Without trade unions, there would be no Labour Party. Without the Labour Party many of the greatest achievements of the trade union movement would never have become enshrined in law. Despite coming under attack in recent years from both the right of the Labour Party and the left of the trade union movement, the link between the Labour Party and the trade unions remains as vital today as it ever has been.
The link ensures that the concerns of more than three million working people belonging to affiliated trade unions remain central to the Labour Party’s programme. Of course the Labour Party will never do everything that trade unionists would like it to do, but it remains the only political party where trade unionists can play an actual role in determining policy and making sure that the concerns of working people are heard.
Without this historic link, there would no way of ensuring working people are elected to parliament, local and devolved government, and to the European parliament, from where much of the legislation protecting working people originates. From the Labour Party’s point of view, the trade unions’ financial support ensures that the Party remains a viable force to fight on the principles on which it was founded. Without this support the Labour Party would cease to operate in any meaningful way.
The trade union movement has long been the biggest driver of equality, helping to create a fairer and more just society which benefits all of us, not just those at the top.
Now, as the government takes an axe to public services, in a bid to reduce the deficit, the trade union movement is leading the fight to defend those most at risk. With clarity and purpose, the trade unions have set out an alternative economic case, one in which the poorest in society, the elderly, the young, the disabled and the unemployed are not forced to pay for the mistakes of others. In doing so the trade unions have forced the Labour Party to rethink many of its initial responses to the financial recession and the line peddled by government that ‘we are all in this together’.
In large parts the response of Ed Miliband and Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls to the government’s austerity programme – that what we need is growth and jobs – now echoes the responses of union leaders to the crisis. That is to the credit of both the Labour Party and the unions, and is a message that must be driven home by both the Party and the unions who can address their own members with a directness that politicians cannot. This is particularly true when it comes to reaching groups under-represented in the Labour Party, such as women and ethnic minorities.
Only working people can get the country back on its feet. The work undertaken by trade unions in raising the skills and ed- ucational achievements of the workforce, creating equality and diversity – which the CBI and the TUC agree increases productivity and profit – and looking beyond short-termism to create a genuinely sustainable economic vision is central to our economic recovery; as is a sense of cohesiveness that has nothing to do with the ‘Big Society’ and everything to do with fairness, both in the workplace and outside it. The Labour Party was founded on a desire for fairness, but only with the help and support of the trade unions will fairness ever become more than an aspiration.
When Margaret Thatcher attempted to sever the link between unions and the Labour Party with the 1984 Trade Union Act, which required unions to regularly ballot members on whether they wished to continue pay- ing into their union’s political fund, it was a direct attempt to cripple the Labour Party while reducing the influence of the unions on policy. Having tried and failed to break the link once before, the recent Kelly Report on party funding recommends changing the emphasis on unions to ask their members to ‘opt-in’ to the political fund, rather than the current ‘opt-out’. This has the potential to devastate the Labour Party, and with it any hope the unions have of ever over-turning draconian anti-union legislation.
Not only should trade unions encourage their members to join and play an active role in the Labour Party, but members of the Labour Party, including elected members, must be actively encouraged to join a trade union. Only in this way will the Labour Party remain a viable fighting machine and trade unions continue to make the voice of working people heard.
Mick Whelan is general secretary of ASLEF. This article first appeared in Campaign Briefing, CLPD’s annual newsletter, sent out to all CLPs and available online here.