Labour Party,  Trade Unions

Trade Unions and the Labour Link

This is a cross-post from Howie’s Corner

One of the big issues dominating the Annual Conference of the Trade Union Congress is the question of the link between the trade unions and the Labour Party. Ed Miliband has been given a rough ride by the media, in particular the press and some trade union leaders, over his proposals to reform the way unions “affiliate” their members to the party.

The reason for the current problems date back to more simple times when British politics was very much a “two-party” system and Labour was seen as the workers’ party and the Tories were the party of business. The basis for this division is no longer valid as (a) the traditional working class and the trade unions have both declined drastically, and in particular since the Thatcher years and (b) the voting public is no longer wedded to just two political parties.

In fact it is questionable that Labour ever had the backing of the “working class” since if true there never could have been a Tory Government. At least a third of the “working class” has always voted for the Conservative party hence the phenomenon of the working class Tory as humorously portrayed by the fictional character Alf Garnett (I’m showing my age here!).

Of course today there a plethora of other parties represented in Parliament and in the country at elections. The SNP, Plaid Cymru and of course the Liberal Democrats all have MPs and UKIP has its MEPs as does the smaller Green Party which also managed to get its first MP at the last election.

Party loyalty is much more fickle these days. No longer do people always vote as they have traditionally done. Politics is changing as is the basis on which people both think and vote. It is no wonder that the links between the (declining) trade unions and Labour come under scrutiny.

I know as a Branch Secretary (albeit in an unaffiliated union, PCS) that not all my members vote Labour and until the last General Election I had generally voted Liberal/Liberal Democrat over the years. A lot of people are “pissed off” with the main political parties and politicians themselves are not held in high regard any more (if they were in particular in the past), certainly the younger generation is alienated.

However there was a survey carried out by Labour Uncut which makes interesting reading. The Independent published a summary of the results in an article by Rob Marchant:

An astonishing 60 per cent of members of affiliated unions think that the outline reform proposals are sensible, against only 20 per cent who think the unions should continue to wield more influence.

And a further 10 per cent dislike the proposals because they do not think they go far enough – that Labour should scrap links altogether.

A further 61 per cent also said that union voting power at conference should either be reduced or abolished completely, and 63 per cent of union members would abolish union-reserved places on the NEC.

These figures are compelling. Apart from anything else, they certainly call into question the extent to which some union leaders are actually in touch with the opinions of their own members.

The polling was carried out for a pamphlet for Labour Party conference, titled Labour’s manifesto uncut: How to win in 2015 and why, which aims to use hard numbers to “think the unthinkable” on a range of potential manifesto issues. In addition, it will include proposals on how a party reform agenda successfully executed, far from being the meltdown scenario being suggested by some, could not only revitalise a somewhat neglected party organisation but provide a springboard for a recovery in Miliband’s personal poll ratings.

Given the revelatory nature of the polling on just this one issue, we think the pamphlet will make for pretty interesting reading when the party faithful gather in Brighton in two weeks’ time.

Sounds about right to me, and food for thought for the Labour Party and trade Union grandees.

There are those within the trade union movement of course who seek to break these links for their own sectarian political purposes. The Socialist Party (which dominates the PCS union) write:

The Socialist Party believes that the Labour Party cannot be reclaimed. New Labour has closed all the democratic avenues that once existed.

We argue that a new mass workers’ party is needed to give workers a collective political voice.

Unfortunately, despite all the abuse from Labour leaders towards the unions, the Unite leadership has not come out clearly against Miliband’s attempts to destroy the remnants of a collective voice for the trade union movement.

However, Unite leader Len McCluskey was correct when he recently said: “The relationship that we have with the Labour Party is on a collective basis.

“That’s what trade unions operate on – collectivism – and it’s important that people don’t try to [change] collectivism to individualism”.

Len needs to draw the necessary conclusions from this and lead his union in opposition to Miliband. The members of affiliated unions should be allowed to debate the question of disaffiliation and all trade unionists should debate how the political funds are used. Non-political trade unionism is not the answer.

Len is not the only leader of an affiliated union to react to Miliband’s attack. GMB general secretary Paul Kenny responded to the right-wing press, smashing the idea that it is somehow undemocratic for the unions to affiliate to Labour.

He correctly made the point that trade unions have many more members than all the main political parties put together!

The Socialist Party, along with Bob Crow of the RMT and what’s left of the SWP have set up the so-called Trade Union & Socialist Coalition which continues to fail miserably at the polls. Indeed it was quite ironic that one RMT member interviewed after the Eastleigh by-election (where an RMT official stood as the TUSC candidate) admitted to having voted for UKIP!

Trade unions may have more members than the political parties, but they do not all vote the way their leaders try and tell them and never will. They also forget that the level of participation in internal elections is abysmal (in the PCS just 11%) as many members these days see their unions in a different way to their leaders. Members use their unions as an insurance policy and do not participate in the wilder grand schemes of the leftist minority that dominates the top tables of some so-called militant unions.

I’ll be voting Labour at the next general election as will many, but far from all, members of my own branch. I don’t want to join Labour and have withdrawn from the PCS’s “political fund” as have many others due to what I see as abuse of its use by the Socialist Party. I have no confidence in the PCS leadership but am a realist and like most members do believe unions are necessary, but the time has come for change.

That debate is starting within Labour and within the unions. What is needed is the participation of the millions of trade union members whose voices are drowned by the hotheads who grab the headlines and shout loudest in union meetings.

Time to reject the tired old thinking of the current left and move forward to new thinking for the twenty first century. It will be an uncomfortable debate, but one that needs to be had.