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The changing relationship between Labour and the trade unions

Tony Blair once said that the split between the Liberals and Labour had been a historic mistake that had allowed the Conservatives to dominate twentieth-century Britain.  The logic behind this position was that a merger with the Liberals was  still necessary, and this in turn required a split from the affiliated trade unions. This, baldly put, was the famous ‘project’.

With Blair’s move to greener pastures, the supporters of the project lost their most articulate advocate.  But the rationale behind the project remains substantial, and hence its supporters remain in evidence in contemporary Labour. In the nexus of Purple Labour, Blue Labour and Progress lie the remains of this position.  Certainly political setbacks have made them less coherent.  But they remain vocal – sometimes appearing to set all the tone for debate inside the party.

There is also a smaller voice which wants to dispense with the link.  This comes from some sections of the left outside the party.  Here the assumption is that once the unions are free from the party, there will be a swing to the left, which would lead to a more socialist party being established.

The tensions that both the right and left voice speak of are hardly new.  But the forces holding the relationship together has historically proven to be more cohesive than the critics. One of the theoretical leaders of the ‘new left’, Perry Anderson, wrote the following in 1967 – although it might have been written today:

The great majority of British trade tnionists are affiliated to the Labour Party – the very party which is now intent on blocking their action and shattering  their autonomy.  Can this immense contradiction continue indefinitely?  How long would the unions go on propping up their executioner?  Only the future can tell.  But, if the Labour party persists in its present course, it is plain that a day of reckoning will eventually come.  Then the whole question of the political allegiance of the Trade Union movement will be reopened.  Will it opt for a non-party “business” unionism?  Will it transfer its existing allegiance?  Will it sponsor new political institutions, as it once sponsored the Labour Party.  These questions are waiting, just over the horizon, behind every industrial dispute in wage- frozen Britain.”

Forty-five years later – hardly “just over the horizon” – there are some assuming that same “immense contradiction” is about to erupt.

The value of the link

The first point to make is that the link offers the trade unions a practical resource in our dealings with parliament and state power in general. In this sense, we continue to embrace the original aims of the first Labour Representation Committee. The response offered to this is “but do you really get anything back for your contributions?” A story may help:

When I became general secretary in 2001, the then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Patricia Hewitt, was engaged in commercial negotiations with the privately owned Dutch post office for the sale of Royal Mail.  This was unknown to the union.  We only learnt about this some time after the collapse of these negotiations.

But the attempts to privatise Royal Mail continued.  Between 2004 and 2007, Royal Mail management lobbied for a share flotation – a proposal sympathetically considered by different Secretaries of State.  It was finally rejected in 2007 by Alistair Darling, who was then in that position, following a long lobbying campaign by the union.

Matters came to a much more public head when Peter Mandelson was appointed Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills by Gordon Brown. Mandelson regarded privatisation as unfinished business and instituted a review aimed at paving the way for legislation. The union’s response was to utilise the structures of the Labour party to create a majority to block the legislation.

Of course, there were many tactics, including meetings, pickets, rallies and lobbies outside of Parliament and the party.  But we calculated that the PLP could be split and Gordon Brown would not want to rely upon Tory MPs to vote this through the Commons.

To this end, the union promoted motions through party conference, and every possible body in the party.  We had already secured a commitment in the 2005 Labour Manifesto in anticipation of the threat.

The campaign meant that we were able to secure the support of a majority of Labour MPs who were not part of the government payroll in the PLP. The impact of this was a major split inside the Cabinet. I must pay tribute to Nick Brown and Harriet Harman who completely understood the threat of the disastrous policy. The end result was that the 2009 Postal Services Bill fell.  Despite being carried through all its stages in the upper chamber, Lord Mandelson had to see the bill fall in the House of Commons.

An excuse was offered that the market would not support a sale of Royal Mail.  This has not prevented the Tory government from carrying a very similar bill through the Commons into legislation.  The Coalition says they will bring Royal Mail to market at a suitable time having secured the legislation. And the CWU continues to campaign against the sale of Royal Mail by the Coalition. However, Mandelson in his autobiography describes our campaign thus:

The CWU began to lean on Labour MPs to oppose the reforms, and to warn that they would withhold support from candidates in marginal seats who backed the government’s plan.  That was no empty threat.  The CWU was one of Labour’s largest union sponsors, donating hundred of thousands of pounds to the national and local coffers.  It used every political tool it could think of to try and whip up sentiment against the Hooper Plan and modernisation.”

The point of this story is clear.  The CWU used this constitutional link to overturn government policy. There were concrete conditions that allowed us to achieve this, but that is true of tactics generally.

Lewis Minkin, in his exhaustive study of the link, The Contentious Alliance writes:

………it is important not to overlook the cultural impact of this alliance within British politics.  The relationship is more than a policy process and an agency of power, that has considerable symbolic significance.  In a society still marked by class inequalities and their “hidden injuries”, it is public testimony to the remarkable political creativity of working people – “hands” who gave themselves political voices.  And it represents a prominent symbolic claim by them for parity of status.  In addition, within the elitist political framework of Her Majesty’s Government, for all the movements flaws it embodies an ideal of a participatory democracy linking the decision makers of Whitehall with the policy input of millions in offices, shops, factories and other work places.  There is more to this relationship than can be judged simply in terms of immediate expediency.”

Now it is certainly true that the proportion of MPs with experience of unskilled labour is lower than ever.  Yet it remains the case that Labour offers a route to workers for political office which no other party can match.  The unions remain training grounds for activists.  For these activists there are ways into positions of responsibility in the party whether that be at local or national levels.

Countervailing forces

Despite the weakening of trade unions since the 1980s, the connection to the party has maintained a “culture” which supports political activity and promotion for working class people.

The fiasco about MP’s expenses has created an atmosphere, by default, that assumes all politicians are the same.

The insistence by the media, and commentariat, that there is no alternative to austerity and consensus has created, by design, an atmosphere that politics is an issue of administration best left to professional politicians.

The central premise of the Labour movement remains a notion of difference and principle.  Even after the excision of socialist ideology under Blair, still the prime instincts of Labour activists is that the party at once represents a difference political economy and a different moral compass.

It is certainly easy to dismiss this – perhaps easier than in 1991 when Lewis Minkin wrote the passage I quoted.  But as Lenin insisted, facts are stubborn things. The fact is that Blair’s Third Way died somewhere between Iraq and the Lehman Brothers collapse. Equally, the fact is that Cameron’s conversion to being compassionate was only ever a garment for better times.

Faced with the most ferocious assault upon living standards in our lifetime, it is not surprising that within the Labour movement there are some signs of a revival of Left thinking. I will not overstate this.  At the moment there is still a generalised shock at the degree of callousness of the Coalition Government.  Equally, the new leadership of Ed Miliband is still uncertain about the type of social alliances that are needed to secure victory for Labour.

But there are signs of momentum from the Left despite the dire situation in the EU:

  • Victory of the Danish Socialists to achieve government is one sign.
  • The potential victory of Francoise Hollande as the French President is another sign.

Nor should we ignore some of the very radical developments to the left of social democracy:

  • In Greece the anti-austerity parties have over 40% of the popular vote.  They do not agree on orientation to the EU – so cannot form an alternative government yet.  But that is a huge vote.
  • Sinn Fein’s line of “investment not austerity” and support for Irish reunification has lifted them to the second most popular party in the southern state – a position they also hold in the north.  The recent Irish Times poll gave them 25% – the same poll gave Gerry Adams the position as the most popular leader of any political party.

Insular though they may be, the British Labour Party and Trade Unions cannot be unaffected by developments in the rest of the EU.

External Strains

But what are the current strains in the link?  Just how contentious is the alliance at present? First let me examine the external strains upon the link.  This comes from the direction of the Coalition government and think tanks associated with it.

The essential line is that trade union funding of the Labour Party is corrupt, undemocratic, and represents a vested interest in politics. For the Tories this expresses itself in Cameron’s demand for a £50,000 donation cap.  For the Lib Dems, this expresses itself in the call for state funding of political parties.

The self interest is obvious.  £50,000 isn’t much of a stretch for many of the Tory’s supporters, but is more than the annual income of the vast majority of Labour supporters. The Lib Dems need state funding because they have no prospect of achieving the political base of the Tories or Labour.  For both Tories and Lib Dems, breaking the constitutional link between unions and Labour would be the biggest blow they could deliver to progressive politics.

They know the link is a source of activists, as well as money.  They also know that the unions give Labour tremendous access to the expression of millions of the electorate – even though Labour leaders have often ignored this political intelligence.

I understand that the Coalition government has approached the Labour party for discussions on a review of party funding.  This follows the failures of the Hayden Phillips and Kelly reviews.  I do not believe a consensus is possible on this, and convention has been that consensus is necessary on this issue for legislation.

Internal Strains

The internal strains on the link are two fold – from a general anti-union phlanx in the party and from an anti-Labour tendency inside the unions.

The anti Labour trend inside the CWU regularly forces debate upon our annual conference.  Usually they receive less than 10% of the vote.  At conference it expresses a Leftish criticism of Labour.  In the membership at large, this tendency mostly represents the pressure of more Conservative minded workers.

When the Labour leadership, either in government or out, acts against the unions, then there will be a flare up.  But, generally, there is a centre of gravity in the union which has been achieved through understanding the direct value of our involvement in the Party.

In the Party at large, the strains have been more considerable.  I referred to ‘the project‘ earlier but I think this also expresses itself in a less grandiose and more pragmatic way.  There is the assumption that Labour must be above “narrow or vested” interest.  Further, that electoral calculation means that Labour must be distanced from the unions which are unpopular organisations.

Such views have existed as long as the party has, and are no great worry.  We continue to demonstrate that the concerns of working people are also the concerns of the vast majority of the electorate. Unions may be presented as unpopular, but remain the largest voluntary organisations in the country.  Our membership dwarfs that of reactionary think tanks, political parties, newspaper editors, media commentators etc.

The question is whether the leadership of the party, and particularly their recent policy pronouncements, have created a strain with the link. Of course that is true. But that has been true ever since the establishment of the party.  Ramsay McDonald tried to prevent the break with the Liberals.  At every stage of its history the link has been contentious.  But, to paraphrase Jack Jones, murder remains much more likely than divorce between the partners.


  1. Martin says:

    The split between the Labour Party and the trade union movement has undermined the political power of the workforce. The unions have increasingly become representative to their members of the wishes of business and industry management, instead of the other way round as was formerly the case. The pretence that the unions represent their members is still maintained and it is undeniable that some in the unions still see themselves as representing workers interests, but , the unions have become a business in and of themselves , for the most part making sure that their relationship with management is a cosy behind-closed-doors talking shop where compromise in managements favour is the usual outcome. this emasculation of the workers political clout via the very institutions supposed to represent them is something of a betrayal of their previous status. The idea behind this separation is twofold , on the one hand , the pretence of representation continues , to the material benefit of union bosses and industry management, on the other hand , the Labour Party can keep up the fantasy that by this separation they are staving-off the worst demagogic excesses of the prevalently right-wing tabloids and portraying Labour (of whatever ‘colour’) as a (presumably) more electable party. All in all, it is bad for the workers and good for union leaders , “new” Labour politicians and industry management. Meanwhile left-leaning politicians are marooned in the void created by this split.

  2. Ian Williams says:

    A very reasonable analysis from Bill (Hi Bill, hope you’re talking to your colleagues in the US about their threats!). Bob Crow is NY this week, and I saw interesting parallels with the union-backed Working Families Party in New York, which supports candidates who support the unions, mostly Dems, sometimes independent, and even occasionally a pro-union Republican.
    Bob Says the RMT sponsors candidates who sign on to support union values, and perhaps Bill and the CWA and other unions could take their selective support further than just during the anti-privatization campaign and use their muscle more in the selection process that was hijacked by New Labour apparatchiks.

  3. John says:

    It’s not only Labour who tried to disatance themeslves from the Unions, My union PCS isn’t affialited, In fact I recall at the TC conference in 1992, One Bloke on the stage said ‘this Is the forth election we’ve told labour what policies to have theis is the forth election we’ve funded labour and this is the forth election on the trot labours lost, I think w’ere funding the wrong horse’ without spending a second to think that it might have been the polcies the unions were telling labour to have that may have lsot it For laobur ,not the party itself, the unions ahve long wanted to break form labour, and laobur got 80% of it’s funding in 1997 form elsewhere, at the moment labour of course can’t afford it. but the’yve no chance of winning if unions decide the policies.

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