Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

FOCUS:The Unions and Labour: all part of the same movement?

In A.Graham on September 6, 2013 at 12:23 pm

by Alistair Graham

The links between the Labour Party and the trade union movement go back a long way – 113 years in fact. Indeed, it could be claimed that without the muscle of the trade unions, the Labour Party as we know it would not exist.

The Socialist movement – a key component of the Labour Party in its early years – began to organise in the latter part of the 19th Century. An early example was Hyndman’s SDF, followed in 1893 by the formation of the Independent Labour Party (ILP). Although it did manage to elect a few members to Parliament (including Keir Hardie), it became clear that without trade union backing it could make little impact.

But the trade union movement itself was divided. Politically, many unions and their members still backed a “Lib Lab” alliance, giving support to those Liberal candidates who in turn would promise to promote the interests of labour in Parliament.


The catalyst that changed the situation dramatically was the “Taff Vale Judgement”. Railwaymen working on the Taff Vale Railway in South Wales had come out on strike. Whilst they were members of the railwaymen’s union, the strike had failed to receive the backing of the union itself. In modern parlance, it was an “unofficial” stoppage. The company responded by taking the strikers to court, and the men were ordered back to work. But the law also decided to fine the union a fairly hefty amount for allowing the strike to take place in the first place!

This legal precedent set the alarm bells ringing. It could cripple the ability of unions and their members to take any industrial action. Many unions decided that they needed a party that would represent their interests in Parliament – and with the backing of Socialist bodies such as the ILP and the Fabian Society , they helped to form the “Labour Representation Committee” at a specially convened conference in 1900. This went on to become the Labour Party in 1906.


Of course, like in any family, the relationship between the affiliated trade unions and the Labour leadership hasn’t always been smooth. Between 1945 and 1951, the ties were close – perhaps too close – with trade union leaders becoming almost part of government (albeit in a consultative capacity). In the 1950s and early 1960s, Labour’s leadership seemed to be happy to accommodate such blatantly undemocratic practices as the union “block vote” at conferences. This was a time when many of the larger unions were under the control of such right-wing leaders as Arthur Deakin. But it became a different story when many key unions elected left-wingers to leadership positions. This was the era of Frank Cousins (who later became a minister in Wilson’s government), followed by Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon. Now the unions were condemned for exercising “too much power”. 


But it wasn’t until the election of Blair’s “New Labour” government that relations really began to go down hill. By this time the unions had been gravely weakened by the impact of Thatcherism and the implementation of vicious anti-union laws. The trade unions were on the defensive. But if they expected Blair and his coterie to offer any succour they were mistaken. The Labour leadership at the time saw the unions as fulfilling one purpose only – providing cash for the Party coffers.

And of course it wasn’t only the unions who were to be shouldered aside. The membership, too, found that its rights to participate were being curtailed. Labour’s annual conference ceased to be a forum for discussing and deciding party policy and became more of a US-style convention  – a showcase to allow the leadership to publicise its achievements. It became little more than  a public relations exercise.

Which brings us to the constituency of Falkirk, where Labour is in the process of choosing a new candidate for what should be safe seat. Suddenly we’re embroiled in a controversy (stirred up by the Tories and the media) over whether the union “Unite” used dodgy practices to impose its own preferred candidate.

It’s difficult for an outsider to glean the truth, as most of the facts have been transmitted by a media, which has hardly been impartial. Len McClusky, Unite’s general secretary, has called for an independent inquiry into the affair. Meanwhile, there have been calls (some from the Blairite wing of the Party) for Labour to cut loose from the trade unions altogether.

A different view was expressed by the Independent’s correspondent, Owen Jones. He declared passionately that

the Labour Party is in great danger. An unholy alliance of politically ambitious uber-Blairite Shadow Cabinet members. Tory politicians and outriders and a large swathe of the press are conspiring to sever Labour’s trade union link.” (8 July)

The following day, Ed Miliband gave his response – one in which he outlined a new relationship with trade unions and their members.

“In the 21st Century,” he wrote, “individual trade unionists should be given the chance to make a personal, active choice to become affiliated members of the Party. I want a mass membership party, not of 200,000 but of many more.”


However one interprets these comments, they can only be seen as another move towards breaking the formal links between Labour and the trade unions – the severance of the ties between what was once seen as two wings of a great movement.


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