1990s >> 1996 >> no-1098-february-1996

Trade Unions and the Labour Party

The Labour Party leaders are so desperate to win the next general election that they have virtually banned any mention of trade unions. If Labour does win the election they are in for a nasty shock — and so are the trade unionists who helped them to power!

There was recently a postal workers’ strike in Scotland. An unofficial strike. What the word “unofficial” might mean was never entirely certain, since union officials were very much involved in negotiations for the strike’s resolution. It would seem to mean that the workers acted of their own accord, possibly spontaneously though not necessarily without consulting, or rather asking the permission of, their “leaders”.


One thing was obvious; part of the significance of this word “unofficial” lay in the union officials’ “official” disapproval of the workers’ actions Seemingly facing both ways at once, union officials continued to represent the workers, but with a certain embarrassment and even bad temper. This disapproval might have two possible causes; the feeling that the workers had themselves in some way usurped the hierarchical prerogatives of the leadership and the officials, or (more likely) fear of the embarrassment that might be caused to the Trade Union movement’s “parliamentary representatives”, the Labour Party, with a general election coming up in the next year or so.


As everybody knows, because the media continually tell us, the Labour Party is “in the pocket of the unions”. The unions pay Labour’s bills, the unions have 50 percent of the votes at the Labour Party conference, the unions sponsor individual MPs. It is obvious, “he who pays the piper calls the tune”; but who actually pays who? Do the unions pay labour for its support, or does the Labour Party buy industrial peace by promises of “faimess”, “workers’ rights”, “union rights” and the rest? It seems a mutually beneficial relationship, all very cosy and enough to have the bosses howling with rage.


The bosses, though, don’t actually howl. The Tories howl occasionally, as do the press, in a fairly anodyne, stagy sort of way, especially as elections approach. The bosses worry, they worry about this relationship. They worry at this relationship, they’re not sure whether to believe in it or not. However much Tony Blair tries to convince them that he is their natural and greatest friend, they worry about the unions. In fact, Blair is right, he is a great friend and ally of the bosses, as is the Labour Party as a whole. In a general sense labour is the employers’ ally as the B- team of UK capitalism, helping keep the lid on dissent in this country when the Tories foul things up so much as to become a liability.


In a related way, Labour helps the bosses by being a regulating, calming influence on the unions, whether in or out of office. In office, they tell trade unionists not to cause trouble or kick up a fuss, be good or you’ll upset our great progressive project from which you will benefit. Be nice boys and girls or we won’t be able to give you the presents we’ve promised. Out of office they say much the same thing, with the added incentive that patience brings its rewards—’’wait till we come to power and you’ll get justice”; which carries like a parasite in its hair the warning: “if you won’t be good we won’t get power and you’ll get nothing”.


“You’ll get nothing if you don’t calm down and shut up.” Does this sound like a relationship of equals? Mutual benefit?


The union movement is treated like an errant child by the Labour Party, and not only that but a poor and disadvantaged child offered the occasional scraps from the Big House (of Commons). The working class is a charity case; the Labour Party a patrician “charitable organisation”.


Obviously there are still disputes and strikes, whether Labour are in or out of office. In 1945 there was the dockers’ strike, in which the Labour government, the most radical government this country has ever seen, threatened the workers with the sack if they didn’t return to work. There was an acrimonious dispute over the Labour government’s union-bashing policies in its document In Place of Strife (an unfortunate title if ever there was one) in 1969. Then, of course, a decade later, there was the still infamous “winter of discontent”. These are just three occasions when unions came into direct conflict with Labour governments. Obviously there have been many more over the same period when workers have been forced to confront their employers, whether private or State.


There are two main points to be made here though; firstly, that whatever the intentions of those involved, a Labour government is a government of the capitalist system and will be forced by that system to act against the interests of working class people. Secondly, whether the government is Labour or Tory, and whatever else may be the case, under capitalism there is still always the irreparable faultline between the workers and the bosses, between the creators of wealth and the owners of wealth. As long as there is capitalism there will be class struggle, and the unions are still the most effective vehicles for working class people to organise for themselves in that struggle to defend what meagre benefits have already been gained and win what can be won. For themselves. Not for the realisation of the dreams of power for Tony Blair and his mates.


Break the link


The long-term, and finally the only real, interest of working-class people is no longer to be working class—i.e., for there to be no working, or any other, class at all. In other words, to replace capitalism with socialism; but that is not strictly the business of trade unions but of the, or a, Socialist Party—in other words, of the whole working class organised politically. In the meantime, however, it should be clear that the short-term interests of workers generally and organised labour in particular are damaged by the link between the unions and the Labour Party.


The unions continually rely on the Labour Party to represent their interests only to find that a Labour government always finally represents the interests of capital, while all the time their misguided faith encourages the unions, particularly the leaders, to tread softly, keep their heads down and wait for handouts. The trade unions were founded on the realisation that, to advance their interests even slightly, workers must organise collectively for themselves and act for themselves to force concessions from employers and the representatives of capital. Largely because of their links with the Labour Party, they are fast becoming little more than purveyors of insurance policies, cut-price holidays and empty rhetoric.


Over the summer of 1995, there were accusations of Stalinism thrown at the Labour leadership. Such accusations were not entirely inapposite, though perhaps the accusers didn’t have in mind quite the same things socialists have. What we have in mind is the way in which Labour both uses and ignores the working class, taking the support of workers for granted and subordinating their needs to those of the party (or should that be “Party”?). Subordinating the unions and the union members’ interests to their own, denying the existence of class struggle and trying to replace it with the struggle of the Parliamentary Labour Party for power; there is a great deal of common ground between Leninism and Labourism in their attitudes towards working class people and trade unions. It’s high time the unions realised they are getting the poor end of a bad deal. Instead of relying on handouts from the leaders of just another capitalist party, the unions should regain the initiative and fight once more for themselves and for each other. They should cut their losses and, once and for all, cut all their links with Labour.


Jonathan Clay