Socialist Worker

The tangled history of Labour and the trade unions

Trade union leaders supporting Labour regardless of the party's policies is a longstanding tradition—but it can be challenged by the radical left, writes Simon Basketter

Issue No. 2071

Why do trade union leaders echo widespread anger at the Labour government, yet also seem determined to support a Labour Party that is hell-bent on attacking working people?

To begin to explain this mystery we have to examine the role that trade union leaders have played throughout the history of the Labour Party.

Labour was created in 1900 as a result of an uneasy compromise between individual socialists, trade union leaders and various opportunist politicians from the upper middle class. From the beginning the party was dominated by these wannabe parliamentarians and conservative minded trade union officials.

The trade union leaders distrusted those who advocated more far reaching social changes – but they wanted a political weapon to protect their union funds and bargaining rights.

They were frustrated by the failure of the then powerful Liberal Party to embrace their ideas and ambitions. Throughout Labour's history there have been tensions between the union leaders and the party hierarchy.

These tensions arise from the fact that trade union leaders are pulled in contrary directions. On the one hand they are bureaucrats – full time officials that derive their living from their union job. They have a different social position to ordinary rank and file union members.

But trade union leaders – left and right wing ones – do sometimes encourage workers to fight. That is because these officials would have no leverage on the bosses – and no job – if it were not for some level of resistance and organisation by workers.

Tony Cliff, the founder of the Socialist Workers Party, wrote of the union bureaucracy: 'It dreams of reforms, but fears to settle accounts in real earnest with the state (which not only refuses to grant reforms but even withdraws those already granted) – and it also fears the rank and file struggles which alone can deliver reforms.'

The best trade union leaders may not want to be in this position, but they nevertheless find themselves there – and come under pressure to accommodate.

Hesitations and retreats are thus built into the trade union bureaucracy. This in turn encourages trade union leaders to rely on the Labour Party to deliver change on behalf of – and instead of – the workers they represent.

So most of the union bureaucracy is closely allied to the Labour Party, even today under New Labour. This in turn generates a constant clash of loyalties.

When Labour is out of government it tells unions that strikes are unpopular and will cost Labour votes. When Labour is in government, the pressure is on union leaders to bow to the government formed by 'their' party.

Nevertheless, there are times when trade union leaders have been prepared to stand up to the right wing of the party. In 1931, for instance, they prevented the Labour Party as a whole backing its prime minister Ramsay MacDonald when he went over to the Tories.


But in the late 1930s, the union leaders and parliamentarians came together to drive the left out the party, just as they later isolated the left wing in the 1950s and 1980s.

Assimilating the trade union bureaucracy as a bulwark against revolt from below has always been part of the strategy for ensuring the stability of the capitalist system.

Sections of the ruling class – despite hating the idea of a labour party and hating the unions even more – began to look to Labour and union leaders to argue against strikes and put a lid on workers' militancy. This was particularly encouraged after the unions helped lead the 1926 General Strike to defeat.

The Second World War saw a change in the relationship between the unions and the state.

In 1940 Winston Churchill formed an all-party coalition government. He appointed Ernest Bevin, the leader of the T&G union, to the position of minister for labour and national service.

Bevin became the director of Britain's wartime domestic economy. The Emergency Powers (Defence) Act gave him complete control over the labour force and allocation of manpower.

There were strikes, but the union leaders were brought into the 'big tent' of the national interest. Gordon Brown's appeals to 'Britishness' are nothing new – this is a recurring method of incorporating trade union leaders.

The 1945 Labour government saw this process continue. Prime minister Clement Attlee used the TUC to push through a reduction in food rations, and even used troops against strikers.

Harold Wilson's 1960s Labour governments deepened a trend initiated by the Tories – state control over wage increases, or 'incomes policy'.

The ruling class at the time was trying to control working class advances in a period of full employment. They could not hope to smash the unions – but they could try to contain them.

The world economic growth that followed the Second World War meant British capitalism could cope with an expanded welfare state. But it could not cope with militant workers. Thus 'consensus politics' and witch-hunting the left became the norm.

For instance, when seafarers went on strike in 1966, shortly after Labour had been re-elected, Wilson appeared on TV to denounce it as 'a strike against the state'. When this did not end the strike he blamed the action on 'a tight knit group of politically motivated men', using the crudest anti-Communist witch-hunting to split the strikers.

Despite all of this, workers made considerable economic gains through 'unofficial' action during the boom of the 1950s and 1960s.


They bypassed ineffective leaders by electing rank and file representatives – the shop stewards – who were central to the militancy.

The ruling class had to craft new strategies to persuade workers to sell their working conditions in return for pay rises. In 1969 Barbara Castle, then minister of labour, produced a White Paper called 'In Place Of Strife'.

It proposed legal sanctions against strikes – and was withdrawn under protest and outrage from the unions.

The Tories were elected in 1970 and introduced new anti-union laws, setting the stage for a series of major confrontations in which the unions once again defeated the government.

The subsequent Labour government in 1974 dropped the Tories' legal attack on unions. Instead it worked to bind the union bureaucracies, right and left alike, through the so-called 'Social Contract'. This promised trade union leaders some influence in government in return for keeping wages down.

Figures like Jack Jones of the transport workers' union and Hugh Scanlon of the engineers' union had previously opposed Labour's attempt to introduce anti-union laws. But now they exerted all their power to secure trade union support for the 'Social Contract'.

So left wing union leaders became a defence protecting the Labour government from the workers' movement.

The government succeeded in reducing real wages between1974 and 1979. In certain key disputes these 'left' union leaders actively promoted scabbing.


As Ralph Miliband, a historian of the Labour Party (and father of two current ministers), wrote in 1972, 'The limited role which union leaders, including left wing ones, see themselves as playing in the Labour Party is that of representatives of organised labour, involved in a bargaining relationship with their political colleagues in the Labour Party, and not in the least as political rivals intending to capture control of the party for purposes radically different from those of the men who now control it.'

The union bureaucracy sometimes lost the initiative to rank and file organisation, but often regained it. It was able to get away with this because most rank and file activists remained strongly committed to Labour.

The industrial defeats of the 1980s moved the balance of power within the unions, tilting it decisively in favour of the full-time officials. This made it much easier for trade union leaders to cut deals with government and employers.

At its birth Labour claimed to stand for a slow, gradual march to socialism. But it gradually became more open about how the party in government could manage capitalism.

An important ideological shift took place under New Labour. The party has accepted neoliberal ideas.

It no longer believes that capitalism is slowly becoming more managable, nor that it can be gradually turned into socialism. Instead New Labour insists that capitalism is too powerful and too dynamic to ever be controlled.

As Brown put it when he was chancellor, 'Past Labour governments tried to counter the injustice and failure of free market forces by substituting government for the market. These policies cannot work in the highly integrated world economic environment in which we live. World capital markets have eliminated any notion that economic policy can remain a matter solely for national governments.'

New Labour argues that nothing can be done about the vagaries of the capitalist system – apart from ironing out 'imperfections' to the 'freedom' of the market. The right wing union leaders give concessions to this ideology – and at worst agree with it wholeheartedly.

The left union leaders disagree, but tend to argue in favour of a 'golden age' of reformist socialism. In this 'golden age' union leaders were offered jobs in the government – now unemployed Labour spin doctors like Charlie Whelan are hired into the unions.

Nostalgia aside, this reformism does mean that left wingers are more likely to encourage struggle and defend their members in strikes. But even the best ones fear breaking openly from the leaders of other unions, and by extension Labourism.

That is one reason why the party's left wing critics have often been told off for opening the door to the Tories. This can change if there is enough rank and file pressure to ensure leaders remain loyal to their members, not to Labour ministers.

This pressure can be heightened by the organised strength of mass opposition to the government. The anti-war movement has provided a platform and created a climate where union leaders feel able to criticise Tony Blair.

This needs to be pushed further by making sure there is a left alternative to Labour that can be a pole of attraction at the ballot box and beyond.

The challenge is to build up such a political alternative – inside the unions and the class at large – that can encourage union leaders to call action that wins real improvements for workers. That will help pull the workers' movement out from under the dead hand of loyalty to Labour.

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Tue 2 Oct 2007, 19:28 BST
Issue No. 2071
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