Mend it, don’t end it
Labour’s link with the trade unions is important. That is why it must be made to work
Labour’s relationship with the trade unions in Britain is unique. No other centre-left party in the world has unions formally affiliated to it, with the rights, power and responsibilities this entails. This link has been a source of great strength to the party over the years. Having been present at its birth, the unions played a crucial role in the 1980s in helping rid Labour of Militant and the far-left, thus bringing it back from the brink of near-destruction.
As with any relationship, there have also been moments of tension and anger. The unions’ determination to prevent Barbara Castle’s industrial relations reforms in 1969 ultimately proved to be damaging and counterproductive. Ten years later, the actions of some trade unions during the ‘winter of discontent’ undoubtedly helped bring about the defeat of the Labour government.
But set against that must be the organisational muscle and financial clout that the unions have deployed in every election to help ensure the return of a Labour government. Even at times when Labour is heading for defeat, the role of the unions on the ground has been key in helping stem the losses. In 2010 union money and activists helped to blunt the effect of Michael Ashcroft’s millions in scores of marginal seats that might otherwise have fallen to the Conservatives.
As international evidence shows, trade union activity also plays a wider part in maintaining the health of democracy: it is, for instance, closely linked to ensuring higher voter turnout, particularly among working-class voters who might otherwise not go to the polls. At their best, unions also ensure that the voices of some of the more marginalised members of society are heard in the corridors of power. And, of course, it goes without saying that unions have been at the forefront of all the great struggles of the last 113 years, whether it be against poverty, racism and discrimination, or economic exploitation. Britain has also been lucky that its unions have long had a distinctly internationalist outlook, opposing protectionism and supporting the country’s role in the European Union, for instance.
For all of those reasons, we firmly support Labour’s link with the trade unions. But if the link is important, Labour and the unions must now look at how it needs to evolve to ensure that it delivers the aspirations of both.
A healthy relationship relies on a healthy and strong trade union movement. That health and strength is not, however, measured in industrial militancy or overblown rhetoric. The key measure is the number of people who choose to join a union. On this score, the unions have their work cut out: today, barely one in four of those employed are in a union, a figure which falls to just 14 per cent in the private sector. There is nothing inevitable about this trend: where unions feel relevant to those whom they seek to represent, they prosper – just look at the success of Usdaw in growing its membership among private sector shopworkers.
A healthy relationship also relies on openness, transparency and democracy. We would prefer that all those who join an affiliated trade union, and indicate their support for Labour, automatically become individual party members, with all the rights such membership bestows. This goal may, though, currently be unrealisable.
However, there are a number of steps which could be taken now by the unions and the party which would improve and strengthen the link.
First, too many union members are unaware that some of their dues end up in an affiliated political fund which supports the Labour party. Unison’s model, whereby members choose to pay into either an affiliated or non-affiliated political fund, or Community’s Labour Campaign Network, where dues are explicitly divided equally between union membership and an affiliated political fund, are examples which other unions should consider.
Second, the unions hold one-third of the votes in the electoral college which elects the leader and deputy leader of the party. While this proportion is a fair one, it is not right that candidates do not have the ability to canvass or communicate with the individual union members who wield this power. The leadership of the unions should be free to endorse whoever they choose. But this should not preclude other candidates from making their case directly to union members.
Turnout in the affiliated section of the electoral college was poor in the 2010 leadership election (less than nine per cent as against 72 per cent among constituency party members). But those who did tick the box to say they supported Labour and cast their ballot remain a great source of untapped strength for the party. If each of them was invited to attend their local constituency party meeting, most CLPs would find themselves doubling in size.
Third, we support the right of unions to play a role in parliamentary selection contests. But with rights go responsibilities: the unions should publish the decision-making process by which they decide which candidates to nominate and support and that process should include a consultation with their members in that seat.
We believe Labour should seek to strengthen the link with the unions. Mending it, not ending it, should be our goal.
Labour, Trade unions, Usdaw