Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Militant moderate

The trade unions should have less power in the Labour party, a combative Alan Johnson tells Robert Philpot and Richard Angell

Trade unions are in danger of becoming ‘irrelevant’ and ‘cannot connect to a whole swath of the workforce that thinks they died out with the ark,’ Alan Johnson, one of the most senior figures in the last Labour government, has warned.

In an interview with Progress, the former home secretary goes on to attack the image of ‘fat, white, finger-jabbing blokes on rostrums shouting and screaming’ and says the only sign of ‘rational thought’ in the union movement comes from the Trades Union Congress.

He also urges that the drive to increase working-class representation in parliament not be ‘left to a small clique in the affiliated unions who want to get the people who mirror their views into parliament’ and calls on the unions to reduce their power within the Labour party.

Johnson, who stood down from the shadow cabinet two years ago, is scathing about comments made by Len McCluskey on the eve of last year’s Labour party conference in which the Unite general secretary called for the ‘Blairite cuckoos’ to be ‘kicked out of the nest’.

‘So Len McCluskey says “kick the Blairites out”,’ he says, ‘the people who introduced the national minimum wage; introduced the right to six weeks’ paid holiday; introduced the right to trade union representation [and] whistleblower legislation; ensured that part-timers got the same [rights] as full-timers; upped maternity leave from 14 weeks to nine months; introduced paternity leave for the first time ever; got rid of discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. I mean, you can go on for ages. Talk about what did the Romans ever do for us?’

Describing McCluskey’s comments as ‘classic, that somehow [the Labour party had been] taken over by some rightwing clique’, Johnson suggests New Labour’s ‘crime’ was ‘winning elections, rather than losing them’. ‘Some of our colleagues, Len might be among them, think that victory is a bourgeois concept. That the only goal for true socialists is glorious fucking defeat at every election but at least you have got your little principles that you haven’t compromised on,’ he argues.

‘You’d think,’ Johnson continues, ‘that the trade union movement would be changing their tune now, with the huge opportunities, as [former TUC general secretary] Brendan Barber said, to get out in communities and be relevant once more, instead of saying they will ban different groups.’

Johnson, who was general secretary of the Communication Workers’ Union before entering parliament in 1997, labels himself a ‘passionate trade unionist’ and praises the ‘brilliant job, week in, week out’ done by trade unionists around the country. But, while the self-described ‘militant moderate’ commends the record of Barber and his successor, Frances O’Grady, Johnson argues that they face ‘a huge difficulty with the unions that make up the TUC’.

Decrying an absence of ‘fresh thinking’, the former home secretary warns the unions: ‘You have only got six million members. When are you going to start addressing the real problems you have got?’ He continues: ‘with six million members not 13 million members … it is becoming increasingly difficult to defend things like defined benefit pensions in the private sector. [The unions] did a brilliant job defending them in the public sector, and that’s good, but … the danger is that they become irrelevant.’

Drawing on the suggestion that the unions should ‘become more visible in communities and less visible in the Labour party’, Johnson argues that their power within the party’s policymaking process should be dramatically cut: ‘If I were the trade union movement I would be coming to the Labour party saying: “there is no earthly reason why we should have 50 per cent of the conference vote”. The only reason it is there is because John Smith couldn’t go any further … We’d be coming forward as comrades saying: “on the National Policy Forum it’s about a third of the vote with trade unions, that is about where it should be”. I would be coming to the party saying “this is what we want to do, be bigger and healthier”. Instead it always looks like they are defending … exactly what they had without any thought to changing times.’

The former home secretary also sounds a warning about the effort of unions like Unite to increase the number of working-class MPs in parliament. Johnson, who grew up in a council flat, left school at 15 and became a postman before rising to the top of the trade union movement, agrees that the issue is a ‘real problem’ and cites the work he and his former cabinet colleague Hazel Blears have been doing with the speaker, John Bercow, to encourage more people from working-class backgrounds to come into parliament. ‘We have gone backwards’ on working-class representation, he says. However, he cautions against both ‘inverted snobbery’, arguing that some ‘very good people’ have come through the ‘treadmill’ of Oxbridge, special adviser and into parliament, and ‘this feeling that more working-class people in parliament is more working-class people who will sing from the Len McCluskey hymn book.’

Johnson praises, moreover, the decision of Ed Miliband and Ed Balls last year to back the coalition’s multi-year public sector pay freeze, a decision ‘in which they almost invited the hostility of the trade union movement, and got it, from Len McCluskey’. ‘For the first time I felt we were living in the world of 2015 not 2010,’ he says. Asked whether Labour should commit to stick to the government’s spending limits for its first two years in office – as it did in 1997 – Johnson says it is ‘difficult to think what else you can do’. ‘We can’t get away from the fact that the fiscal deficit has got to come down,’ he argues. Johnson, who served as shadow chancellor in the first months of Miliband’s leadership, is sharply critical of George Osborne’s handling of the economy: ‘It is the biggest failure of any flagship policy that I can remember, and I doubt that anyone else can remember.’

Johnson also lends his support to Miliband’s decision that Labour should vote against the one per cent rise in benefits in last month’s parliamentary debate: ‘I actually couldn’t see what point there was to the Labour party if we hadn’t opposed that policy,’ he says.

While the former home secretary is ‘confident’ that Labour can win the next general election – believing that the party was ‘transformed’ during 13 years in power from being ‘a party of protest [and] a party of opposition’ to one of government – he does, however, believe that the critical test of Miliband’s leadership will come this year. ‘Now is a dangerous time. We can’t get away with saying we are thinking about policy. That’s perfectly acceptable for the first three years, but now we have got to start unveiling some policy and what Ed’s going to need to do is to meet the expectations he himself has created,’ he argues.

Johnson believes that the next election may almost have the feel of a ‘postwar election, thankfully without the carnage, where people are saying “we are not going to go back, whether it’s hacking, or bankers’ bonuses, or what was happening in financial services”.’ This presents a ‘huge opportunity’ for the left, he believes, and, citing the Labour leader’s 2011 ‘predators versus producers’ party conference address, he argues that Miliband was right to adopt this agenda. However, the former home secretary warns, people want ‘an awful lot to change and Ed could have played it safe, but he hasn’t, and the question people now ask is “how are you going to do all of this?”.’ Moreover, while Johnson believes that the Tories’ continuing lead over Labour in the polls on who can best handle the economy is ‘gradually eroding’, he concedes that ‘I don’t know whether we’ve got the message across as effectively as we could.’

At a party fundraiser last year, Johnson warned that if the Conservatives win the next election, they will win the one after, too. Does he really believe that? ‘The Tories [have] not won an election now for 21 years. If they win [in 2015] having been so maladroit, I fear for us,’ he responds.

Johnson’s spell on the opposition frontbench was not, he suggests, a happy one. ‘I really admire our frontbench in opposition. To me it was horrible, sitting there on the government benches one minute and then sitting on the opposition bench,’ he says. But while Johnson happily admits that he does not miss frontline politics, he is reluctant to rule out a return if the party were to win the next election: ‘Would I go back into government if offered? I think there is an awful lot of the parliamentary party who would say “that bastard stood there on the edge, didn’t do the heavy lifting in opposition and [then] swans into a government job”.’ But, he adds with a grin, ‘never say never’.


Photo: Downing Street

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Robert Philpot

is a contributing editor to Progress magazine and former director of Progress

Richard Angell

is director of Progress


  • Yes, there’s a few decent comments from Johnson – not least the Owen Jones-like “couldn’t see what point there was to the Labour party if we hadn’t opposed that [1% cap to benefit increases] policy”

    However, the unions, with 6 million members, are much more firmly rooted in the nation’s life than the Labour Party, with its metropolitan elite/oxbridge heavy PLP. And this makes the unions much more the senior partner in the relationship. Should Labour decide it wants to further loosen it’s connection with the electorate is should jettison the unions – but that won’t happen because the unions will then be compelled form a political alliance elsewhere and Labour, cast into a Lib-Dem wilderness, would never again enjoy power.

    As Clint Eastwood might have said: Go ahead, make my day – cut of your nose to spite your face.

  • Is that why the Progress is having its political weekend sponsored by the British Venture Capitalist and Private Equity Association?

  • He should know it was his type of union leadership that left members feeling ignored and reduced the confidence working people have in unions.

  • I am a Labour Party member who was actually in a trade union until fairly recently – TUs are still hugely relevant, however the views expressed above seem to be consistent among white middle-class politic students who leave university to go straight into some godawful Blairite think-tank. *cue the ridiculous idea of Richard Angell getting a proper job and becoming a Shop Steward*

  • Mr. Johnson falls into the Tory Trap when he says ‘We can’t get away from the fact that the fiscal deficit has got to come down,’. The Fiscal Deficit is a bogeyman built up by George Osborne. In the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, when the UK was the richest most productive nation on Earth, the Fiscal Deficit was four times the level it is today. It was falling by itself throughout the late Twentieth Century and early Twenty First. Rises in the Fiscal Deficit occurred during the Credit Crunch of 2008 and since the current Conservative Controlled Coalition came to power. So the Fiscal Deficit is an irrelevance and the Labour Party can quite happily get away from the fact that it has to come down, and get on with improving the lot of ordinary people.

  • Not coming down on either side on this, but it’s noteworthy that Alan Johnson expresses these views with the opposite background, as the articles states, mentioning he didn’t go to university and was in fact the general secretary of the CWU.
    So not constrained to just middle-class gradudates, at least.

  • For Trades Unions to effect Labour’s policies they have to put forward viable solutions. When they do, their opinions are invaluable and sought out. Unworkable policies that are counterproductive to the needs of members, and their families, cannot be followed just because the unions have powerful voices.

    I would like to see the unions spend some of their funds on research into alternative patterns of employment that might create jobs, such as expanding the cooperative movement. They might also seek to be consumer champions and use their members’ knowledge of shop-floor practices to argue for more workable policies for the benefit of the users of the services. There’s a ton of useful things they could do to be more relevant. Arguing for ill-thought out economic policies will not benefit their members and I am sure Alan Johnson is right to raise these concerns.

  • If Unions are to have the pull they demand they have only one option:. Increase their membership!
    Why should we hand influence topeople who represent only themselves. Is this democracy?

  • If Unions are to have the pull they demand they have only one option:. Increase their membership!
    Why should we hand influence topeople who represent only themselves. Is this democracy?

  • So Alan Johnson calls Osborne’s policies a big failure -but wants to emulate them in first two years of any Lab govt. ?!

  • Johnson seems to think that the unions infiltrated the Labour Party when in fact it was the blairites and spotty faced spads who wants to take over. The party was formed by the unions and belongs to the unions. If he don’t like it then simply leave and join a party that fits his views. The Torys. He sits to near to michael portillo than he does Billy Hayes.

  • I didn’t actually think this about him until I read this but this man is clearly an absolute fucking idiot.

    You cannot say that Labour should follow Osborne’s economic plans for two years into a Labour government! It is mental both politically and economically. This is 2013 not 1995.

    Now Len McCluskey is no electoral strategist, but then he’s a trade union leader working in members interests rather than a politician. Despite that, his views on the matter are actually more sensible than Johnson’s here.

    He’s talked about as a ‘wise’ ‘greybeard’ but he’s clearly a fucking moron.

  • I have often been impressed with Alan Johnson over the years, particularly the way he led postal workers in dispute in the 90’s and his positive response when I pushed an amendment calling for stronger safeguards on the National Minimum Wage at the National Policy Forum.

    I am please to see him commend the; ‘brilliant job week in, week out done by trade unionists around the country’. I therefore find it so disappointing to see him role out some of the old tabloid gems, as if trade unions deserve to be caricatured as being ‘fat, white, finger-jabbing blokes on rostrums shouting and screaming’. I know the tabloids like to portray it that way but as well he knows unions have been at the forefront of tackling equalities issues ensuring women, BAME, LGBT and people with disabilities are given a real voice holding positions of responsibility. Yes more women union leaders would be good and the appointment of Frances O’Grady is an encouraging step. As for the taunt that they are ‘screaming and shouting’ it’s just lazy. I can’t agree, people often say that when they disagree with someone who is winning the argument, I can only urge Alan to listen more to what those voices are saying.

    Far from being ‘irrelevant’ trade unions are leading the fight against some of the most brutal attacks seen on our communities like the Bedroom Tax and the Benefit Cap. Far from urging a weakening of the ‘link’ he should encourage the Labour Party to learn from trade unions. We are a far stronger party because of the ‘link’, we should build on it not seek to caricature and dismiss the voices of union members who are suffering the onslaught from this despicable government.

  • They represent six million people or about one in four of the workforce. Unions are more representative of voters than members of the Labour Party.

  • Putting forward viable solutions is the Labour Party’s job. Trade unions exist to represent their members.

  • 1. Membership of the Labour Party cannot be compared with membership of a union. One joins the Labour Party as a matter of principle an union to give one some protection from the employers. Crude but the reality.

    2. Union Leaders do not represent their workers because they have left them behind. They claw their way up the Union heirachy and then discuss life as they remember it with others who have done the same.

    3. Unions are very relevant to today’s industrial world; providing a Social context to life, Education for workers, consumer protection, legal know how and so very much more; but they have to take on the real world and stop fighting yesterday’s battles.

  • Hmm Labour rightwing ginger group interview prominent Labour rightwinger and agrees on pretty much everything – hardly news, is it ?

    I’ve been active in a trade union for most of my working life and I’ve NOT been constantly on strike (a whole 3 days in 23 years), calling brothers and sisters to arms in a vain attempt to get them to rise up and seize the power. I’ve actually spent most of my time sorting members’ problems, stopped bullying management, negotiated pay rises with a non-NJC employer and a myriad other things. So It’s a complete insult for people like Johnson to talk of “‘fat, white, finger-jabbing blokes on rostrums shouting and screaming”. I’ve never ever been to UNISON conference, nor do I intend to. And most of the people in my union at my employers are women – in my previous workplace in rural Cambs it was actually 66% of the membership.

    To the opinions he expressed – an exercise in consigning the party to complete irrelevancy if he cuts or diminishes the role of trade unions within the party, sadly. You can be sure if they all backed Progress, there wouldn’t be a peep out of them or proposals to reduce the power of unions in the party.
    *If* Progress can’t hack criticism – and there seems ample evidence they cannot – they should have a long hard look at themselves and the policies they espouse, and ponder on the advisability of remaining within the party. I for one am not for expelling Progress – I’d rather they came to that opinion of their own accord, frankly; but the neo-liberal policies the group espouse really sit better with One Nation Conservatives and the Orange Book Liberal Democrats.

  • I’m sure many involved with the upper echelons of Progress – not just Richard – would view the prospect of dealing with “real people” with some horror. Some might not even have been to a selective school !

  • You mean like cheap holiday resorts, or insurance, or mortgages, or other financial products, like UNISON do and have done for years ? You mean like Union Energy, the TU sponsored collective power purchasing utility? You mean like free legal advice or discounted shopping that many Unions do ? You mean like the research departments of most large trade unions who do invaluable research into a myriad different options for members and not just, as Labour Party SPADS do, research which appalling multinational’s rear end to crawl up? “Ill thought out economic policies” such as those supported by the right of the party and Johnson would keep us in recession for years to come.

  • “Len McCluskey is no electoral strategist”. Is that a joke? He appears to have outflanked the right and ultra left in his own union in two elections and (allegedly) delivered the leader of the Labour party. Pretty good run of luck then.

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