Will the Unions Actually Ditch Labour?

Some say Unite may cut ties as soon as next summer.

by Tom Williams

11 August 2022

Keir Starmer marches with McDonald’s workers represented by the BFAWU, which has since disaffiliated from Labour, November 2019. Wiktor Szymanowicz/Reuters

The Labour party was founded as the parliamentary expression of the British trade union movement. Its constitution tethers it to the unions, as does its funding model: the unions are by far its most generous benefactors, contributing £6m between them last year. Notionally, unions wield enormous power within the party thanks to block votes at party conferences, representation on the party’s national executive committee, influence on parliamentary selections and seats at the table for clause IV meetings, which determine the contents of Labour’s election manifestos.

But throughout its history, Labour has often refused to side with unions in disputes with employers, sometimes even opposing them. Tony Blair once described Labour’s link to the unions as a “defect at birth”. Most recently, Keir Starmer has repeatedly refused to back the ongoing rail strikes, going so far as to sack former transport minister Sam Tarry after he joined an RMT picket line. While the RMT isn’t affiliated to Labour, trade unionists more widely are asking whether their membership subs should be donated to a party that is at best equivocal in its support for the labour movement.

As such, on Saturday The Times reported that Unite – a union with well over a million members – “could sever its links with the party as early as next summer”. The same article quotes an anonymous Starmer ally claiming that if the unions disaffiliated, the party’s polling “would skyrocket overnight”. Why then, in light of apparently irreconcilable differences, has the alliance between Labour and the unions endured? And can it really continue?

What do unions actually want?

The most widely-stated reason why Labour’s alliance with the unions has lasted is Britain’s first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system. If the unions withdrew their support for Labour and launched another party, this would likely split a coalition of voters that is currently the best hope of ousting the Tories from power. While Labour did manage to supplant the Liberal party as the main opposition party in the 1920s, this took over 20 years from when the party was formed. If the unions were to split Labour’s voter coalition, they would be accused of condemning their members to decades of Tory rule and potential devastating changes to UK trade union laws.

But to really answer this question, we need to take a deeper look at the nature of the union movement. Most unions aren’t all that radical. Indeed, when they created the Labour party in 1900, they did so in their own image, and the ‘moderate’ politics that has predominated in Labour for so much of its existence is derived from moderate trade unionism. This, in turn, derived from the relative privilege granted to the British working class as a result of Britain’s status as an imperial power and the avoidance of major military defeat. The workers who typically held sway in the unions weren’t seeking to overthrow capitalism, but to get a better deal within its parameters. This meekness, this acceptance of the limitations imposed by capitalism and a state designed to preserve it, was then instilled within the party created by the union movement to give it a voice in parliament. Since then, instead of pushing the party to repeal anti-union legislation, even supposedly leftwing union higher-ups have often opposed worker militancy within the party. In 1974, for instance, Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon insisted on committing the union movement to wage restraint as part of the ‘social contract’ they’d agreed with the Labour government. 

While this could change, of course – there’s clearly discontent among senior trade unionists about Labour’s direction of travel – both party and union structures reproduce this kind of conservatism. As such, we shouldn’t take for granted that Labour’s conservatism necessarily defies the wishes of union leaders. RMT general secretary Mick Lynch, patronisingly extolled in recent weeks for his communication skills, has himself noted that a person of working class origins who has the gift of the gab is hardly a novelty to the working class. For us, the true novelty of Lynch’s unexpected brush with celebrity is how he’s used it to highlight the tension between company profits and worker pay. 

In short, many unions and their leaderships may baulk at the thought of a split from Labour. Indeed, they may be broadly supportive of Starmer’s programme, and can leverage that support to extract certain concessions from the leader’s office in exchange for assisting its reshaping of the party

What about the Labour right?

What of the party, though? Does Labour – or rather the ideologically hard-headed, managerial tendency within the party currently running roughshod over democratic norms – really want a rupture with the unions either? 

One veteran of the New Labour years, speaking to Novara Media, expressed horror at the thought of Labour severing its ties with the unions. They did, however, note that “the young wannabe Blairites are all unthinkingly in favour [of disaffiliation]”. When these ideologues were making their way through the party, Blair’s supremacy was so complete that becoming an MP involved little more than having the right politics, knowing the right people and turning up to a few meetings. As a result, they don’t understand the Pandora’s box that might be opened by the sort of rupture they think they want.

Yes, Labour cleaving from the trade union movement and liberating itself from the need to even pay lip service to the interests of workers would probably lead some wealthy opportunists to fund the party if it adopted an economically liberal programme allied to finance capital and the PR industry. But what these inexperienced rightwingers are oblivious to is that this politics is profoundly unpopular. If the unions formed a new party – which they would surely do in order to pursue legislation more favourable to them – Labour run by and for the managerial class would represent the interests of only a small section of the electorate, and would therefore struggle to compete even if it was swimming in cash.

A new party?

In assessing the pros and cons of a break from Labour, there’s another key question the left must consider. What could we expect from a new workers’ party? 

Those who passionately advocated for the combination of left economics and liberation politics that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour pursued would likely be disappointed. A new party of the unions may well pursue a politics that might be termed ‘class reductionist’ – that is, one that centres bread-and-butter economic issues while eschewing racial justice, LGBT rights and feminism and adopting a parochial approach to the climate crisis. While there’s been blanket support for this summer’s industrial action from the British left, this is because point-of-production struggles neatly separate the economic from the political and are thus a lot less messy. Left unity is much easier when the focus is the economic. But today’s working class is a sprawling mass of complexity. Even if we assume a quite simplistic notion of class, it’s unclear whether it’s now possible or desirable to persuade everyone who has to work for a living at a subordinate level that they must set aside the pursuit of liberation from other day-to-day oppressions in the name of class unity.

The parts of this ‘contentious alliance’ between Labour and its affiliated unions are likely to remain welded together, at least for the time being, sustaining but also limiting one another. That doesn’t mean the present arrangement is sustainable. Something must be done to alter the balance of power. So while it would probably be unwise for the unions to ditch Labour and start a new party, it might be equally unwise to not at least threaten to do so.

Tom Williams is a socialist writer, educator and organiser.

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