If There is Hope, it Lies in the Unions

From Tim Roache on Trident to Dave Prentice over Copeland, union bosses have grown increasingly critical of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Even Len McCluskey, previously characterised by ebullient support for the Labour leader, has grown rather quiet over the past few weeks - although we will see what happens if, as expected, he is re-elected as General Secretary of Unite.

These issues highlight an important divide, usually underestimated by journalists, between the unions - by definition representative of the working class - and the overwhelmingly middle-class and un-unionised membership of the modern Labour Party.

This divide is as old as the party itself. As long as Labour has existed, there has been a tension between the great mass of the union membership - ordinary Britons concerned with pragmatic, prosaic reforms - and the abstract, fantastical concerns of privileged and highly-educate radicals.

The key difference today is that that the unions traditionally acted as a bulwark against the more ridiculous and affected positions of the middle-class Left, whereas now Unite’s unwavering support for Corbyn means they have become enablers of this same nonsense.

After the 1917 party conference, a middle-class socialist whined in the Labour press that ‘the Trade Unions delegates represent the silent voter, and their attitude is a closer reflection of the views and feelings of the man in the street’.

He did not deny that the unions were more in touch with public opinion, but claimed this was something to be regretted, for ‘on so many questions the radicals take the lead in debate, secure the most applause, yet are borne down in the division by the damned majority of miners, cotton operatives, and metal workers’.

Therefore ‘the votes cast at the conference did not represent either the delegates or the people who sent them and the system of block voting will have to be dealt with before the real voice of labour can find its expression.’

E.D. Morel - one of the most famous anti-war activists of the time - came over to the Labour Party, not through any love of the working classes, but as he felt it was the best vehicle to advance his pacifistic aims.

He complained that it was too difficult to get people such as himself selected as PPCs, and attacked the ‘fatuous tradition of British Labour, which insists that its political representatives must not be men of education, but men who have actually served their time in factory or workshop, mine or mill’.

Britain’s unions are the chief enablers of Corbyn’s seminar-room radicalism

The trade unionists for their part felt that individual membership allowed for the infiltration of middle-class radicals with undesirable and unobtainable policies that would distract from their bread-and-butter concerns. In this sense Clause 4 of the 1918 Constitution was intended to reassure them that the focus of the Party would remain on industrial concerns.

This binary only began to change in the decades after the Second World War.

While Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon continued to defend trade union rights within the Labour Party, they evolved over other issues, becoming more radical on social and cultural issues than earlier leaders like Ernest Bevin.

This trend has accelerated today, so that Britain’s unions are the chief enablers of Corbyn’s seminar-room radicalism.

But this change in the unions reflects their emasculation. As British industry has declined, so too has private sector trade unionism. This, coupled with an explosion in higher education, has changed the membership and focus of the labour movement.

The problem is that the trade unions traditionally provided the ballast which kept the movement in touch with the masses and resisted the wacky and abstract ideas of the middle-class radicals.

Both a hundred years ago and today, the unique and defining feature of trade unionism is that is represents ordinary people. Crucially, most trade union members are not obsessed with politics. Thus the unions represent a more typical individual than the membership of the Labour Party.

If Labour is ever to be electable in the future, the unions must regain their historic role of keeping the cranks in check.

There is no reason why a future Labour leader cannot argue for robust welfare spending, progressive taxation, and a comprehensive industrial strategy, without banging on endlessly about Israel/Palestine, Trident, and the Iraq War.

We must hope that the unions realise this sooner rather than later.

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