Should the Unions back Labour?

It is not often that the Socialist Standard finds food for thought in the News of the World. Exception is made for the issue of 4th September 1977. The News of the World usually sets one feature article on its centre spread, as a bluff that it is a serious political paper. Its writer on 4th September was Paul Johnson, a fugitive from the New Statesman—the former editor, in fact. Mr. Johnson expatiated on the recent TUC Congress, and asked: “What’s in the Labour Government for the rank-and-file members of the trade unions?”

He gave a very definite explicit answer—“Nothing!” he said, and proceeded with expertise and despatch to analyze the situation. The union leaders, he said, have it made:

They are wined, dined, cajoled, cosseted and flattered. They can have a life-peerage for the asking, and fat Quango-jobs are showered upon them.

But what about the members? What has support of the Labour Government done for them?

Nothing. In fact, worse than nothing. Unemployment, which directly undermines trade union bargaining power, is at its highest since the Thirties, and now creeping to the 1,700,000 mark. Standards of living have fallen, with real wages per average family now £8 a week less than when Labour took office. At the same time, the so-called “social wage”—that is, the benefits ordinary people receive in welfare services—has also declined, as a result of public spending cuts on hospitals, schools, housing, roads and public amenities. Life, then, is hard under Labour: harder than most people under 40 have known it.

And the Callaghan theme-song continues to be “Look for the silver lining”, which he has been singing for two years now—without the sympathetic magic working. Now! says Mr. Johnson, for those reasons:

It is not in the interests of trade union members for their leaders to give unqualified backing to a particular party and government . . . The only proper task for the trade union leader is to engage in tough negotiations about pay and conditions on behalf of his members . . . The sooner the rank-and-file tell their bosses to get back to their true work, the better for everyone’s wage packets.

Thus the News of the World to its 9 million readers! Naturally we are not unaware that it is busily endeavouring to ingratiate the Tory Party with the trade unions. (It has indignantly rejected Sir Keith Joseph’s support for George Ward, of Grunwick ill-fame.) We wrote in the Socialist Standard in 1904, before Mr. Johnson was born, that the nascent Labour Party “should not receive the adhesion of working men”. But our reason was a socialist one. The only party working men can reasonably support is a Socialist Party.

Mr. Johnson (like most erstwhile Labour politicians) suffers from Leader-disease. When the rank-and-file “tell their bosses”—the trade union leaders—“what to do”, they cease to be their bosses.


(Socialist Standard, October 1977)