The union-Labour link and the dead-end of disaffiliation

January 26, 2012 at 6:29 pm (AWL, class, Cross-post, labour party, unions, Unite the union, workers)

Letter to the AWL’s paper Solidarity &  Workers Liberty, by Darren Bedford  

Britain’s biggest union, Unite, “should only fund Labour when it supports [their] policies”, says Jerry Hicks, left challenger in the union’s general secretary election in 2010.

Hicks’s article, which has been doing the rounds in the left “blogosphere”, is full of contempt for Unite leader Len McCluskey, accusing him of hypocrisy in attacking a Labour leader whose election he (along with Unison and the GMB) effectively engineered. Hicks exhorts McCluskey to “Stop wringing your hands, stop moaning and stop funding them!”

A perfectly reasonable line of argument, surely? Why should unions, particularly one with as much potential clout as Unite, give money to a party who — in government or opposition — has helped reinforce the cuts consensus in British politics?

But the problem with Hicks’s approach, and indeed with the entire way in which the relationship between trade unions and the Labour Party is understood by almost everyone in the British labour movement (including both the union bureaucracies and the far-left) is that it conceives of the relationship in essentially financial, machine-politics terms.

It is a conception of political engagement consisting essentially in trade unions “buying” political favours from an external political force. If a particular politician or political party doesn’t deliver on the paid-for favours, stop the payments and give the money to someone you expect to do a better job.

This is how unions do politics in America, where there is no labour party (small ‘l’ and ‘p’ deliberate). The funding invariably goes to the Democrats; the unions give them money, and turn out activists to campaign for them, in return for political scraps-from-the-table (or, more frequently, the promise of scraps). There are no channels through which workers, through their unions, can exert direct control or accountability over the Democrats. The relationship is mediated through union bureaucrats (themselves unaccountable) playing machine politics with Democratic senators, congressmen and women, and other officials.

This is undoubtedly how the hardcore New Labourites would like the relationship between their party and the unions to function in this country too. Severing the structural link between the Labour Party and the unions has been a long-held dream of the Blairites, and one that they have only held back from trying decisively to make a reality through a lack of confidence.

Certainly, McCluskey’s hypocrisy should be called out, along with the hypocrisy of Unison’s Dave Prentis and the GMB’s Paul Kenny, who have conducted similar media exercises in macho-posturing (both have talked of “reviewing” their unions’ relationship to Labour).

Their real hypocrisy lies not in their role in getting Miliband elected, but in their roles as part of trade union leaderships that have, at practically every turn, acquiesced to the New Labour machine when they could have stopped it in its tracks. In 2007, when the Labour leaders proposed a raft of anti-democratic reforms to party structure at its Bournemouth conference, union leaders talked a good fight but ended up voting the reforms through.

McCluskey, Prentis and Kenny have absolutely no intention of disaffiliating their unions from Labour. Besides, a summary disaffiliation by unions on these terms, necessarily motivated by a business-unionist complaint that affiliation to the Labour Party was no longer value for money, would be a financial blow for New Labour but a political victory. It would represent the completion of the Blairite project to turn the Labour Party into the US Democrats.

The confusion on this question is widespread; Bob Crow and Mark Serwotka (two of the most left-wing bureaucrats) have toyed with the idea of union funding for Plaid Cymru, SNP and even Lib Dem candidates. Most on the far left would baulk at unions supporting what are clearly straightforwardly pro-capitalist parties, but if your only conception of political engagement is based on buying political favours from the least-bad electoral party, then why not throw some money at Plaid?

After the abject experience of Labour in power, the little-better experience of them in recent opposition and the generation of anti-democratic reform in the party, it’s understandable that even people on the trade union left have internalised and accepted the basis on which union bureaucrats and New Labourites want the Labour-union link to function. But if socialists are to be useful in the fight for genuine working-class political representation, our perspective has to be based on more than knee-jerk cynicism.

Channels for union self-assertion inside the Labour Party are radically different now than they were even 15 years ago, but they still exist. The unions could still exert massive political pressure. They could get radical policy onto the floor of Labour Party conference. They could demand that Labour councils refuse to pass on Tory cuts. Some of what they could do might have a targeted financial element; within a framework of continued affiliation, they might refuse to fund individual MPs and councillors who voted for cuts. The reason the unions have not done these things is not that they are impossible, but that the union leaders lack the political will to do them and rank-and-file union members lack the democratic structures within unions themselves to force them to act.

That list is far from exhaustive, and there are plenty of ways the unions could assert themselves outside the Labour Party too (including backing independent candidates if and when it makes sense, as the RMT, CWU and FBU all did while still affiliated). But the aim is to shift the political terrain, not simply to buy into a “value-for-money” approach to political representation.

The Labour Party is not “reclaimable” in the crude sense suggested by those on the left for whom loyalty to the Labour Party is a religion. In all likelihood, any consistent political self-assertion by unions on anything approaching a radical political basis would precipitate a splintering of the existing Labour Party, with most MPs and the entire New Labour machine decamping (perhaps to merge with the Lib Dems), or pushing through a formal severing of the union link. That potential should not be shied away from; in fact, if it happened as the result of a consistent fight, it would be positively to be welcomed.

Of course, we’re nowhere near that happening now. It would require seismic shifts within the unions themselves and a reinvigoration of independent rank-and-file organisation (something else the left has consistently failed to meaningfully organise for). A perspective of the unions using the existing link to disrupt, subvert and, if necessary, cause a split (rather than hive off one by one) is “blue sky thinking”. But it’s “blue sky thinking” that starts from where we are now and proceeds forwards. The “blue sky thinking” of Hicks — that the unions will disaffiliate, one by one, and give their money to someone else instead — is both less plausible and less desirable.

It would be a step back for working-class political independence, a political gift to New Labour and a reinforcement of the machine politics that both New Labour leaders and union bureaucrats are desperate not to see disrupted.


  1. representingthemambo said,

    Very good piece.

    Disaffiliation is clearly bonkers, mainly because the alternative is so much worse.

    I appreciate the points about the unions not ‘buying’ favours from Labour. However I think as a way of making the argument it is a valid way of phrasing things.The Labour Party is basically dependent on trade union money, and it is reasonable for unions to make the point that they are getting nothing in return.

    But the central issue, as you point out, is the failure of the unions to fight the Labour right inside the party. The talk of not getting anything from the relationship, and being let down by Ed Balls’ recent volte-face, is hollow without anything being done to stop said volte-face.

    Can the Labour Party be ‘reclaimed’ for socialism? It seems to me that if we had a party like we did at some points in the 80s (without wishing to indulge in Hilary Wainwright style romanticism) and with a leadership willing to carry the manifesto commitments through, then we would have a party that could really change things in this country. That might be unrealistsic, but is forming a new revolutionary workers party a more serious, ‘realistic’ proposition right now?

  2. Innocent Abroad said,

    What a confused and disorderly piece of writing. According to Darren Bedford, it would be a bad thing if the unions left Labour but a good thing if Labour left the unions!

    Nor is it necessary to form a “new revolutionary workers’ party” – a prospect that could only be envisaged by someone who had neither noticed the fissiparous genetic make-up of the far left nor the fact that the working-class, in the Marxist sense, now makes a minority of the electorate.

    • representingthemambo said,

      You’re simplifying things a bit cheekily. If the labour leadership decided to walk away from the party as they were unwilling to accept union demands that would be very different to the unions walking away because they hadn’t got a stomach for a prolonged fight. The two scenarios would take place in very different circumstances. The first would be welcome. The second not so. I also don’t accept your argument that the working class make up a minority of the electorate. Many of the people I assume you are referring to may identify themselves as middle class but what does that actually mean?

  3. Innocent Abroad said,

    To continure: political funds don’t have to spent on electing MPs, as the Unions well know. They don’t have to be spent at the national level, either.

    Particularly now that we seem to have fixed-term Parliaments the Unions could organise local or regional forums at which they could decide which candidates, if any, were worthy of their financial support. I notice Bedford makes no mention of the Greens whasoever – but they do have an MP and I would ask comrade Bedford if he thinks she should be offered Union money, or not.

  4. Jim Denham said,

    It’s an excellent piece, very clearly argued and if Innocent doesn’t geddit, then that’s his or her problem.

    I can’t speak for Cd Bedford, but my answer to Innocent’s question about the Greens and their MP is an unequivocal NO.

  5. jack haslam said,

    A good piece apart from this confused paragraph:

    ‘That list is far from exhaustive, and there are plenty of ways the unions could assert themselves outside the Labour Party too (including backing independent candidates if and when it makes sense, as the RMT, CWU and FBU all did while still affiliated). But the aim is to shift the political terrain, not simply to buy into a “value-for-money” approach to political representation.’

    It is true that ‘there are plenty of ways of the unions could assert themselves outside the Labour Party too. ‘

    However, for the leading lights in RMT and FBU backing candidates against Labour was a manufactured pretext for politically dis-engaging from the fight within the Labour Party. It wasn’t difficult to work this out at the time.

    Those who went along with the RMT leadership’s a-ploitical posturing for fear of alienating themselves from the ‘militants’ (sic) should re-examine how they got so lost.

  6. SteveH said,

    What this piece fails to reflect or address is the stark decline of the unions themselves. Not all of that is down to New Labour and pandering to the centre ground but it is certainly a factor.

    I speak as a union rep (though I refuse to deal with gays, jews and women)

    • representingthemambo said,

      You’re right, it doesn’t mention it as such. I suppose that’s because it isn’t really relevant to the matter in hand. Surely the issue that weak or strong in a more general sense, the union leaderships potentially can have a huge impact on the direction that the labour party takes, but are failing to do so? As you say there are some deeper political reasons for this, I.e year after year of defeat, but it is also a failure of political will. It is that failure that informs the foolish calls for disaffiliation.

  7. SteveH said,

    No it is very relevant.

    I believe that by chasing the ‘centre’ ground rather than creating what the centre ground is, the unions have helped slit their own throats. There was a time when crises were good for union membership, now instead, people are again asking, why the hell do I pay my union subs?

    It is partly the affiliation with New Labour that creates the need to mind the political wind and thus the continuing decline.

  8. Walton Andrew said,

    Are you still sure of this, even after the Unite / Falkirk fiasco? Isn’t the unavoidable conclusion that the Blairites will not put up with any challenge to their leadership from the left, even if it means alienating Unite, the largest trade union donor to the Labour Party? Don’t you agree now that the unions must disaffiliate and put their resources instead into the creation of a new workers’ party?

    • Jim Denham said,

      Absolutely not! If anything, the Blairites’ reaction to Unite’s intervention (regardless of any minor errors) demonstrates just how powerful and effective a well organised union presence in the Labour Party can be.

      Compare and contrast with the pathetic showing of “TUSC” in every election it’s ever stood in, and the ludicrous waste of members’ money that Crow and his clique running the RMT are presently engaged in:

      • Walton Andrew said,

        Minor errors?? This is a complete and utter betrayal of everything Labour are supposed to stand for. Labour should not be getting rid of councillors who vote against cuts. Unite and the other trade unions should be recruiting tens of thousands of members to flood into the ranks of Labour to reclaim it from the Blairites. What is the point of Labour, if it acts in the name of the Tories? If we have no democratic input, if those who stand up against New Labour are witch-hunted out of the party, then we have no choice but to leave and start anew. Look abroad: Syriza were once a small force in Greece, but overtook PASOK (the equivalent of New Labour) as the main opposition. Things can change rapidly – TUSC is just the beginning.

  9. Jim Denham said,

    My words “regardless of minor errors” refer to Unite, not Labour. I’d have thought that was clear, even to a casual reader.

    There is now a major battle taking place within the labour movement, between pro-trade union forces and Miliband (dancing to the Blairites’ tune): TUSC and other non-political forces are standing aside from that battle.

  10. treborc said,

    Not so bonkers now is it…

  11. s4r4hbrown said,

    In the post it is suggested that ‘rank-and-file union members lack the democratic structures within unions themselves to force them to act’ as though the unions were full of people with very left wing views. But many members support coalition parties. Steve H says that crises were once good for unions and I think he suggests that the unions’ chase to the centre ground has stopped this being the case. But it’s votes for strike action which tend to attract most union voters (as opposed to say votes for officials/leaders) and in some cases the results suggest that it’s the union members themselves who are chasing the centre ground. Rather than his vision, if I’ve got this right, of irritated union members wondering why they have paid their subs, I am more aware of people who don’t really get trade unions, and either don’t join or see them as insurance policies.

    On Falkirk – I don’t know quite what to think but am interested to see that people on both sides of the debate seem to want the report released.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: