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Coming Home? Labour and the Unions

Last month’s decision of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) to re-affiliate to the Labour party in the wake of Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader was greeted with universal acclaim by Corbyn’s supporters in the party.

The union left the party after an acrimonious industrial dispute in 2002-3, during which they were met with outright hostility from Tony Blair’s government. In re-affiliating, the FBU has ‘come home’, back into the fold of the party which, in Ernest Bevin’s colourful phrase, emerged “out of the bowels” of the trade union movement. The FBU’s decision is a reminder that in the Corbyn era, party and union activists will have to face up to questions new and old about the nature of the union-Labour link.

The rapid expansion and demographic change in party membership that has occurred since Labour’s defeat in this year’s general election provides huge opportunities for rebuilding and rejuvenating the relationship between local party organisations and trade unionists. An expanding party with a leftwing leadership allows us to ensure that workers’ rights issues take centre stage in the party’s programme. We can, and should, rediscover the lost discussion about workers’ control of industry – pushing the ‘frontier of control’ in the workplace in our favour as far as we can. Over the last three decades, much of this discussion has been all but drowned out by our pre-occupation with fighting purely defensive battles.

For a long time, unions have mobilised impressive numbers to join the party’s foot-slogging during elections; we can expect this to continue. However, beyond the provision of electoral foot soldiers, a number of other opportunities present themselves.

Firstly, trade unionists can play a direct role in the struggle to democratise the Labour party, working alongside the tens of thousands of members who have joined since Corbyn’s victory. The great irony of the leadership election result is that it was brought about by a voting system designed to undermine union influence in the party, and yet resulted in the triumph of arguably the most union-friendly Labour leader ever. This system, by which ‘registered supporters’ and ‘affiliated supporters’ could vote equally with full party members, came about as a result of the Collins Review into the union-Labour link. Union affiliates were required to opt in to support the party individually, as opposed to being affiliated en masse by the union making a single payment.

The Collins proposals were themselves a reaction to the manufactured scandal in Falkirk, where Unite members having the temerity to recruit people to the Labour party was regarded as some sort of underhand scheme to increase union influence, rather than welcomed as evidence of trade unionists active participation in the party. The irony came after Corbyn passed the nomination threshold to get on the ballot paper, when trade unionists around the country spent weeks doing just what Unite’s Falkirk activists had been doing: asking colleagues and friends to join Labour.

Building on this, we can expect to see more union delegates turning up to Constituency Labour Party (CLP) meetings, and putting union-friendly motions to the floor. Unions should, as Unite are beginning to do, make a big effort to turn their affiliated supporters into full party members, with all the voting and attendance rights it brings. This is particularly important now that many CLPs no longer operate a delegate structure, in the wake of the ‘Refounding Labour’ changes of 2011.

Nationally, non-affiliated unions should certainly affiliate. The prospect of RMT delegates arguing for a no holds barred rail nationalisation policy at CLPs would no doubt delight the left of the party. There appears to be a wait-and-see attitude in the RMT, that if Labour adopts the right policies then the union will come back into the fold. This is standing the situation on its head. Why not get involved and push for the policies you want, in a party where a majority of the membership is now firmly on the left?

Activists in unions without a historic relationship to Labour should also push for affiliation. Teaching unions, including the UCU, are all involved in battles to save the education system from complete marketisation, and they too would find willing allies among Labour’s rank-and-file. The civil servants’ union PCS has been historically politically neutral, but there is no intrinsic reason why they could not affiliate. These will be difficult arguments to win in unions that value their political independence – but, if Labour really is to be a party of labour, then why shouldn’t we be calling for this?

This sort of direct participation of trade unionists in the party will, hopefully, help to end the practice of unions ‘farming out’ politics; a practice which has become so common over the last few years. Conventional wisdom said, not without reason, that the Labour party was too closed off to democratic participation for anyone to bother getting involved. In its place, many unions gave backing to groups like the People’s Assembly, which whilst good at organising marches and public meetings, has hardly turned many political wheels since its foundation. It has provided a platform for union leaders to talk left politically while treading ever cautiously in the industrial field.

Lower down in the unions, politics is, similarly, mostly something that happens at arms length. Many a regional committee will sit in its quarterly meeting voting to throw two hundred and fifty quid at a campaign without meaningfully encouraging the mass participation of members in it. Industrial branches, with certain honourable exceptions, likewise see politics as something that happens out of the room, as reps and officers in most workplaces spend the bulk of their time running to keep still, necessarily having to concentrate on bread-and-butter negotiations and casework.

The Corbynite shift in the Labour party gives rise to a different situation. Anti-austerity politics is no longer a vague aspiration to be espoused from the Hyde Park stage, but can find expression through the main opposition party. This lays a responsibility on trade unionists to develop strategies in relation to Labour. We should ask ourselves: what are the processes in our workplaces we want to roll back, or overhaul completely? How do we want our industries to run? Could we finally have a political party that is committed to industrial democracy? Unite’s much-vaunted political strategy has been successful in some areas and has no doubt contributed to the pro-union slant of the 2015 intake of Labour MPs. Nonetheless, it has not yet led to the sort of mass participation of Unite members in the party that could allow it to start to address these questions.

Naturally, it’s likely that unions will first concern themselves with getting ‘union issues’ on the Labour party agenda. Unions have made some headway in pushing Labour-controlled local authorities to come out against implementing some aspects of the Trade Union Bill. Of course, this sort of thing is the least we should expect from Labour representatives, but it’s a start.

These bread-and-butter union policies will find willing adherents in the party’s new left and are likely to prove uncontroversial there. We can hope that the meeting of minds between trade unionists and left Labour activists, and their experience of common struggle in the party, begins to lead to some more radical, and more exciting, developments.

Firstly there is the prospect of thousands of young Corbynistas becoming union activists. Labour members should turn to the unions just as union members should turn to Labour. For a long time, many left-leaning young people (and left-wingers generally) have seen unions as essentially a worthy cause but not something to get involved in. The more the unions are seen to be supporting a leftwing agenda in the party, the more likely they are to attract new recruits, including in service sector industries where little if any headway has been made up until now. Unite’s Fight for 5 campaign and the BFAWU-led unionisation drive in the food service industry can both benefit from the new political climate.

We can reasonably hope that an alliance of trade unionists and left Labour activists could start to push mainstream leftwing politics in more radical directions over the coming months and years. Issues around workers’ control and industrial democracy could prove fertile territory for such developments. In one of the most moments of his campaign, Corbyn came out stridently in favour of public ownership, but also proceeded to criticise the bureaucratic nationalisations of the post-war period. We shouldn’t be afraid to take this and run with it. Yes, we should renationalise the rail network, but we should also turn it over to the control of workers and passengers. Union reps, with all the expertise that comes with doing any job, can start to develop positive proposals for what democratically run industries could look like.

Even areas of conflict in the movement provide this opportunity. For example, Unite has a formal anti-Trident policy, but one which is often interpreted as a defence of the status quo; Unite members in the arms sector legitimately fear that their livelihoods would be at risk should the weapons system not be replaced. At this year’s Labour conference a debate on Trident was dropped by all concerned to avoid an embarrassing bust-up. But with Trident a hot issue among many of Corbyn’s supporters, the laundry will have to be publicly aired at some point. Surely the only way forward is a dialogue between trade unionists in the industry and anti-nuclear campaigners around turning the workforce’s skills to socially useful production, in the manner of the Lucas Plan of the 1970s? In an ideal world we could also develop a similar dialogue around Heathrow’s third runway. So far, the TUC has depressingly teamed up with big business to lobby for this environmentally disastrous policy in the name of job creation. Whilst it may be too late to put that particular genie back in the bottle, it’s not hard to see how such contradictions could give rise to a solution that protects people’s immediate livelihoods without destroying the planet in the process.

With all these potential opportunities for the development of radical politics, we also need to bear in mind the limitations of what author Lewis Minkin called the ‘contentious alliance’ between the unions and the party. If you were going to build a socialist party from scratch, you probably wouldn’t base it on trade unions, which are by no means naturally socialist organisations. As a result of its peculiar foundation, Labour has always been more of a party containing socialists than a socialist party.

Like all political parties, the Labour party is an alliance of sorts, of which the unions have always been a key part. The Labour alliance has historically not held together as tightly as its Conservative counterpart, which proves depressingly resilient, and there have always been competing interests within the party and the wider movement. Union branches will face off against Labour-controlled local councils who want to cut their facility time. The Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) will fiercely defend its precious conscience – in reality a get out of jail free card to act with complete independence when necessary – to the wider membership. Unions themselves often come into conflict with each other over demarcation, over the poaching of members, over campaigning priorities, or any number of other issues.

This is a point apparently missed by those who want to lay down immediate ultimatums of what Corbyn’s Labour ‘must’ do in order to deserve their participation, whether renationalising rail in one go, or setting ‘no cuts’ budgets in local government. This sees the movement as a monolithic entity which will either follow the correct line or not, when the last few months (and indeed the last 125 years) have taught us that it is anything but. We don’t involve ourselves in Labour because it has a wonderful socialist programme, we involve ourselves in order to make it adopt a wonderful socialist programme.

In the context of the Labour alliance, trade unions generally act within the bounds of the rules, which Minkin described not only in terms of those laid down in the rulebook, but as the boundaries of acceptable behaviour and what is ‘the done thing’ in respectable leftwing politics. In the Blair years this manifested itself in conference votes on Iraq, and in the Warwick Agreement between the party and the unions. The 1970s saw the Social Contract, which with its emphasis on wage restraint pitted many union leaderships against sections of their own membership. There are many such examples of accommodation and soft corporatism in the history of the labour alliance. The unions have never acted as a reliable left of the party, and have as often as not been among the staunchest defenders of the status quo. Even this year, union support for Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership bid was by no means a foregone conclusion. Early on it seemed likely that Unite were leaning towards Andy Burnham, and Unison towards Yvette Cooper.

It is because of this that I have largely focused on trade unionists, rather than trade unions, getting active in the party. The truth is that most unions are as much in dire need of a political shift as Labour itself. The alliance between the party’s new left and the trade unions, if built from the ground up, can be crucial to this.

It is sometimes assumed that socialist ideas – that is, ideas of working class unity for working class power – are hegemonic in the labour movement. Far from it. “Until [the Labour party] recognises it is not Socialist,” wrote R.H. Tawney in 1932, “It is not likely to become Socialist.” And until we recognise that there is a struggle to win this hegemony, we are unlikely to win it.

There are no short cuts to the construction of a socialist labour movement. A great deal of political educational work needs to be done, which is easily overlooked in the heat and urgency of the current situation. Momentum groups can be an important provider of the sort of political education often lacking at both Labour party and trade union events. They should reach out as soon as possible to local party organisations and union branches and put on events designed to hammer out the difficult issues. We should discuss workers’ control and what democracy in our daily lives could look like. The new Labour left can help trade unionists take a direct and active role in pushing the boundaries of trade unionism into these more radical areas, rediscovering and updating some of our lost traditions, and carrying them into the ongoing battle of ideas within the Labour party.

Photo: Bob Peters/Flickr

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Published 13th December 2015

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