I’ve got a little more unsolicited advice for Labour today. *booing* Actually, I’ve got one more piece after this as well, but then I’ll try to leave it for a while. *sustained booing, attempted egging*
The formal link between Labour and the trade unions is totemic both for the left and right of the party. On the Corbynite left, it proves Labour is somehow still what it was 100 years ago – a party rooted in the activism and life experience of working people. On the right, it proves Labour is somehow still what it was 40 years ago – a party held back by dinosaurs and hard left dogma. Is the link essential and umbilical, or is it a ball and chain?
Both of these positions are pure ideological fantasy, though. From a well-intentioned outsider perspective, here’s a left argument for the disaffiliation of the unions, based on the interests of trade union membership and even of the Labour Party.
What are the actual relationships between Labour and the unions? The formal voting bloc that was provided by union leadership and latterly by individual trade union members is being weakened or removed across Labour. What remains is substantial funding from the trade unions to Labour, plus a informal cultural requirement to engage with each other as allies – a Labour leader cannot refuse a call from Unison or Unite. This means the pronouncements of one half are discussed by the media in the context of the other, especially when they’re hostile (as here: Murphy v McCluskey in the Daily Mail). Another minor element is more direct patronage. General Secretaries still end up in the Lords from time to time, and ex-Labour MPs and MSPs still get jobs with the unions.
But in policy and political terms, the relationship is hardly fruitful. Sure, even Blair and Brown did some good things for working people – notably the minimum wage and tax credits, limited as both were – but the unions failed to get a single public service renationalised over thirteen years, and inequality continued to rise. Crucially, industrial action was effectively hamstrung. As the late 1970s showed, strikes under a Labour government, especially in the public sector, damage both sides, largely because of the link. They’re seen, rightly, as one half of a “movement” fighting the other half. Who wants to vote for that? Or join that? Equally, when there’s a Tory government, strikes are used by Ministers as a weapon against Labour, and additional venom is deployed in the effort to crush them (which would be doubled again if Corbyn is elected). The rhetoric of conservatism writes itself here, exploiting the link to the fullest. Without the link, union members would be more able to take industrial action, where appropriate, under a future Labour government.
Above all, ending the formal link would primarily benefit the members of trade unions. Currently they pay subs, get demonised by the Labour right, and get warm words but no policy wins from the Labour left. Why should working people continue to fund a party which is even considering electing Cooper or Burnham, let alone Liz Kendall? The Labour establishment wants to reach right and win back defectors to the Tories and UKIP. That inevitably leaves a substantial gap between the party’s policies and any positions which might be designed benefit working people. The rise of Corbynism not withstanding, why have union members spent twenty years funding a party that doesn’t represent their interests? Or, where individual members do support Labour still, as the voting numbers show they do, why isn’t just joining the party the right course of action? Labour could even offer trade unionists a discount membership on an individual basis to encourage them to take part, so local branches get the benefit of their direct experience.
The original merit of trade unions was in collective bargaining, in directly representing the interests of their members. Of course it was advantageous for there to be socialists in Parliament who would fight alongside them. But, as the wrangle about getting Corbyn onto the ballot paper shows, how many actual socialist MPs are there on Labour benches? And collective bargaining, plus the ability to withdraw your labour without it being directly party political, would be really damn useful about now.
It’d also reflect the fact that, in addition to the working class Tories which have long been part of the trade union movement, many trade union members are now supporters of other parties to Labour’s left: the SNP, Plaid, the Greens, or the various minor left unity projects. Unions are stronger with those non-Labour-supporting members, but they’re less attractive to them because joining is still seen as supporting Labour. The idea that declining union memberships are a cause of declining Labour support might be looking through the wrong end of the telescope. Might unions be declining in part because would-be members have been put off by the association with a Blairite party?
Independent unions would be free again to be independent champions of their members, beholden to no-one else, able to bargain on their behalf with employers in the public and private sectors without fear, without coming under pressure from Labour politicians to back off for fear of damaging the party. They could focus on their real priorities, and sure, find ways for members to channel their money towards candidates who they support, whether in Labour or elsewhere.
And the Labour Party would be free to have an honest debate about policy and positioning, not one where union leaders are seen as saints or devils, with their thumbs on the scales. If Labour candidates wanted the money and support of working people, they’d have to demonstrate they were worth it. If they’d rather try to win with big business money, let them. If they’d rather win with grass-roots donations, let them. And when working people acted together to defend their interests, Labour wouldn’t have to cringe in fear of a Daily Mail headline tying them to the unions in quite the same way. It’s not kow-towing to the media pack – it’s neutering them.
Breaking the link in its current form looks even more like the correct decision for a Corbyn Labour Party, which already knows what to expect from opponents, both within and without, but it still makes sense if one of the former Ministers under Blair wins. And it looks essential if unions are to deliver more for their members. The only people who would really lose from this disaffiliation are old-style union bosses, who might see their peerages slip away. And lazy Labour hacks who like unaccountable money to blow on carving stone epitaphs. Ending the link would liberate both unions and Labour, and might improve the lives of those who need better politics and better labour representation.