Socialist Worker

Unions’ troubled relationship with the Labour Party

Issue No. 2070

Most union leaders cling to the idea, despite all evidence to the contrary, that their link to the Labour Party is the way to get a Labour government that meets the aspirations of workers.

For years we were told by trade union leaders to wait for Gordon Brown to deliver us from Tony Blair.

We were assured that even if Brown won’t bring radical change, he would at least be a pointer back to Old Labour.

Union leaders support Labour by telling us they can exert influence in the party.

If that’s true, they should be organising a rebellion against Brown’s neoliberalism. Instead union leaders backed away from a showdown with Gordon Brown because they did not want to spoil his first Labour conference as leader.

Brown has ended the submission of emergency motions—known as contemporary motions – for debate at Labour’s annual conference.

While New Labour stripped the conference of most debate in the 1990s, delegates have until now still been able to defeat the party leadership on contemporary motions.

The motions were ignored by the government but they gave a voice to frustration with the direction of Labour.

Two weeks ago at the TUC conference, the union leaders were adamant they would oppose this attack on Labour party democracy, but they then backed down.

The constituency Labour parties also overwhelmingly voted to back Brown’s move.

Derek Simpson, joint leader of Unite said, “We have had to get into this position because we don’t want a bloodbath at this conference, the first conference.” Simpson stressed that whatever the differences were between the unions and Labour leadership, “we have to get a fourth Labour term”.

Unison leader Dave Prentis said the most important thing was for the unions to “speak with one voice”.

The determination not to rock the Labour boat lay behind the calling off of the pensions dispute last year in the run up to the local elections. It explains the reluctance to call action over public sector pay.

It meant that CWU general secretary Billy Hayes stood up to praise Brown’s government at precisely the point when the government is behind attacks on the union.

Union leaders are caught between the pressure of their members and their loyalty to Labour.

So for instance, Tony Woodley was “proud to nominate Gordon Brown” as Labour leader. Then at the TUC conference he said Brown’s speech was the worst from a Labour leader for many years. Then this week he praised Brown’s speech.

The level of anger from below can force the union leaders into action. When they refuse to act, this can fuel the anger and bitterness that workers feel.

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