Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

We must protect our union links

Momentum delegates want to break the union link – we cannot let them, writes The Progressive

The Labour party, as Ernie Bevin helpfully reminded the 1935 party conference, ‘grew out of the bowels’ of the trade union movement. The Labour Representation Committee was undoubtedly the creation of the trade unions. At the founding conference at Farringdon in 1900, there were 129 delegates and 126 of them came from trade unions. They were a tough bunch, moulded by hard manual work and childhood hunger. They had found the courage to form unions and lead strikes. They knew a Labour party in parliament was the logical next stage of their struggle.

A great many of Labour’s post-2015 members have little feeling or sympathy for Labour’s traditions and history. Some come from other political parties and traditions, such as the Greens or Stop the War. Trade unionism is largely absent from their DNA. Among the leadership’s strongest supporters there is a view that Labour history began on 12 September 2015, and anything before that can be safely dismissed as ‘Pre-JC’, also known as the ‘Blairassic period’.

This is the kindest explanation as to why constituency delegates, new to the party and at conference for the first time, booed the unions in Liverpool. The animosity displayed by the Corbynite rank-and-file towards the trade union delegates became so vocal that the chair of conference Wendy Nichols urged the Momentum-supporting delegates to ‘refrain from the booing that happened yesterday, because all that we saw on the television last night was the boos’.

The casus belli was the age-old question of how to select candidates for parliamentary elections. The ability of small groups of left-wing activists to sack Labour members of parliament for some doctrinal transgression or other is a demand stretching back decades. The Campaign for Labour Party Democracy demanded it in the mid-1970s, and has been demanding it ever since.

It has been taken up with alacrity by Labour’s new establishment and their media proxies. Why? Because mandatory reselection is an essential part of the Corbynites’ ‘long march through the institutions’. They control the National Executive Committee, the general secretary’s office, and the bulk of the constituency parties. Next in their sights is the parliamentary Labour party. Mandatory reselection serves to take out dissenting Labour MPs who will not submit to the party line – and put the frighteners on the rest.

But in Liverpool things did not go according to plan. And that is because the enthusiasts for so-called ‘open selections’ forgot that Labour is a federation of interests, not Greenpeace. The most powerful of those interests is the trade union movement. The industrial wing of the movement, with echoes of Saltley Gate or Hatfield Main, locked arms and stood against their opponents. The union reps on the NEC, then the union delegates on conference floor, voted against the Corbynite plan to remove the unions’ influence in parliamentary selections.

Perhaps as they did so, those trade unionists remembered their pioneering ancestors at the Memorial Hall in Farringdon 118 years earlier, voting to send Labour into parliament? Or perhaps they recalled their enemies, for example Momentum co-director Christine Shawcroft’s pronouncement that ‘it’s time to support disaffiliation of the unions from the Labour party. The party belongs to us, the members’. Either way, the unions knocked back Momentum good and proper, in a manner that suggests it will not be the last time.

In true Labour fashion, we are left with an unpalatable compromise. The ‘democracy review’, which Corbynites hoped would be their Trojan horse, lies in tatters, with all of the credibility of the Chequers agreement. Despite compromise, the new system is still terrible. The ‘trigger’ to open a sitting MP to a full reselection is now set at a third of union branches or constituency Labour party branches. So an MP with 20 affiliated union branches, and 100 per cent of support from the unions, can still be subject to a reselection battle if three out of nine members’ branches trigger one. The size of branch does not matter. Many CLPs have a big branch in their main town or borough, and smaller ones in satellite areas. Under these new rules, a tiny number of activists in smaller branches can trigger reselection against the wishes of the overwhelming majority in the main branch.

It is an undemocratic mess. If the Corbynites choose to use it, it is a recipe for years of internal conflict, spilling into external negative headlines, in dozens of parliamentary seats with sitting Labour MPs. In due course, this messy compromise will need to be sorted out.

In the meantime, the bigger question is who runs Labour? Even at the giddy apex of New Labour, no one seriously suggested breaking the link with the unions. General secretaries had a hotline to No 10. The Labour government’s policies were painstakingly negotiated at policy forums in Warwick and elsewhere. The unions’ role at conference, and in choosing parliamentary candidates, was sacrosanct. Tony Blair respected, and worked with the unions, even if he did not belong to them.

Now, it seems, our new post-2015 comrades want to break the union link, end our federal structure, and turn Labour into a Podemos-style ‘social movement’. They may want total power inside the Labour party, but they will have to get past organised labour first. In a straight fight between Corbynistas and the GMB, Unison and the rest, you would be ill-advised to bet on the allotment-owners over the people who have stood on picket lines.

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