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Why it’s time for Labour to divorce the unions

It's not a case of simply wanting to gerrymander the left, says Labour historian FRANCIS BECKETT, just that the traditional arrangement no longer suits either group

Trade union banners fly as people rest amid musical instruments during the 1969 Durham Miners' Gala, a major union gathering. The image was taken by Tony Ray-Jones, a photographer known for capturing the unguarded moments of people from all sections of British society - Credit: SSPL via Getty Images

The trade unions formed Britain’s Labour Party, in 1900. Until 1918 an individual could not join the party – people could only join a trade union, or a socialist organisation like the Fabian Society, which was affiliated to it.

Even after Labour had formed two governments, the unions tended to treat their political arm like an errant child, pulling Labour together after the 1931 electoral debacle. After the war, powerful union leaders formed a praetorian guard around Labour leaders Clement Attlee and Hugh Gaitskell.

In 1979, union leaders made and broke governments, were as well known as cabinet ministers, pronounced magisterially on most subjects, and sat on royal commissions.

“Vote Jack Jones – cut out the middle man,” said a Conservative wit during that year’s general election (Jack Jones was the general secretary of Britain’s biggest union, the Transport and General Workers Union, or TGWU).

When John Mortimer interviewed Arthur Scargill for the Sunday Times and asked if the then leader of the Yorkshire miners wanted to be an MP, the playwright said he felt he was “asking King Arthur if he’d care for a post as a corporal”.

Mortimer added: “He has been offered four Labour seats, but why should he forsake the reality of union rule for the pallid pretensions of Westminster?” Union leaders tended to think of politicians as grubby chaps who had occasional uses, a bit like journalists.

Tony Blair treated the unions, as the then TUC general secretary John Monks put it, as “embarrassing elderly relatives at a family gathering.”

And now, with both the Party and the unions in crisis, it is time for the child the unions bore the nation in 1900 to leave home. It will be hard – it’s always hard to let go – but it’s the only way to save both of them.

This is neither a left wing nor a right wing view. Just now, the left is in favour of the union link because Len McCluskey supported Jeremy Corbyn and attacks Keir Starmer. Should Gerard Coyne win this summer’s election to become McCluskey’s successor, watch for Labour’s right to acquire a sudden respect for the union link, and the left to rail against reactionary union power, as they used to do in the 1950s and 1960s. As Clement Attlee said, those who complain loudest about the unions’ power in the Labour Party fall silent when that power is used in their direction.

The power, influence and membership of the unions have declined catastrophically since 1979, when TUC-affiliated trade unions had almost 13 million members, more than half the workforce. It’s now about 6.5 million, a fifth of the workforce.

In the early 1980s, when I served stretches as president of my own union, the National Union of Journalists, and as head of communications for a craft union, every national newspaper had a small army of labour correspondents keeping track of our activities. The last two labour correspondents on national newspapers, Christine Buckley at the Times and David Hencke at the Guardian, left the labour beat more than a decade ago.

Reasons for the decline include the malevolence of Margaret Thatcher, the stupidity of Arthur Scargill, the gig economy, and the merger mania which saw dozens of craft unions submerged into vast anonymous behemoths, principally the TGWU (now Unite).

But another reason was union leaders’ public meddling in Labour Party affairs. It’s hard to put a precise date on when the perception of political power ceased to be a help in recruiting members and negotiating for them, and started to be a drawback. Perhaps it began when the winter of discontent signalled the end of the Labour government in 1979.

More likely, I think, the trigger was the rather vulgar way a few union leaders seemed to crown Neil Kinnock as the new Labour leader in 1983, with none of the discreet gravitas shown in earlier years by the likes of Ernest Bevin and Jack Jones.

What we can be sure of is that in the years since 2015, the link with the Labour Party has been of no assistance to the unions, either in improving the pay and working conditions of its members (which is their core task) or in recruiting members.

That’s why Gary Smith, front runner to be elected GMB general secretary this summer, told a recent hustings pointedly that the union’s priority is jobs and work, not party politics; and that members had no interest in Labour’s factional infighting.

His election statement says: “GMB isn’t a political party, think tank, campaign group, or charity. We must be about asserting power in the workplace…” The new leader of Unison, Christina McAnea, takes a similar view, and so do three of the four candidates to replace McCluskey at Unite.

The Labour Party’s travails are well known, and the unions, with their rigid structures and cumbersome procedures, make it hard for the party to be as quick on its feet as it needs to be in the new economy. Thirteen seats on Labour’s National Executive are reserved for the unions, which are also represented in all its policy-making forums and have a voice in its leadership elections.

This is very unusual. The social democratic parties in Europe and the Democratic Party in the USA frequently see themselves on the same side as the unions, but they know they exist for different reasons.

The idea that trade unions are the force that can make a socialist society, sometimes called syndicalism, is deep rooted in the British Labour Party, because the unions created the party. It was part of the rationale for the 1926 general strike, and it reared its head destructively during the 1984-5 miners strike.

This reliance upon organisations whose principal purpose is not politics, but wage negotiations, makes Labour’s decision-making arthritic. Labour is not just a political party – it has become part of an amorphous, ill-defined creature called “the Labour movement” – a party and a trade union movement combined.

This ensures that Labour cannot even look at creative ways to evolve. Polly Toynbee, and the influential left wing thinktank Compass, have argued that before the next election, the party must work with other parties – Greens, Liberal Democrats, Sottish Nationalists – in a progressive alliance. They may or may not be right. But if we hang onto the trade union link, the idea will not even get considered, because these parties are not part of the “labour movement”.

Instead, at the next election, we will again be treated to the heartbreaking sight of Labour busting a gut to try to drive the excellent Green Party MP Caroline Lucas out of her Brighton Pavilion seat.

But what about the money? If Labour and the trade unions part company, how is the party to be funded? It can never compete with the Conservatives for business funding.

Financially, Labour is less dependent on the unions than you might suppose. Only 12 unions are now affiliated to the Labour Party, out of 49 affiliated to the Trades Union Congress. Unions representing, say, teachers, or journalists, or writers, or academics, are unlikely ever to affiliate, for fear of placing their members in a false position.

In 2019, the last year for which figures are available, affiliations (mostly trade unions) contributed £6 million to Labour’s coffers, while individual members provided almost three times as much, at more than £16 million. The affiliations figure is less than 10% of Labour’s total income of £57 million.

As 2019 was an election year, the unions will also have provided a substantial proportion of the £18 million donations the party received. But just because the party goes off on its own, it doesn’t stop the unions from giving it a little money from time to time. They do not have to have the payback of political power within the party. Many parents are still discreetly helping to find their adult children who have left home, in these straitened times.

Unions can still have political funds, and they can use them in whatever way they believe will best benefit their members. This sort of calculation might even appeal to unions that are not currently affiliated to the Labour Party, and so bring in money the party does not now get.

A veteran Labour statesperson told me wistfully: “We’d never get it through Conference. It needs a two-thirds majority.” And that, of course, requires unions’ votes. But if some of the unions were of Gary Smith’s mind, it might not be as impossible as it sounds.

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