hard working union officials who are trying to do their best in difficult circumstances, but I can’t escape the feeling that a culture has developed whereby real debate has not been taking place at the heart of our union, and, in its higher echelons, it has become an echo chamber where differing opinions are not encouraged.

Inevitably, in the corporate culture that has developed, the executive has drifted far away from the conviction-based activism of the rank and file membership and a gulf between membership and executive has quietly and steadily grown. If the MU is to be truly effective this has to change.

We simply must not go on like this. Our membership must feel that their executive and General Secretary reflect them. It must have the confidence that, despite the inevitable political horse trading that happens with any government, their defence (for defence it is), will be robust and their voice will be heard.

Does that mean carrying on with someone who’s been at the heart of the decision making process in recent years? On balance-looking at some of those decisions, I suspect probably not; even if they can talk to the chancellor about the importance of music in Star Wars…or being a Rockstar…

Published by MU Members for Change

MU Members For Change is a broad and diverse coalition of members within the Musicians’ Union. It exists to facilitate communication between members; to aid the delivery of member voice to the Executive Committee; and to promote democracy within the Musicians’ Union. Enquiries should be sent to: mumembersforchange@gmail.com

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