1990s >> 1996 >> no-1107-november-1996

Editorial: Labour, socialism and the unions

The media never asked us, but we are all in favour of the Labour Party dropping any reference to being socialist and all in favour of the link between Labour and the unions being broken.

Unions were formed by groups of workers to defend their interests at work against the pressures exerted by employers. At the turn of the last century they began to realise that such defensive action was not enough and that workers ought to take political action too.

Unfortunately, they mistakenly saw this, not as class-conscious action to win political control with a view to establishing socialism, but only as action to get trade unionists and pro-trade union politicians elected to parliament. They created the Labour Party, not a socialist party.

In their eyes. Labour’s role was to try to make things better for workers within capitalism, not to abolish it. Some favourable measures can sometimes be obtained, but the capitalist system as a whole can never be made to work in the interests of the majority. It is based on exploitation and on profits taking priority over everything else.

This is what all governments have to accept—and apply. So when Labour converted itself after the first world war from a trade union pressure group in parliament into a party of government, it set itself on a collision course with the unions as defenders of the immediate economic interests of workers.

When Labour did come to form the government— from the first in 1924 to the last, under Callaghan, in 1979—it found itself having to oppose strikes and wage demands. In fact it found itself banning strikes, prosecuting strikers, imposing wage freezes and passing anti-union laws. At the same time it was able to exploit its links with the unions to get them to swallow these anti-worker measures.

In other words, the link between Labour and the unions has been more advantageous to Labour than to the unions. If, for whatever reason, Labour now wants to end it the unions should jump at the offer. This will restore an independence they should never have given up.

It will also give them a free hand to treat a Blair government as an enemy. They will need to. The Labour Party has made it quite clear that the next Labour government will set out to be the most anti-worker and pro-business Labour government to date.