Nowhere to go?

Gordon McKay argues that trade unions have no option but to stick with Labour

When I was first approached to write this article the remit given to me was to answer the question of whether the link between the trade unions and the Labour Party could survive in its current form. On June 22 the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne announced a 25 per cent spending cut across all Government departments, with the exceptions of Health and International Aid and an increase to 20 per cent in one of the most regressive taxes in operation, namely Value Added Tax. Finally he ushered in a two-year pay freeze for all public sector workers earning over £21,000 per annum. At this point I felt it necessary to ask the Editorial Board of the Review if they wanted to ask me a different question, as I thought it might be difficult to spin out the word “Yes” with an exclamation mark attached, for two thousand words.

It is six years since two trade union disaffiliations from the Labour Party brought into question the sustainability of the Trade Union/Labour Party link, particularly under the policies and direction being followed by Tony Blair. The first to go was the Rail Maritime and Transport union. Technically it was the Labour Party who disaffiliated the RMT from membership rather than the RMT actually leaving the Party after the RMT continued to allow a number of Scottish branches to affiliate to the Scottish Socialist Party in breach of Labour Party rules. The Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, one of the RMT’s predecessor unions had been one of the original founding organisations of the Labour Party and the RMT’s decision therefore had symbolic as well as immediate significance. Four months after the break between Labour and the RMT another union broke from Labour. This time it was the Fire Brigades Union. The precursor to the decision was a very bitter and ultimately unsuccessful strike by the FBU in 2002 over pay and conditions. The New Labour Government took an extremely hard line over this dispute, which Tony Blair saw as a test of strength against a powerful public sector union. It was not only the Government’s determination to face down the FBU that so alienated the fire-fighters however, it was the viciousness of the language used by Ministers. John Prescott, the responsible UK Minister, said he was prepared to examine making strikes illegal in the fire service. In Scotland the Deputy Justice Minister called striking firefighters “bastards”. The next big test came later that year with a number of trade union political fund ballots, which although not specifically about affiliation to the Labour Party would be seen as a good indicator of the wishes of union members with specific relation to political campaigning. All of the ballots provided substantial yes votes, with figures between 73 per cent and 88 per cent. In 2005 UNISON members voted 85 per cent in favour of maintaining its political fund.

the language of Alistair Darling in saying that Labour’s cuts would be deeper and tougher than that of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s made very clear to the electorate that the choice was not one of Tory cuts versus Labour investment.

There would be one more threat of a major trade union disaffiliating from Labour, this time over a specific issue. In 2008 the Labour Government announced that it supported the proposals put forward by the Hooper Commission, which called for the part-privatisation of Royal Mail. The Communication Workers Union had already said if this went through they would ballot their members on continuation of links with the Labour Party. While the break from the Party by the RMT and FBU was serious enough for historical reasons, the CWU were different. The CWU had donated over five million pounds to the Party between 2001 and 2008 and through a large membership provided substantial financial and political support. There were also serious concerns that if the CWU split that great pressure would fall on a number of other major unions to support the CWU on the subject of privatisation, and it was thought that it would prove very difficult for a number of unions to hold the line of continued affiliation. This Mexican stand off never resulted in a shooting war as the part-privatisation plans were formally shelved after the number of Labour MPs signing a Commons Motion opposing the plans reached one hundred and fifty, with Gordon Brown knowing that attempting to press ahead would have meant him relying on support from the Conservative Party. A story did the political rounds in 1981 that during the Labour Party Deputy Leadership Denis Healey lost the votes of a number of right wing Labour MPs because rather than responding to their concerns about the future direction of the Party he told them that they “had nowhere else to go” reducing Healey’s victory over Tony Benn to a wafer thin margin of less than one per cent. Shortly after failing to vote for Healey a number of those MPs deserted Labour and joined the newly constituted Social Democratic Party, the forming of which at least in part condemned Labour to a generation in parliamentary opposition. The story goes that Healey then received postcards from a number of his ex-colleagues telling him that they “had now found somewhere else to go”. Their new home was temporary however as the SDP failed to make the necessary electoral breakthrough in 1983 and Labour gradually reinforced itself as the only credible alternative to an increasingly right-wing Thatcherite Government.

So, today do the trade unions have somewhere else to go? An annual cry from the trade union non-Labour Party left is for the formation of a new Workers Party. The current manifestation of this was seen in the General Election under the guise of the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC). With the parliamentary expenses scandals and the collapse of the banking system, and with all of the main political parties campaigning on promises of public expenditure cuts there was a belief that if there was ever going to be an opportunity for a breakthrough from a party to the left of Labour then 2010 would be the year. Furthermore, the language of Alistair Darling in saying that Labour’s cuts would be deeper and tougher than that of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s made very clear to the electorate that the choice was not one of Tory cuts versus Labour investment. With this background the election results for the TUSC was nothing short of calamitous. Standing 41 candidates across the United Kingdom they polled a paltry twelve thousand votes, six thousand less than the Christian Party. Only three of their candidates polled more than a two per cent share of the vote in the constituencies. In Glasgow South West Tommy Sheridan polled 931 votes, a far cry from the 6016 he won in the Scottish Parliament election of 2003 in Glasgow Pollok.

Possibly the most ironic result of the General Election for those who have called for a break by the trade unions from the Labour Party is that Labour’s defeat killed off any hope they had of such a break. A Tory/Liberal Democrat coalition intent on slashing public services at the same time as attacking jobs, pay and pensions guarantees that the trade unions will rally around the Labour Party. As the Labour Party at a UK level is not going to have to implement any policy decisions for at least five years there is going to be very little for the Party and the trade unions to have fundamental disagreements about. In those areas where there is not genuine agreement there will be enough leeway for the clouding of differences if so wished. It is said at times that opposition can lead to disunity and disarray, but on occasions it can also have the opposite result, as not being in power also means that there are no difficult decisions to take. With five years of Cameron and Clegg ahead of them the trade unions are to a large extent going to have to rely on themselves to stave off the worst excesses of a Tory-dominated coalition which sees the economic crisis as the perfect cover for implementing the slash and burn economic policies that they would have put in place anyway. The trade unions should not look to the coalition junior partners to offer them any protection. The Orange Book aficionados like Clegg and Alexander believe in what they are doing, and others like Vince Cable who just for a moment may have baulked slightly over presiding over such savage cuts quickly realised that this was going to be his one and only opportunity of being a Government Minister, both due to his age and to a realisation that the Liberal Democrats would pay a heavy price in 2015, and that the best thing to do therefore was to keep his mouth shut and swing the axe. As well as being self-reliant, the trade unions should grasp the opportunity that they have been given to build coalitions with the communities that they work and live in. There is a clear symbiotic benefit from this in that it is local communities who are going to see their quality of life suffer if council and health and education services are cut back. There will also be an economic impact on communities if jobs in the public sector are cut back and as wage freezes are implemented in the public sector one can start preparing, as night follows day, for reductions in wages in the private sector. The trade unions hopes of staving off these proposals increase if they are able to take their local communities with them. Protecting services as well as jobs, pay and pensions are going to be much more difficult if their own communities listen instead to the social and economic crudities of the ‘popular’ press and decide that they don’t care about public services and the people who work in them.

The other group who the trade unions need to work with is the Labour Party. There is no serious argument in the present circumstances to indicate that the trade unions do not need the Labour Party. If a Gordon Brown Government had been elected and had started to cut public expenditure and privatise services then there may have been a different debate to have been had, but that is now for the historical theorists who write their ‘what if’ books. The only risk in the short to medium term for the trade union/Labour Party link is not a divergence in views; rather it is apathy. We are unfortunately about to see played out in front of us the evidence to justify the claim that a poor Labour Government is a hundred times better than a good Tory one, but it is not going to be enough for the Labour Party to sit back and wait for the Tories to fail. Trade unionists are going to have to see the benefits of casting their votes positively for Labour. They will need to see Labour out in their communities speaking up for services, they will need to see the Labour Party going around doors to remind people that they are not there just for elections but they have an actual interest in people’s lives and want to improve them, and when needed they will need to see them on the picket line defending jobs and services. If the Labour Party does not actively engage with and represent working people the vacuum will be filled by someone else either from the political left or the far right to the cost and shame of us all. All of this however is not a blank cheque from the trade unions to the Labour Party. With the triumvirate of founding fathers, Blair, Brown and Mandelson now all gone, New Labour has been laid to rest, although some of the current Labour leadership candidates would argue for repackaging rather than burial. The question that presents to the trade unions is whether they wish to see a second generation of true believers come through or whether they want to take back the Labour Party. Reclaiming the Labour Party however is not about simply writing cheques. We have seen that this may work while in opposition and years from power, but as soon as the sniff of Government approaches there will always be enough people to dust off the cheque books and invite Labour leaders to come into their parlour. The trade unions have to take the opportunities that present themselves to encourage their members back into the Party, to do the humdrum things like affiliate to local constituency parties, to take up their delegations and to put forward trade unionists for Labour Party selection at elections, whether it be local authority, devolved parliament, European parliament or UK parliament. The trade unions also need to work together, instead of allowing the machine to pick them off individually by offering small carrots occasionally to show that they have a special relationship and that they really need to separate themselves from the extremists in whatever other union has annoyed the leadership that particular day.

In a newspaper interview in 1999 Tony Blair repeated the Denis Healey jibe about having nowhere else to go, except that Blair didn’t address his remarks to right wing Labour MPs. Blair said it to the whole of Labour’s core vote when he commented that “the choice is between the Labour Government you have and a Conservative Government”. Blair was telling traditional Labour voters that New Labour was not going to change, and in the words of Andrew Rawnsley “they could like it or lump it”. Unfortunately for trade union members at the last General Election the majority decided that they didn’t like it. The trade union movement has the opportunity to reconnect the Labour Party with those people who want a reason to vote Labour. It must grasp that opportunity so that in the years to come the trade unions do not want or are forced to find somewhere else to go.