[Book] In the Cause of Labour - A History of British Trade Unionism

Should the unions disaffiliate?

Ever since the birth of the Labour movement over two hundred years, two opposing trends – the revolutionary and the conservative – have fought for dominance within its ranks. The strength of either tendency was largely dependent on the prevailing objective situation. For the most part, the conservative element held sway within the hierarchy of the Labour movement, which sought to confine the struggles of the working class within the parameters of capitalism. Their main role was to act simply as a mediator between the classes, hoping to gain some concessions in the process. In the last analysis, the right-wing conservative tendency of the trade union leaders reflected the influence and pressure of the ruling class on the Labour organisations. They held back and paralysed the movement, keeping it within the limits of the capitalist system.

But there have been periods when the working class has moved into struggle, when the domination of the right wing has been challenged. That was the case in Britain in the stormy decade of the 1970s, when the leftward movement in the trade unions was reflected in a sharp move to the left in the Labour Party. The Marxist tendency represented by Militant played a decisive role in this development. However, the movement towards the left was cut across largely by objective developments, and has been reversed for a whole period.

The reasons for the lamentable state of the British Labour movement in the past period have already been explained: the defeat of the miners’ strike in 1985, followed by the defeat of the printers, seafarers and then the dockers, represented a series of grave setbacks for the working class. In the 1970s, in many European countries – Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Greece – the working class came very close to taking power. These were years of stormy class struggle in which the advanced layers of the working class were beginning to draw revolutionary conclusions. The ruling class was fearful of revolution and beginning to make plans for civil war and even toyed with the idea of military coups (the Gladio conspiracy in Italy and the writings of Brigadier Frank Kitson in Britain).

If the struggle was not carried through to the end it was no fault of the working class, which showed its willingness to struggle many times, but the limitations of the leadership, which in every case stopped short of posing the question of power. Inevitably, when they did not carry out a fundamental change in society, the movement began to ebb and entered into a decline. That is quite logical. It is not possible to maintain the working class in a state of permanent tension. When the movement did not achieve the desired results, the active layers of the class in particular became discouraged and disillusioned, a frame of mind that has characterised many of the activists for the whole of the last period.

The ebb of the workers’ movement gave new hope to the ruling class. The employers passed onto the offensive everywhere. The hardening attitudes of the bosses in turn reflected a major change in the position of world capitalism at the time. Up until the first serious recession of 1973-4, the capitalist system had been in a long period of economic upswing, characterised by continuous growth, full employment and booming profits. This enabled them to make significant concessions to the working class: reforms, the welfare state, cheap housing, free education, etc. But by the second half of the 1970s the situation had begun to change dramatically. The old model of Keyensianism had reached its limits – a fact that was expressed by the huge and rising levels of inflation that were everywhere threatening to reach Latin American dimensions.

Keynesianism Abandoned

The ruling class was compelled to abandon Keyensianism and resort to the “new” policies of monetarism that we now associate with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. These were presented as new and “radical” policies – a myth that is still being assiduously cultivated by Tony Blair and the adherents of New Labour. In point of fact, these ideas were not new at all but only a return to the old policies of “classical” capitalism – the policies of the 1920s and 1930s – of balanced budgets and “sound currency”, that is, the policies of deflation and a ruthless attack on the living standards of the working class.

The Left leaders have never really understood how capitalism works. They imagined (and still imagine) that it was possible to solve the problems of the working class without a fundamental change in society. They dreamed (and still dream) of a return to the “good old days” of Keynesianism, where increased social spending could solve all problems. Insofar as the existing governments did not accept this, they attributed it merely to stubbornness, ignorance or bad faith. True, Margaret Thatcher was stubborn and ignorant and habitually acted out of bad faith. But the reason why she acted as she did was none of these things. She was merely carrying out a policy in the interests of capitalism in a period of capitalist decline. Since then, every other British government – including that of Tony Blair – has done exactly the same thing.

Even the best of the Lefts (or left reformists, to call them by their correct name) lack a scientific understanding of capitalist society. They lack a clear perspective, linked to the need for a thoroughgoing socialist transformation of society that is provided by Marxism, and therefore at critical moments they tend to vacillate, compromise and retreat. By contrast, the right-wing Labour and trade union leaders are always decisive, ruthless and implacable. They know “what side their bread is buttered on”, they know who their paymasters are, and they feel behind them the full weight of the support of the Establishment, the press and “society” (namely, big business). This gives them a considerable advantage, especially in periods when the workers are in a state of apathy. In such periods the pressure of the ruling class on the tops of the movement is increased many fold. The last two decades was just such a period, which is why the movement (both the Labour Party and the unions) went so far to the right.

For a period of almost two decades, the class struggle and activity in the Labour movement was at a painfully low level, as the mass organisations emptied out. Strikes – one important barometer of the class struggle – were at an all-time low. Under these hard circumstances, the pressures of capitalism on the workers’ organisations, and especially the tops, increases enormously, and, being even more divorced from its working class base, they acquired an unprecedented level of “independence” – that is, increased dependence on the bourgeois and their ideology.

Without theory, perspectives or understanding, the right-wing trade union and Labour leaders adapted themselves to their immediate environment. They had long lost confidence in the working class and its ability to struggle. This low point in the fortunes of the Labour movement created the conditions for the rise of so-called “New Realism” and Blairism – its political mirror image. These phenomena are inseparably linked and dialectically related to one another.

This period has been appropriately described as one of semi-reaction. In the course of the last two decades, the Labour and trade union leaders became even more cocooned from the pressures of the rank and file. They derived confidence from the apparent successes of capitalism, which they fervently defend. In the trade union field, individuals such as Chapple, Jackson, Reamsbottom, Hammond, Bill Jordan and John Monks epitomised this conservative pro-capitalist tendency. By contrast the left reformists, both in the Labour Party and the unions, collapsed as a serious force. Those who resisted the shift to the right were swimming against the current.

The expulsion of the Militant tendency from the Labour Party was the signal for a general purge of the Left. The Marxist tendency had played an important role in stiffening the Lefts and leading the fight against the right wing. It had also built a serious base in a number of unions and led the Broad Left Organising Committee (BLOC) during the mid-1980s. The ruling class regarded them rightly as their most serious enemies and acted accordingly. But what really destroyed Militant was not the expulsions – which only affected a small minority of the best-known figures – but the confusion and short-sightedness of a part of the leadership of Militant who panicked and broke away from the Labour Party on an ultra-left adventure that dealt a serious blow to the Marxist wing of the Party.

The trade union bureaucracy, to accentuate all the difficulties, cultivated the art of hiding behind the anti-union laws. The real intention of these laws was to disorientate, frighten and undermine the confidence of workers. Today, all union officials are required by law to repudiate unofficial disputes, or be held responsible for the actions of their members. This was a very shrewd move by Thatcher, who understood that the best way to silence the trade union officials was not to put them in prison (as Heath did), but to threaten their bank balances and pensions. “We can’t break the law. Everything will be lost! All the union’s assets will be sequestrated”, was the refrain of one right-wing union leader after another. “No trade union office will miss the financial imperative of disowning local activists, however reluctantly”, stated the labour correspondent John Lloyd. “No local activist can fail to feel more exposed or vulnerable.”[1] In reality, however, if the trade unions stood up to the law, it would instantly be turned into a dead letter.

While the pro-capitalist tendency is on the retreat within the trade unions, in the Labour Party there has been a time lag, and the right wing is still dominant, at least at its higher levels and in the Parliamentary Party. The deeper one goes into the Labour Party, however, the greater is the feeling of indignation and hatred towards the New Labour leadership. In fact, the right-wing domination at the top reflects the situation, as it was yesterday, not at all what it is today. This swing to the left within the unions must in turn, as in the past, sooner or later reflect itself at all levels within the Labour Party. The growing polarisation to the left and to the right within society must find its reflection inside the Labour Party too.

The way in which the process will unfold was revealed in embryo in the Livingstone affair. Ken Livingstone, the clear choice of Labour’s rank and file, was bureaucratically deprived of becoming Labour’s official candidate for London Mayor. Immediately all hell broke loose. Although the local Party organisations were at a low ebb before this, huge protest meetings took place. The Party in London came to life overnight. The accumulation of discontent only needed a point of reference, which Livingstone provided. As we predicted, the Livingstone affair proved to be just an episode. But it showed how suddenly things could change within the Labour Party once things began to move.

All the factors that led to Blair’s victory in the Party are now turning into their opposites. Blair’s hold on the Party, which appeared to be so solid, is just as temporary as the stranglehold of the right in the unions. Blair’s support for George W. Bush and the war in Iraq has further alienated the Party’s rank and file. The mood of opposition is growing. We are witnessing the end of an era and the opening of a new stormy chapter inside the Labour Party.

This is precisely the reason why Blair wants to break the trade union-Labour link. It is an attempt to prevent militancy spreading from the unions to the Party. Tom Sawyer, when he took over as general secretary of the Party, pointed to this danger in a private briefing to the press at Labour Party conference. Sawyer explained that changes were needed to Party rules to stop the kind of humiliation of the leadership that happened under Callaghan. The new Labour government would have to be “protected” from the criticisms of the Party membership, and especially the trade unions. Never again would they allow a division to open up between the membership and a Labour government. But this is easier said than done!

Despite all the control freakery, Blairism has a very weak base in the Labour movement – even in the Parliamentary Labour Party. As long as Blair appeared to deliver success, his ruling coalition at the top of the Party could hold together. But things have already started to unravel. The hairline splits and cracks that exist even within the Cabinet will in the future become an open breach, as was shown by the resignations of Robin Cook and Clare Short. The departure of Mandelson and now Alastair Campbell is part of this process. A series of backbench revolts have already rocked the Party. The Financial Times, the organ of big business, comments: “The emergence of prominent backbenchers prepared to challenge Mr Blair on several fronts raises the risk that protests against individual government policies will cohere into wholesale opposition to the course he is charting.”[2] The Blair machine still holds a ruthless grip over the Party, but it is no longer seen as all-powerful. It will be rendered powerless under the pressures of the class struggle. Blair will find himself suspended in mid air.

National Government

The historical parallels with Ramsay MacDonald and 1931 are very relevant. But there are differences. Ramsay MacDonald had certain roots in the Labour movement. Tony Blair, on the other hand, is the most out-of-touch Labour leader in history. He is a shallow middle class upstart who has climbed to office on the back of the working class, which he despises. It is entirely possible that, as the battle hots up inside the Party, there will be a split along class lines. Blair and the right wing will split away to join up with the Lib-Dems. After all, that was always Blair’s intention. It is quite possible that this could occur even in the lifetime of a Labour government. Having used the Labour Party to climb to power, Blair would be quite prepared to stab it in the back and destroy the Labour government, preparing the victory of reaction in one form or another – either the return of a vicious right-wing Tory government, or even a replay of the National Government scenario of 1931. However, such a development would prepare the way for a sharp turn of the Labour Party to the left.

It is not possible to place an exact time scale on this process, but events could move very quickly. In any case it is clear that the process of a shift to the left has begun, although it is still in its early stages. Over the last few years, opposition to the Blair government has been steadily mounting in the Labour movement. But the accumulated discontent of the past, so often suppressed, has to find an outlet. This is the problem of problems. There is colossal discontent in the ranks, but it lacks an authoritative voice, a clear programme, an organisation and a perspective. This can only come from within the Party itself. All the attempts to create an alternative outside the Labour Party have collapsed ignominiously. The whole process must pass through the Labour Party – and the unions.

The unions therefore now occupy the centre of the stage. Opposition has surfaced in an increasingly militant form in a host of trade union conferences. After six years of Labour government, the workers’ patience has worn extremely thin. Blair continues with his pro-business policies, as public services crumble and the gulf between rich and poor grows apace. He seems to be anxious to go out of his way to antagonise the trade unions. He is pushing on with his so-called reforms, without any concern for the consequences. The stubbornness of Blair, however, is not a personal question but arises from the crisis of British capitalism. The system can no longer afford meaningful reforms. The bosses are insistently demanding counter-reforms. It is this that drives Blair into a confrontation with the unions.

Workers in Britain already have less workplace protection than their counterparts on the continent. They also work the longest hours and have the shortest holidays. But this is not sufficient for big business. Standards need to be driven down still further. Blair has linked up with the leaders of European right-wing bourgeois parties in an attempt to undermine workers’ rights across Europe. They are looking to the United States as a model of “free enterprise” that must be replicated in Europe. Blair, Berlusconi and Aznar have called on EU states to introduce “more flexible types of employment contracts”, to replace labour laws with “soft regulation” and to increase “the effectiveness of public employment services… by opening this market to the private sector.”

Blair says he wants to remove all “red tape” to allow “enterprise” to flourish – in other words, further deregulation and an end to restrictions on exploitation. In 2002, as workers were pushed to their limits, the official figures for the number of deaths at work rose by 32 per cent. Now there are serious proposals to increase the retirement age of men and women to 70 years of age. This counter-reform is a throw back to the inter-war period. It is an indication of what the British workers can expect in the future.

These attacks – especially on pension rights – have already provoked a series of general strikes in Italy, Greece, Spain and Portugal. Huge protests and demonstrations have rocked France over moves to privatise state firms and cut pensions. Even in Austria workers have taken to the streets. Britain will not be far behind, as the gigantic demonstrations against the Iraq war have shown. On 15 February, two million demonstrated on the streets of London in the biggest demonstration in the history of Britain. It is an important harbinger of what is to come, as consciousness begins to catch up with the objective situation. Under pressure, the TUC is now threatening to call a national demonstration over pensions.

The mood in the unions is now beginning to come to the boil. The growing impatience and frustration of the rank and file has been expressed in certain unions by a questioning of the trade union-Labour Party link. This is a natural reaction to the high-handed conduct of the Labour leaders, and a desire to teach them a lesson. In the year 2000, the Fire Brigades Union conference passed a resolution that called for its political fund to be opened up to all organisations and candidates that support union policy, and not simply the Labour Party. Following the firefighters’ dispute, a number of members of the FBU withdrew from paying the political levy – a sign of disgust at the way the government had handled the strike. There is even the possibility that the FBU might disaffiliate from the Labour Party.

While Andy Gilchrist, the general secretary of the FBU, has fought to keep the links and urged members to reclaim the Labour Party, it is not certain that he will carry the day. Given the deep-seated resentment against New Labour, it cannot be ruled out that one or two of the smaller unions could disaffiliate from the Labour Party. But that remains to be seen. In any case, this process will be reversed as the Labour Party shifts to the left, and a left reformist current crystallises within its ranks.

The same mood of bitterness exists in other unions. In Unison, the leadership were forced to review its links with Labour. Bectu, the 26,000-strong broadcasting and entertainment workers’ union, voted at its conference by a 61 per cent majority to conduct a ballot over the Labour-union link. The conference resolution cited a range of reasons, including the government’s “increasing number of confrontations with public sector workers, seeking better pay and conditions”, and its “policies of privatisation and cuts.”

The GMB, while maintaining its affiliation, has decided to cut £2 million from its funding of the Labour Party over the next four years, and the CWU and RMT have carried out similar measures. The TGWU and Unison are also reviewing their financial arrangements. The RMT reduced its financial contribution to the Party from £112,000 to £20,000, and now to less than £12,500. It also changed its list of sponsored MPs after they had been quizzed over which policies they supported, causing Prescott to resign from the union. This is an absolutely correct stand to take. Unfortunately, instead of taking the fight into the Labour Party, a majority of the 52-strong delegate conference of the RMT decided to consider backing other parties, such as the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), Plaid Cymru, and the Greens. While the frustration amongst activists is perfectly understandable, support for these other parties offers no way forward. Plaid, for instance, promotes the policies of bourgeois nationalism, that serves to split the working class movement, while the Greens (and Plaid) have voted for cuts and privatisation of local government services. How can they serve the interests of the working class? Such a strategy can only play into the hands of the right wing and lead to the disaffiliation of the union – something the Blairites would dearly love.

The vital importance of the unions in the fight against Blairism was illustrated negatively in Wales. Apparently, in a recent ballot, Environment Minister Alun Michael, a leading Blairite, only narrowly avoided a full reselection process by a majority of one Party unit. Unfortunately, the local FBU and the two affiliated RMT branches failed to cast a vote. If they had done so – the price of a postage stamp – Michael would have been facing deselection. This clearly demonstrates, not in abstract discussion, but concretely, how important the role of each RMT and FBU branch is in reclaiming Labour. Any attempt at disaffiliation, as this example shows, only weakens the struggle against Blair and his clique. Again, the RMT was instrumental in getting the issue of Iraq raised at the 2003 Labour Party conference. If it had been disaffiliated that opportunity would have been lost.

Justifiably angry

Of course, this is not to deny that trade union members are justifiably angry at the way they have been treated. They pay trade union affiliation fees to the Labour Party at the same time as Labour authorities are scandalously carrying through cuts and redundancies of union members. But would disaffiliation serve to break the Blairites’ control of the Labour Party? You only need to pose the question correctly to get a correct answer. On the contrary, it would strengthen it by removing the influence and votes of the unions. That is why it is a measure that has the enthusiastic backing of all the enemies of the unions and the Labour movement. It is, paradoxically, a measure that would certainly be supported by the Blairites, who are in favour of breaking all union-Labour links. Therefore it is not a question of getting angry, but getting even. While the call for disaffiliation is an understandable reaction to the policies and actions of the Labour right wing, it is a mistake. If successful, it would be a step back in the direction of the non-political trade unionism of 150 years ago.

Nevertheless, Labour still receives substantial donations from trade unions including Unison, Amicus, Usdaw and the TGWU. In fact the trade unions make up eight out of ten of the largest donors to the Labour Party. In 2002 they donated a total of £9.87 million. The Fire Brigades Union – which was in dispute with the government during this period – gave more than £12,000. The Blairites do not want to depend on the unions for finance. They prefer to get money from rich sympathisers, the Ecclestones, Robinsons, the Hindujahs and other fat cats. In the first three months of 2003, four wealthy donors coughed up nearly £3m to the Party. They included the un-elected science minister, Lord Sainsbury, who gave £2.5m – nearly half the £5.4m donated to the Party over the period. The other big donors were Sir Ronald Cohen, who gave £250,000, and the Sunderland football club chairman, Bob Murray, who was recently awarded a CBE for public service. He gave £100,000.

Naturally, these donations do not come without strings. “He who pays the piper calls the tune”. The dependence on funds from big business makes Blair dependent – or rather, even more dependent – on big business interests and more independent of the working class. However, this should not be exaggerated. The amounts of money given by big business to Labour are really very small compared to what they give to the Tories. Most of Labour’s money still comes from the unions.

Blair is therefore considering the state funding of political parties as an alternative, which would, as he sees it, deliver him from the clutches of the unions. State funding now has the support of the Murdoch press and The Sun in particular. This should be sufficient for trade unionists to pause for thought. Trade unionists must not allow frustration with the government to play into the hands of the enemy. On the contrary, a fight against Blairism can only be a political struggle within the Labour Party. There is no other choice.

There is not a hope in hell of influencing things from outside. Left-wing candidates who have stood against the Labour Party in general elections have got nowhere. Even in Scotland, the SSP, which gained six seats in the Scottish Parliament, did so only on the basis of proportional representation. While their vote reflects a constituency of opinion to the left of the Labour Party, they did not come close against Labour in a first past the post election. Even the pre-war ILP, with four MPs in Glasgow alone, failed in its endeavour to replace the Labour Party. Despite the growing disillusionment, Labour still has very deep roots in the working class areas of Scotland.

A more important question is: who elected Blair as Labour leader in the first place? Not only did the capitalist media support him, but also the right-wing union leaders backed him for leader. At every step of the way they supported and assisted Blair in his attempted counter-revolution within the Party. They sustained him and his supporters on the Party’s leading bodies. Betty Boothroyd made things crystal clear in her recent autobiography. According to her: “Before I joined the NEC, John Golding [general secretary of the NCU] organised meetings with allies in the trade unions. He was very much a loner on the executive until reinforcements arrived. In 1982 he widened the group to include Gwyneth, Renee Short, Denis Howell, Charlie Turnock, Tony Clarke, Neville Hough, Ken Cure, Sam McClusky [the last five all elected to represent the trade union section] and me. John, supported by Neil Kinnock, subsequently became chairman of the NEC home-policy committee. It was the beginning of a fruitful partnership that paved the way for Tony Blair’s New Labour Party.”[3]

A recent pamphlet about political funding by Matt Wrack states: “Unfortunately, the union representatives on Labour’s National Executive have been some of the most loyal Blairites going”. “What is the point of electing trade union delegates onto Labour’s executive if they subsequently ignore the policies of their own union at every opportunity?” But surely that is the point? The NEC is made up of 33 members. The trade unions have 12 places, and a further six are reserved for the Constituency Labour Parties. If the 12 union representatives voted with the three CLP lefts from the grassroots alliance, that would make a total of 15 votes. However, if we add the votes of Jimmy Elsby, the Party treasurer, from the TGWU, and Dennis Skinner from the MPs, support for trade union-backed polices should have a clear majority.

It is this cabal of right-wing union leaders that allowed Blair and his cronies to get away with it, and they are still trying their best to continue in this role. Various excuses to support Blair are given, including confidentiality. Naturally! They wish to operate behind the backs of the membership, under the cover of anonymity. Margaret Wall, for example, regularly refused to tell the MSF union conference how she voted on Labour’s highest body. She claimed she was not on the NEC representing MSF, but the representative of “all union members”, and so not accountable to the MSF. So these so-called democrats are completely unaccountable. They think they can be a law unto themselves. The conclusion ought to be clear: if these so-called trade union representatives on Labour’s NEC are not reflecting union policies, they should be immediately removed and replaced with genuine union representatives.


When in March 2002, NEC members Mark Seddon, representing the Constituency Parties, and Mary Turner (GMB) presented a motion to Labour’s National Executive Committee calling for a halt to the privatisation of public services through PFI – in which they were expressing the policy of every union affiliated to the Labour Party – the NEC voted not to discuss the question. The vote was 21 to seven. The overwhelming majority of trade union representatives voted to throw out the resolution – in defiance of their unions’ policy. When the readmission of Ken Livingstone into the Party was discussed, it was defeated 17 to 13. The following trade union representatives voted with the Blair leadership over this issue: John Gibbins (Amicus), John Hannett (USDAW), Veron Hince (RMT), Cath Speight (Amicus), and Margaret Wall (Amicus). Those “unavoidably absent” were Steve Pickering (GMB) and Jimmy Elsby (TGWU). It has clearly been the union leaders who have kept Blair in power and upheld his anti-union policies. How can this be considered “value for money”? Yet the answer is not to abolish the political levy, but to demand accountability.

In Unison, Blair supporters currently control the Affiliated Political Fund, which covers those union members affiliated to the Labour Party. So rather than fighting for union policy in the Labour Party, it has become a source of introducing Blairite policies into Unison. Rather than reviewing the financing of the union-Labour link – “are we getting value for money?” – Unison members should be ensuring that union policies are being fought for at every level inside the Labour Party. The question of the money is in reality a diversion to deflect attention away from the real question that ought to be asked: who controls the Labour Party and what must be done about it?

“The future strength of the Labour-union link depends on the unions acting on a shared understanding that they cannot abuse their place within Labour’s constitution by using their votes to coerce the government or manipulate its policies,” states Blair’s old pal, Peter Mandelson. But it is not the unions which are “abusing their place”, but the bankers and capitalists who are dictating the Labour government’s agenda. Mandelson is quite prepared for his friends in big business to “coerce the government”, while the trade unions, like little children, need to be stuck in a corner out of sight. Yet the trade unions, which control 50 per cent of votes at Labour’s conference, have been prepared to accept this situation.

Those who call for all trade unions to disaffiliate from the Labour Party are making a fundamental mistake. If some left unions were to disaffiliate, it would simply strengthen the hands of the right wing. The more disaffiliations, the stronger the grip of the Blairites on the Party. It is a purely reactionary slogan. In fact, ever since the formation of the Labour Party, the ruling class has continually sought ways to financially cripple the Party, “contracting out” being one of them. “Contracting Out” has been the traditional cry of Tory trade unionists ever since the Osborne case in 1909. It is an attempt to appeal to the backward non-political prejudices of some union members, and keep politics out of the unions. And Lenin explained long ago that “non-political” trade unionism is bourgeois trade unionism.

The issue of disaffiliation is posed as the easy option. It is no such thing. It is the political equivalent of tearing up one’s union card out of frustration with the leadership. This solves nothing. It is based upon a pessimistic outlook, that somehow the Labour Party (or a union) can never be changed. But the whole history of the Party and unions proves that this is fundamentally false. If the rules and policies have been changed for the worse, then they can also be changed back for the better! If union democracy can be restored in AEEU/Amicus, as it will be, it can be restored in any union organisation. If the grip of the right-wing regime of Jackson can be broken, so can the Blairite regime. There is no fundamental difference between the two cases. If the TGWU, GMB or a host of others, formerly right-wing unions, can be changed, why not the Labour Party?

Some have argued that disaffiliation should simply act as a precursor to the unions founding a brand new workers’ Party. Well think about it. If there were any chance of the leaders of Amicus, TGWU, Unison, GMB and other major unions founding such a new Party, what would be the point? If they were that determined, surely it would be a far simpler job to take back the existing Labour Party? After all, it is far easier to transform an organisation that already exists than to go to the trouble of inventing a new one. A worker does not throw away an old tool and buy a new one before he has attempted to mend it.

Mass organisations

The fact is that at the present time there is no realistic alternative to the Labour Party. There is no shortage of small groups on the fringes of the Labour movement who have attempted to put themselves forward as such an alternative, but they are not even noticed by the mass of workers. The working class can never express itself through small organisations, even if they have correct ideas. It is a law that when the working class moves into action it always expresses itself in the first instance through the traditional mass organisations of the class. In Britain that means the trade unions and the Labour Party.

Given the deep historical roots of the Labour Party, there is no possibility of creating a new alternative workers’ Party under present conditions. The workers will test their organisations time and time again before they finally draw the conclusion that a new party is necessary. This has been shown in practice many times. Labour voters, even when they are disgusted with the government, generally choose to abstain in protest rather than go anywhere else. In all elections since 1997, there has been a fall in turnout, particularly in Labour strongholds. But there has been no movement in the direction of any new political formation outside the Labour Party. The workers’ discontent with Blairism has been expressed in a growth of abstentionism. This will only change when they see the development of opposition within the Labour Party. At the moment, this opposition is developing within the unions and is expressed in the replacement of the old right-wing leaders by more left-wing elements. That is how the movement always begins.

It is necessary to draw certain lessons from history. When the Independent Labour Party (ILP) split from the Labour Party in 1932 it had some 100,000 supporters. But with an unclear policy it eventually collapsed and was reduced to dust. The British Communist Party, with the authority of the Russian Revolution behind it, never succeeded in creating a mass base in Britain. Lenin, who understood the question of the mass organisations very well, insisted that the CP should orient to the Labour Party and even affiliate to it. Initially, the CP accepted Lenin’s advice and obtained important results. But when it abandoned the Leninist policy and adopted the ultra-left “third period” line, it was rapidly reduced to a sect. More recently, none of the “57 Heinz varieties” of sectarian groups on the fringes of the Labour movement have made the slightest impact.

The Socialist Labour Party, set up by Arthur Scargill after he split from the Labour Party, has sunk without a trace. Though Scargill was a well-known leader with a reputation as a leading class fighter, in the end, it meant nothing to the broad mass. The Socialist Alliance has done little better.

The overwhelming majority of the working class in Britain, despite profound disappointment with Blair, see no alternative to the Labour Party. According to a recent opinion poll, a big majority of Labour voters expressed their opposition to breaking the Labour-union links. Sixty-four percent of Labour voters were opposed to breaking these historic links. On the other hand, fifty-three percent of Conservative voters wanted the links broken. These results are sufficient to show the class basis of this important question.

The fate of the Labour Party is in the hands of trade unions and their members. And the situation is changing rapidly. Whereas in the past the unions were the bastions of Labour’s right wing, today they stand increasingly on the left. It is no accident that the new left trade union leaders, practically without exception, have raised the idea of reclaiming the Labour Party from the Blairites. Bob Crow, the general secretary of the RMT and Mick Rix, the then general secretary of ASLEF, issued a joint statement calling for the unions to reclaim the Party:

“We believe that it is time the Labour Party was reclaimed for labour, that it learned once more to listen to the voice of the class it enfranchised…

“In Britain, solidarity action is unlawful, and even the right to strike is hedged about with hurdles and qualifications. The effect of such restrictions is to make tackling inequality and injustice even harder. The general public does not gain from legally enfeebled trade unions, but bad employers do. And it has now been proved beyond doubt that if trade unions are driven out of politics – New Labour’s maximum programme – there is no alternative means of representing working-class concerns to hand.

“Trade unions are still potentially decisive in shaping Labour policy. The Party is still our representation committee – if we choose to make it so. OK, we don’t write cheques for £125,000 and expect the PM to write a letter on our behalf by return. That deluxe service is reserved for business leaders. But our representatives are there when policy is debated, have votes when votes are counted and are embedded in the life of the Party at every level…

“Likewise, at the Party’s annual conference, we can make policy if we want to, the more so since our opposition to privatisation and our support for a better deal for trade unions and employees in the workplace are shared by many and probably most Party members, who prefer Labour’s traditions to the embrace of suspect business leaders. If we have a government that is more Berlusconi than Bevin, it is only because we tolerate it.

“Now that New Labour has found out the hard way the corrupting consequences of inviting the right into their political parlour, there could be no better time for the unions to play a more open, and proud, part in Labour’s policy debates…”

Derek Simpson, the general secretary of Amicus, also urged union members to fight to take back the Labour Party. “I would urge members to go into the branches, to step up their work within Labour and take this Party back…” he said. He encouraged union members to flood local Parties, and ensure more union-backed candidates win election nominations and constituency positions. They should seek “to reclaim our Party”, he said. “We want to be engaging more, not less. If we are there in much greater numbers we can take back Labour.”

Billy Hayes, general secretary of the CWU, has also called on members to join the Party and reclaim it for the rank and file: “The weakness of Blairism today shows there is the chance for change if trade unionists play their part in shaping the sort of Labour Party we need”, he said. The attempt to get the CWU to disaffiliate from the Labour Party at their 2003 national conference was overwhelmingly defeated. Other union leaders are taking up this call for a revolt against Blairism within the Labour Party in an increasingly organised fashion.

John Edmonds, who was initially on the right wing of the Party, revealed he had been offered a peerage by Blair, but had refused. “There is more nobility in representing working people than you will ever find under the ermine in the House of Lords”, he said. He has also added his voice to those urging the unions to reclaim the Labour Party.

“This is the time to stand by our principles and fight to reclaim the Party for those socialist values that we believe in… I am not leaving this Party in the hands of people like the Hindujah brothers or Bernie Ecclestone.”

His successor as general secretary of the GMB, Kevin Curran, dismissed New Labour as a product of a handful of people and said that they would ignore the trade unions “at their peril”. He said there was no intention of breaking the link: the aim was to ensure that Labour lived up to the values of the union. He also rejected the view that Labour had to change to get elected. “Any Labour Party would have been elected in 1997. I don’t think it was a trick of new Labour; it was the death throes of the Tory Party.”

The victory of Tony Woodley as general secretary of the powerful Transport and General Union, Britain’s third biggest union is a further step in the direction of reclaiming the Party. He has given notice that he intends to hold a summit with other left-wing union leaders hostile to New Labour to “put the Labour in the Party”.

“I’ll fulfil my promise to call a summit of affiliated unions to discuss how to get Labour back representing working-class people”, said Woodley.

“The T&G knows better than most that the Labour Party is a broad coalition whose destiny has been guided since its beginning by the trade unions. If the progressive ideas of the unions appear now to be ignored, the solution is not to withdraw and sulk in our tents.

“It means representing members rather than ministers as we take the arguments for progressive policies into every area of the Labour Party to which we are affiliated.”

Words into deeds

If these words are translated into deeds, they could provide the starting point for the transformation of the Labour Party. But truth is always concrete, as Hegel said and Lenin often repeated. Words are never enough. It is necessary to mobilise the rank and file of the trade union movement to carry this out. This would not be at all difficult in the present climate. There are probably no more than 100,000 members in the Labour Party at the present time. If the trade unions were to send just 50 members into every constituency Party, this would be sufficient to trigger the reselection process of sitting MPs. The Labour MPs would be called to account by the people who elected them. This is called democracy!

This idea was raised in a public meeting by left Labour MP John MacDonald, when in reply to a FBU member, he said: “You say you are disgusted with the government minister Nick Raynsford and feel someone should stand against him at the next election. Well, Mr Raynsford polled some 20,000 votes in the last general election. How long will it take you to win over in excess of 20,000 people in this one constituency? However, only 50 FBU activists need to join his Party to take it over!” In fact, Raynsford obtained some 60 per cent of the vote in Greenwich and Woolwich, and had a 13,500 majority over the Conservatives, his closest rival. In contrast, the Socialist Alliance candidate polled a mere 481 votes (1.5 per cent), while the Scargill’s SLP managed to scrape a miserable 352 votes (1.1 per cent).

Already there have been moves to deselect Blairites in some local parties. For instance, in the London seat of Bethnal Green and Bow, Oona King, the Labour MP and parliamentary aide at the DTI, narrowly survived the first stage of an attempt to deselect her. Only after one branch was excluded on a technicality was King’s survival assured. Incidentally, she received the backing of five affiliated trade unions. In this case, the trade unions saved a Blairite from possible deselection. The unions need to ensure that their delegates follow union policy and vote only for those candidates that do likewise. The call must go out, not to contract out, but to contract in! It is time the trade unions took back the Labour Party for the working class.

The movement to reclaim the Labour Party needs a bold strategy. Just as the right-wing Blairites were organised to hijack the Party, so the unions must get organised to take it back. The call of Derek Simpson, Tony Woodley and others, to flood the Party with trade unionists must be taken up seriously. It should be concretised by the launching of a “300 Club”. Every union should agree to sign up 300 members to the Labour Party in each Constituency. On the basis of the rules, which stipulate One Member One Vote, every potential Labour candidate will be judged by the policies they support. Obviously, the trade unionists would caste their vote for those most closely associated with union policies.

In the past trade unionists were given a special rate of £3 per year to join, but this has now risen to £12. This step was a disincentive for trade unionists to join the Labour Party, while the middle-class elements were being welcomed with open arms. The unions could immediately reinstate the original scheme. They should use the political fund to subsidise the membership fees of those who wish to join the Labour Party. In this way, the union’s financial contribution to the Party is not reduced. The money would be well spent in providing thousands of members for the Labour Party. Above all, it would allow ordinary trade unionists to participate actively in the Party, determine its policies and decide who runs it.

The FBU recently donated £12,000 to the Labour Party. This could have been used to help hundreds of FBU members join the Party, a number of whom could have joined John Prescott’s Party in Hull East, or maybe Nick Raynsford’s Party in Greenwich and Woolwich. This would encourage those MPs either to follow policies in the interests of working people or else consider some alternative career. Together with other trade union members, they could decide the best candidate to represent these seats at the general election. On this basis, there would be hundreds of Labour MPs falling over themselves to support pro-union policies!

The trade unions have come full circle. It was they who created the Labour Party. Now it is their job to purge it of closet Tories and careerists and reclaim the Party. The time is ripe to challenge Blairism. If this is not done, the outlook for Labour and the working class will be grim. Despite everything, Blair has not and will not succeed in turning the Labour Party into a copy of the US Democrats. Therefore, at a certain point, the ruling class will move to split the Labour Party, as they did with the SDP in 1981-2, making use of the services of the Blairites, who have never been interested in the Labour Party, except as a vehicle for their personal careers. As the Party is pushed to the left, the ruling class will decide that it cannot any longer serve its purpose and attempt to destroy it.

Mr. Blair has no future in the Labour Party. He is only a member of it by accident. In the end he will be forced out. Maybe he will simply leave for an extremely high-paid job in the world of business or diplomacy. But he could also travel a similar path to Ramsay MacDonald in 1931. Such a scenario would serve to propel the Labour movement far to the left, and open the way for the adoption of radical socialist policies. The dominant tendency will be the left wing both within the trade unions and the Labour Party. Under such conditions the Marxist tendency would play an increasingly important role. On the basis of the crisis of British capitalism, and the great events that are about to unfold, genuine Marxism would once again become an important trend in the British Labour movement and in the working class generally.


[1] Human Resource Strategy, edited by Shaun Tyson, p.58, London 1997

[2] The Financial Times, 6 March 2003

[3] Betty Boothroyd, The Autobiography, pp.112-3, my emphasis