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Should the trade unions stick with Labour?

Richard Leonard argues that the best way for unions to influence politics is to maintain its close links with the Labour Party

The role of the union in fighting for justice for its members is not confined to the workplace. Nor should it be. The standard of living goes beyond the monthly salary or the weekly wage. It is about quality of life, both inside and outside work and from the cradle to the grave. The noble and enduring aims enshrined in my own union’s rule book include industrial democracy and collective ownership, an equal society, as well as extended legal rights to trade unions and greater social and economic welfare and environmental protection. These all require political action.

So the trade union movement needs a political voice. Anyone who thinks that trade unions and politics can be separated doesn’t live in the real world.

That’s why over a century ago the GMB’s forerunner the Gas Workers and General Labourers Union worked with other new unions like the London and Liverpool Dockers and the Amalgamated Railway Servants to establish the Labour Representation Committee to secure “independent working class representation”. Founding Conferences in Edinburgh and then London were convened following resolutions carried at the Scottish and British Trade Union Congresses of 1899.

A year before Keir Hardie had called for “the same kind of working agreement nationally as already exists for municipal purposes in Glasgow”. So Hardie’s vision and the pioneering role of trade unionists, socialists and co-operators in Scotland became highly influential in the new political formation.

Of course down the years there have been those who claim that the decision by Hardie and the other ILP’ers to create an independent working class party built on the trade unions was a mistake. During my lifetime in politics this ‘historic mistake’ tendency defected from Labour to help found the anti-trade union Social Democratic Party in 1981, later the Alliance. It then returned to help create New Labour a decade and a half later, all too commonly and without shame comprising many of the same individuals.

And now this same tendency with some of the same people again founded Progress the limited company, and brazenly “New Labour” (capital “N”; capital “L”) pressure group. Progress is busy falsely accusing the trade unions of the domination of everything from candidate selections to the decisions of the Party’s National Executive Committee. Its supporters are now baying for the collective disaffiliation of trade unions from the Labour Party.

It is an important matter of political principle that trade unions affiliate collectively to Labour. Trade unions are not a random collection of consumers in a market. We refuse to be run according to an iron law of individualism, indeed the very point of trade unions is that we live and breathe democratic collectivism. Our aspirations are collective ones, and devised for the common good not to feed individual greed but to advance the greater social and economic welfare of all. Trade unions not trade unionists affiliate to the Labour Party. That is democratic, it is also right and keeps alive the collectivist tradition upon which Labour was also built and should live by.

The distinctive nature of the Labour Party as a party of democratic socialism founded by the trade unions should not be supplanted by a version of the US Democratic Party stripped of its commitment to socialism and robbed of its trade union roots. The GMB and other unions are not merely donors to the Labour Party but affiliates. The link is first and foremost not financial but constitutional. To move to an American style system where the donor with the biggest buck chooses the policy, and the candidate, puts the political process itself up for sale. This would not be a change for the better but a change for the worse.

So too the idea floated of US-style primaries with Labour ‘supporters’ voting to select Labour candidates will not herald the end of a so-called ‘politics of the machine’, it would institutionalise it. For anyone to become a candidate in a primary-style system demands not reduced but significantly increased financial backing.

It is impossible to be an effective democratic socialist without working in combination and solidarity: these are defining principles. To win change we have to build, organise and persuade as well as stir emotion. The principal vehicle for doing that is still the Labour Party. Affiliation to the Labour Party and the TUC and STUC is a direct expression of solidarity and an overt act of combination with other unions. It is also a declaration of the union’s identity, that it is part of the wider Labour Movement with sister parties across the world.

And what is the alternative to this solidarity and combination? A place in the political wilderness of non-engagement? A dalliance with a political group to the left of the Labour Party liable to end in bitterness and recrimination, doctrinal faction fights and splits? Either way it represents a false trail. There is no evidence past or present that a breakaway has brought with it greater political effectiveness.

The link between Labour and the unions is forged by shared interests and a common understanding that for the quality of working people’s lives to be improved there must be radical social and economic change. That will require a renewal of political education, a commitment to be transformers not simply reflectors of public opinion, active not passive, with a new intellectual edge alongside the old tradition of pragmatism.

It was Aneurin Bevan who observed that “our movement is based primarily on the industrial masses. It is not based so much upon ideologies, as upon social experience.” He also famously said “There is only one hope for mankind – and that is democratic Socialism. There is only one party in Great Britain which can do it – and that is the Labour Party.”

I make no apology for remaining on the side of Keir Hardie, those courageous women and men, those trade union and Independent Labour Party pioneers who founded the Labour Party, or for evoking the spirit of Nye Bevan. For this is not to look back to a heroic golden age but to understand better the eternal challenges and the defining purpose of Labour’s link with the trade unions today. It is also an important reminder that the future of the Labour Party is well worth fighting for.

Richard Leonard is GMB Scotland Political Officer and was a Labour Party candidate in the 2011 Scottish Elections


Bob Crow looks at his union’s influence in UK politics today and concludes that disaffiliation to the Labour Party was one of the best things that happened to it

RMT was expelled by the Labour Party in 2004. Our crime?  Allowing our regions, branches and members to have a democratic say on what political parties and candidates they chose to support.

The expulsion centred on Scotland. RMT’s executive had agreed to support requests from the Scottish Regional Council and a number of Scottish branches to affiliate to the Scottish Socialist Party. An RMT AGM decision in 2003 had already cleared the route to create a more flexible political fund, freeing the union up to support candidates in addition to Labour.

The SSP decision provoked a huge political furore with the likes of Ian McCartney wheeled out across the media to denounce RMT and to issue dire warnings that the union was consigning itself to the wilderness.

Nearly a decade on nothing could be further from the truth.

By freeing ourselves from the shackles of automatic Labour support,  RMT’s political influence is thriving with political groups established in the British, Scottish and Welsh parliaments and assemblies that involve a base of supportive Labour representatives, Greens and SNP. The condition for joining is that elected members must sign up to the core political priorities laid down by the union.

In many ways, RMT’s decisions from ten years ago put the union well ahead of the game when it comes to the relationship with the Labour Party. This year, major unions have said that they will be cutting their affiliation fees to Labour to reflect the number of members who genuinely support the organisation. Others are reorganising their parliamentary groups to clear out the opportunists who take the union support and then back policies that are clearly anti-worker and anti-working class communities.

But the biggest leap of all remains supporting candidates other than those from the Labour Party.  It is both inevitable and essential that that issue remains firmly on the agenda. RMT judges candidates solely on their merits as advocates of policies that match the union’s own programme and which would deliver for our members, their families and their communities. Let me pull out a couple of examples.

First up, the anti-union laws. Part of the reason why RMT made the decisive changes to our political funds that led to out expulsion from Labour in 2004 was that halfway through its second term the Blair Government had not a lifted a finger to repeal any of the anti-union laws introduced under the Tories in the wake of the Miners’ Strike. Not only had they not made any moves to unshackle the union’s but we had the grotesque site of the Labour Prime Minister touring the world boasting about how we had the most lightly-regulated workplaces in the EU – a boast designed solely to encourage bad bosses, the exploiters and the ‘filthy rich’.

The latest attack on our basic rights under this current Government is the levelling of huge fees on those seeking redress in the Employment Tribunal, designed to deter those seeking a fair hearing and loading the whole process even further in the direction of unscrupulous, wealthy and bullying bosses. It is surcharge on justice. And what has Labour done? Nothing.  Running scared of the employers’ organisations and the right-wing press they have allowed the ConDems to force through measures that allow hiring and firing on an industrial scale and which is solely designed to hammer workers and their unions financially.

Running parallel to this betrayal was the stance on privatisation. Even after the smashing up of British Rail in the name of profit led to the avoidable carnage of Hatfield and Potters Bar, Labour, with the power to act, refused point blank to renationalise the railways. Far from it, it was under John Prescott himself that the PPP privatisation model was rolled out on London Underground until Metronet went bust midstream plunging the system into chaos and forcing a reluctant retreat. How could a rail union sign a blank cheque for Labour against that backdrop?

Even now, after losing an election and seeing polls showing that 70 per cent of the people support renationalisation, Labour offers little or nothing. They talk about the possibility of retaining the successful, publicly owned East Coast/DOR under state control but only as a ‘public sector comparator’. On the simple and straightforward question of full public ownership they remain in total and abject terror of the train companies and the Tories.

If you can’t even walk the talk in opposition we know exactly what that means from a potential Labour Government in power – absolutely nothing. Ed Miliband blew it the moment he fell into the old Blairite trap and pledged that a Labour Government would stick to this administration’s spending levels. Boxing yourself in to a spending straightjacket laid out for you by the most right-wing government in a generation highlights both a poverty of ambition and a total lack of concern for the lives of those you are depending on to bringing you to power.

There has to be an alternative. RMT has supported, and will continue to support, TUSC candidates and our union is pledged to encourage rank-and-file, working class candidates wherever the opportunity arises. Next year, RMT will play a leading role in fielding a full slate of “NO2EU – YES TO WORKERS’ RIGHTS” candidates in every seat with the exception of Northern Ireland. That is a major political operation that will challenge both the neoliberal, pro-boss agenda of the EU and the cynical opportunism of UKIP head on.

At this year’s Durham Miners Gala, we issued a call for a new party of labour. RMT has every intention of keeping the debate and discussion going across the broad sweep of the labour, trade union, environmental and social justice movements about what that new political operation should stand for and what it should look like. I hope that you will engage with us in those discussions.

Bob Crow is the General Secretary of the RMT