Skip to Content

Unions Should End the Link With Labour

In a bid to stop the Tories and the media painting Labour as a ‘class-based anti-cuts party’ (which planet are they living on?) Ed Miliband has proposed to weaken the links between Labour and the unions. This has been long overdue, but from a trade union point of view.

Trade unions were originally set up by groups of workers to bargain collectively, as a single unit, with their employer over their wages and working conditions. Today, it is true, they have become bureaucratic organisations run by highly-paid full-timers but workers are still better off with them than without them. They do provide some protection against arbitrary acts by employers and they are able to push up wages in a boom and stop them falling too far in a slump. Everyone should join one. They are the only protection workers have under capitalism.

Trade union consciousness

Some early trade unionists realised that trade union action was not enough and that workers needed to take political action too, if only to press for legislation to protect them at work through health and safety laws or to provide them with some income when out of work, whether through not being able to find a job or through sickness, industrial injury or old age.

Lenin, writing about the same time, defined ‘trade union consciousness’ as ‘the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc’, adding ‘trade-unionism does not exclude ‘politics’ altogether, as some imagine.’ Despite his mistaken view that on their own workers were limited to reaching only this and not a socialist understanding, this is quite a good definition. Its expression in Britain was the Labour Party.

Following some adverse court judgements, the TUC decided in 1900 to sponsor trade union candidates for parliament at the general election of 1906. When some of these were elected they formed the Labour Party. Up until 1918 that was all the Labour Party was – a pressure group of union-sponsored MPs. It was overwhelmingly financed by a political levy which members of affiliated unions automatically paid with their dues unless they specifically ‘contracted out’.

In 1918 the Labour Party decided to transform itself into a full political party, but still linked to the unions, to rival the Tories and Liberals as a potential party of government. In other words, as a party prepared to take on the task of administering the capitalist state within the context of the capitalist production-for-profit economy.

We pointed out at the time that, since capitalism was a profit-making system that could work only in the interests of those who lived off profits, running its state would bring even a Labour government into conflict with the workers and their unions. Which it did. Every Labour government since the first in 1924 has governed against the interests of wage and salary workers, by in particular opposing strikes or imposing wage restraint (for the whole of the period of the much-vaunted 1945 Labour government strikes were illegal and workers were prosecuted for striking).

Despite this, the unions retained their links with Labour, their leaders taking the view that this was still the best way to get some concessions for their members. Most still do. Bob Crow and the RMT are the exception. They have concluded that the present Labour Party no longer serves this purpose and want to form another union-based ‘Labour’ party, a Labour Party Mark 2. They want to go back to 1900 and start all over again. But at least they have realised that the Labour Party can no longer be seen even as an expression of trade union consciousness. Len McCluskey of UNITE evidently has illusions about Labour still being this, though none about the need to set up a new Labour party. Nor have we. Why try to repeat a formula which has failed once and will fail again?

Political action needed

The view that workers should take political as well as union action is sound. Capitalism, the root cause of their problems, is upheld by the state which not only guarantees capitalist ownership and control of the means of production but is also used to actively oppose major strikes, such as the General Strike of 1926 and the Miners’ Strike of 1984-5 (and many others too). So, if capitalism is to be ended, the state must be taken out of the hands of the pro-capitalists. To do this workers will have to take political action; to in fact form their own independent political party, but a revolutionary socialist party not a reformist Labour party, not even Bob Crow’s Mark 2.

Our objection to the Labour Party is not that the workers don’t need a political party but that it is the wrong type of party. This is why we have always opposed it and why we have said that the unions should not support or finance it. Our members in unions affiliated to Labour refuse to pay the ‘political levy’ to it by ‘contracting out’ of it as every union member is legally entitled to. Here we find ourselves in agreement with Miliband’s proposal that, as long as the political levy exists, union members who want to support the Labour Party financially should have to ‘contract in’ to paying it rather than automatically paying it unless they ‘contract out’.

The present system amounts to a scam with hundreds of thousands of workers paying money to a party which doesn’t represent their interests and which they wouldn’t want to join anyway. Both UNITE and the GMB have estimated that, with contracting in, only 10 percent of their members currently paying it would choose to do so. In other words, 90 percent are being conned into financing the Labour Party.

We are not saying that unions should never support a political party. We can envisage a situation in the future, when a majority of their members have become socialists, where unions might support a mass revolutionary socialist party. But we are not there yet. What we are saying is that today, when most workers have reached only a ‘trade union consciousness’, unions should not support a particular pro-capitalist party.

Not doing so makes sense from a purely union point of view too. To be effective unions need to organise workers as employees faced with the same employer or set of employers irrespective of their political opinion as well as of their religion or origin. That’s irrelevant when it comes to pressurising or standing up to an employer. To be tied to a particular party alienates workers who support some other party or don’t support any party and so undermines the basic union principle of ‘Unity is Strength’.

Union members should seize the opportunity opened up by Miliband’s proposals to distance Labour from the unions by pressing their unions to break completely with the anti-working class, capitalist reform party that Labour is.