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Why do unions still follow Labour?

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Issue 2454
A Labour flag paid for by the Unison union
A Labour flag paid for by the Unison union (Pic: Weakheart Drop on Flickr)

The Tory cabinet has already declared a new offensive against trade unions—and union leaders have wasted no time in responding.

And the response from many is to sign people up to the Labour Party. 

Union leaders hope to influence its coming leadership election. 

But this is also part of a long term strategy to “reclaim” the party.  

Union leaders created Labour and unions still provide most of its money, seeking to give workers a voice in parliament. 

But Labour’s leading figures see them as an embarrassment and are determined to sideline them. 

Labour’s union-bashing is often blamed on the Blairites who snipe at Ed Miliband. 

But Labour failed to listen long before Tony Blair led the party.

As well as going along with Tory calls for austerity and tougher immigration controls, he swallowed their line that union influence was inherently toxic. 

He made sure he was seen as striving to eliminate it.

Miliband went nuclear when the Tory press caught the Unite union trying to get Karie Murphy selected as parliamentary candidate for Falkirk in Scotland.

He launched a shameful attack on Unite and its Scottish chair Stevie Deans—also union convenor at the Grangemouth oil refinery in Falkirk. 

That opened the door to a damaging defeat for Unite at the hands of Grangemouth bosses.

After Falkirk, Miliband launched the Collins Review of Labour’s rules to eliminate the block vote that had allowed unions to elect him as leader. 

They saw him as the alternative to his Blairite brother.

That history appears to be repeating itself.


The biggest unions, Unite and Unison, have set up phone banks to ring members and convince them to become Labour “supporters”—with the union paying their fee. 

Every member of retail union Usdaw has had an email asking them to do the same.

Labour can sometimes push even union leaders too far. The last Labour government alienated the firefighters’ FBU union with its attacks on their strike. 

Labour expelled the RMT union for looking into backing Scottish Socialist Party candidates.

The RMT went on to back a series of left of Labour electoral challenges. 

And FBU general secretary Matt Wrack became one of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition’s highest profile supporters. 

More recently RMT president Peter Pinkney joined the Greens. 

And the earthquake in Scotland’s politics extends to its trade union movement. 

Around 15,000 trade unionists—many of them former Labour supporters—are now members of the Scottish National Party (SNP).

The SNP is set to hold its first trade union conference, and Unite is considering a rule change that would allow its Scottish region to back SNP candidates.

These developments are welcome and significant. Tying unions’ political funds to Labour saps their credibility. 

The Tory anti-union laws are one of the central arguments union leaders put forward for backing Labour. 

But far from repealing these laws while in office for 13 years, the last Labour government unashamedly used them. 

Wouldn’t it make more sense for unions to fund campaigns against these laws—or to fund only those MPs who oppose them? 

Many workers resent being asked to back a party that offers them so little. 

This can help create an audience for the arguments of right wingers who don’t want unions to have any political voice.

But for union members to focus exclusively on bread and butter issues in their own workplaces would be a huge step backwards.


The working class cannot defeat its exploiters one boss at a time. Political issues—from opposing unemployment benefit sanctions to supporting the Palestinians—are as essential to its liberation as disputes over wages and pensions.

And elections are one of the main arenas in which this issues are debated.

The bosses back candidates who fight for their interests. So why shouldn’t workers’ organisations put up an electoral challenge that fights for theirs?

Yet union leaders seem to have great difficulty breaking with pro-business parties.

Matt Wrack said there was no alternative to a Labour “in the current situation” last month. 

And for the trade unionists rallying to the SNP, its spending plan and links to big business point to conflicts with workers’ interests.

A vote in the PCS union to allow it to back alternative candidates has not yet led to such candidates being backed. 

The £1.5 million funding that Unite angrily withdrew from Labour after the Collins Review was quietly restored this January.

What makes the bond between Labour and the union leaders so strong? One reason is pessimism. 

Many trade union activists think that most working class people are to their right, and only a right wing Labour party can reach them.

But the majority that is to Labour’s left on issues such as the NHS and renationalising the railways is given no political voice. 

Nor is the large minority that is outraged about the scapegoating of immigrants and benefit claimants.

Keir Hardie

Keir Hardie

Unions’ Labour link doesn’t get politicians behind organised workers—it gets workers’ organisations behind politicians.

This goes back to the very beginning of the unions’ political strategy.

It all started with getting union-backed candidates selected by the capitalist Liberal Party. These “Lib-Labs”, including union leaders, rarely voted against the bosses’ party line.

Frustrated by their failings, socialist leader Keir Hardie pushed for a Labour Party independent of the Liberals. 

But the flaws that stopped it providing what the union leaders hoped for then are the same ones that would later allow Blairism to blossom.

Hardie and his allies insisted that Labour should put forward policies to reform the bosses’ system rather than overthrowing it.

This went against the arguments of other Labour founders, such as the revolutionary socialists in the Social Democratic Federation. 

And crucially, its MPs would not be accountable to the workers who got them elected.

This version won out partly because workers’ struggle was in retreat at the time, weakening the position of revolutionaries.


But it also reflects the social position of trade union officials.

Many of them sincerely want to improve workers’ lot. But their own lot is very different.

Workers produce value that is creamed off by the capitalists. Their life consists of being exploited, and their interests lie in throwing off their exploiters. 

But the union officials are not exploited. Their life consists of mediating between the workers and their bosses.

So from their point of view, a real challenge to the bosses’ power would undermine their own ability to negotiate with them for a better deal.

Labourism comes with a false division between economics and politics.

Unions are meant to pursue economic demands in the workplace without interfering with Labour’s political project. 

In return, union leaders can avoid the wider implications of workers’ struggle by referring them to the Labour Party.

The anti-union laws sought to deepen this, because it weakens workers on both fronts.

Imagine if Labour MPs used their positions to spread workers’ struggle. 

Or if unions in job centres and hospitals took direct action to stop Tory attacks on benefit claimants and the NHS being implemented.

Instead there is even pressure on unions to avoid strikes in case they cost Labour votes. And since Labour doesn’t answer to workers, the biggest pressure on it is to make sure its proposals work with the bosses’ system.

Union leaders are right to argue when the politicians try and push them out of politics. 

Workers need a voice. But Labour isn’t providing it. Nor will any party that tries to manage a system built on exploitation.

And the lack of a left alternative can make it easier for racist and fascist parties to prey on disillusioned workers.

The right says Labour would be better off without the unions. 

But the truth is that trade unionists would be better off building an alternative to Labour.

McCluskey’s strategy won’t give workers influence 

Unites Leeds office decked out with Labour publicity

Unite’s Leeds office decked out with Labour publicity (Pic: Mtaylor848 on Wikimedia Commons)

The Tory press affected outrage at Unite union general secretary Len McCluskey’s suggestion that union members might have a say in Labour’s coming leadership election.

Senior Labour figures took almost as much umbrage.

Jim Murphy, who announced he was quitting as Scottish leader, accused McCluskey of “destructive behaviour”.

Acting Labour leader Harriet Harman sternly insisted that Unite wouldn’t get to choose Ed Miliband’s successor. At the same time she called for people who are not members of Labour to have a say.

But when was the last time a prominent politician or newspaper took issue with bosses trying to call the shots?

When big business leaders campaigned to sway this year’s general election and last year’s Scottish independence referendum they were treated as reliable and authoritative.

Celebrity boss Alan Sugar wasn’t called a wrecker when he left Labour because it wasn’t right wing enough.

The same double standard says low turnouts are good enough for governments to take office, but not for unions to call strikes.

The problem with our society isn’t that workers have too much say, it’s that they don’t have enough.

Real democracy means putting workers in control. But for workers even to shape the party they fund is too much for some.

Many workers will agree with McCluskey’s warning to Labour last weekend.

He said that if the party doesn’t choose a leader to be the voice of organised workers, it shouldn’t take the union’s backing for granted.

Last year he went further, saying he would be prepared to launch a new party if Labour continued to move in the wrong direction.

But while at times talking up the possibility of a split, McCluskey has tied Unite more closely to Labour than ever. More than half its MPs have links to the union, a success for McCluskey’s political strategy.


Unite officials under McCluskey have fought to convince members to join Labour in a bid to “reclaim” it. Dangling the threat of a split is a way of showing they are serious about doing this.

But while in theory threatening to cut off support for Labour, McCluskey in practice dropped Unite’s support for an important breakaway to Labour’s left.

He announced that Unite would be supporting Labour in the election for a new mayor in Tower Hamlets, east London. Ex-mayor Lutfur Rahman was forced out last month following an Islamophobic witch hunt.

A “clarification” from McCluskey poured cold water on Unite chief of staff Andrew Murray’s previous statement that Unite opposed the removal of Rahman because of “racism” and “Islamophobic” judgements.

In a disappointing climbdown from previous principled speeches in defence of immigration, he also called for the left to debate the free movement of workers in order to “challenge” racist party Ukip.

McCluskey could play an important role if he initiated a union-led debate on political representation. 

He could play an even greater one if he called for the formation of a left alternative to Labour.

In his time as Unite leader McCluskey has cultivated an image as a firebrand. And sometimes his left wing speeches, or his support for initiatives such as the People’s Assembly, have boosted resistance.

McCluskey may be Labour’s most notorious left wing critic. But this moderate militant has done more to keep disillusioned workers in the Labour Party than any of its sycophants.

To get real influence, workers will have to break with his strategy just as much as from Blairism.

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