Defend the union link – transform the unions!

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By Edd Mustill

This week comments made on Facebook by a prominent figure in both the Labour left and Momentum, Christine Shawcroft, have provoked fierce criticism and some alarm. Shawcroft appeared to call for the ending, or at least weakening, of the link between trade unions and the Labour Party.

However serious these comments are or whether they were made in the heat of the moment (it should be noted that Momentum quickly distanced itself from Shawcroft’s comments), it is immensely disappointing to see a prominent leftwing apparently advocating something that has been a fantasy of the party’s Blairite wing for a quarter of a century, albeit no doubt for very different reasons.

I recently argued that any debate around how trade unions formally relate to the membership of a mass socialist party should be welcomed by Labour members. That said, any calls, from any wing of the party, to end or dramatically weaken the link should be robustly resisted.

While the Blairite right have long wanted to weaken the link due to their ideological hostility to organised workers wielding any collective political power at all, arguments from the left for reforming the link may be rather more nuanced and deserve to be considered as such.

Unions have not always behaved democratically in the Labour Party. In the past, for example, block voting at conferences could mean that the votes of hundreds of thousands of affiliated members of the trade union movement were decided upon and cast by very small numbers of people. There is certainly a tendency for unions to engage in the sort of horse-trading and opaque backroom dealing that represent the least appealing aspects of Labour politics.

But this is not because unions are somehow inherently undemocratic organisations; far from it. At their best, unions are schools of democracy. There are few if any other organisations in society in which every member can, from the moment they join, have such a say over their policies and governance, and elect representatives at every level. More than this, the bread and butter experience of active trade unionism is at the heart of what the labour movement is ultimately about: taking collective action to improve the material condition of the working class and build our power with a view towards transforming society. Unions are, or should be, training grounds for the party’s best activists and debating chambers for the party’s most radical policies.

The key point here is that the cautious, cumbersome, or obstructive behaviour of unions in the party is a result of a democratic deficit within those unions. The way to solve this is by rank-and-file union members carrying Corbynism’s democratising project into the unions themselves, creating a culture where a union’s political delegates are properly accountable to the rank-and-file and are themselves rooted in workplaces and workplace organising. The worst response would to think that this appears too difficult or too remote, and that a simpler thing to do is to bypass the unions altogether.

Why would this be such a disaster?

Firstly, it would be a huge strategic own goal that would allow the right of the party to pose as the defenders of the unions’ interests.

Secondly, look around the world at the performance of social democratic parties who have weakened or severed their ties with organised labour. You won’t be inspired. If we were building a radical socialist party from scratch there would be a strong case not to build it from the unions, which are not intrinsically radical organisations. But we’re not building anything from scratch, we’re working in a labour movement that exists with two hundred years of history and development behind it. There are not (yet) millions of class conscious socialists in Britain ready to support a radical left-wing programme for government simply presented to them as bullet points in a manifesto. At least until the Labour Party and the socialist left actually begin to take political education seriously, the trade union movement with its collective action millions of members is the only thing that even comes close to bridging the gap in people’s minds between our daily material experience and ideological support for even a moderate form of socialism.

Just as importantly, any suggestion of cutting out the unions raises the rather frightening prospect of a political party based on the sort of organisational model apparently favoured by the leadership of Momentum: a professionalised central office mobilising an atomised membership to vote and campaign in ways the office sees fit to direct.

If the union link is not fit for purpose then it should be reinvigorated and strengthened, not weakened or done away with. It would make about as much sense to argue that CLP meetings should be abolished because they’re boring or rarely make any binding decisions, or that the Parliamentary Labour Party should be abolished because it does not reflect the wishes of the membership. These things need to be transformed by the struggle of our movement’s grassroots, not simply thrown in the bin because they’re a bit shit.

The trade unions are the original, and still the best, ‘social movement’, reaching in to pretty much every town and workplace in the country. Yes, there a huge problems with them. But it is up to us to overcome those challenges, just as we are doing in the Labour Party, rather than turn away in a futile search for a mythical replacement for the power of organised labour.

Let us know what you think? Write a reply? theclarionmag@gmail.com

2 Comments

  1. I wish I could have put my opinion so eloquently. There is most certainly a conversation to be had, and changes do need to be made. But therein lies the problem. For the last forty-odd years, we in the Labour movement spend so much time talking, listening to every conceivable viewpoint, and being distracted by non-Socialist self-interest factions. In the end, there are no discernible decisions or policies. We can’t be all things to all men. We often brag about the Labour Party being a ‘broad church’, but it’s too broad in my view. Education and party expansion through a coherent and Socialist Union movement is essential to build on the massive increase in membership we have achieved over the last few years – since Jeremy Corbyn became leader.

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