Labour’s relationship with the unions is far more complex than just a battle between Ed Miliband and the #TUC


Plaque recording the location of the formation...
Plaque recording the location of the formation of the British Labour Party in 1900. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Labour movement in Britain has been constantly in the news these past few weeks due to the continued wrangling between the Labour Party and the unions.  But when we talk of the party and the unions we’re often using shorthand for a complex set of organisations that are linked and interlinked.  At the micro level we are talking about individuals – over 6.5 million of them – and at a macro level we are talking about relations between large bureaucratic entities that take a considerable head of steam to manoeuvre.  Here are the main players and how they link together.

The Labour Party was formed by the unions a century ago but now finds itself in the position of being a major political party in a neoliberal world.  The leadership relies on the unions for finance but not policy.  They rely on the labour movement for the core vote but due to the peculiarities of the British electoral system – not to mention the constrains of the neoliberal paradigm still playing out strongly – they will need the support of a wide section of the UK population to get elected into office.  They also look towards the backing of big business that they enjoyed during the new Labour years.  This balancing act will carry on long after the current conference season.

There is no such thing as “the unions”.  They work independently and rarely speak with one voice.  When they do it is through the TUC.  The current General Secretary, Frances O’Grady is highly regarded within the major sections of the movement and seems to already be taking a tougher stance than her predecessor.

Not all the unions in the TUC are affiliated to the Labour Party.  Those that are – such as the GMB, UNISON and UNITE – provide a vast amount of money to the party, albeit a diminishing one in the case of the GMB.  Many activists in these unions, whilst generally loyal to the party, can’t understand why they get so little out of it.  The Tories present the relationship as one where the unions control Labour policy, the activists and the leadership of the unions bemoan the fact that those days are long gone.

There are some key non-affiliated unions within the TUC such as the PCS and the RMT.  These unions punch above their weight in the movement because they have taken militant action to protect their members’ interests.  They also have charismatic leaders the envy of some of the other unions.  More than anything else they show union activists and their leaders what might be possible if their organisations become less fettered by the Labour Party.  There is no doubt that many of the affiliated unions have been focused on securing a Labour victory in 2015.  If Labour doesn’t want them they may also look towards a more militant style of trade unionism.  Why should they tread on eggshells any longer?

The TUC isn’t the only trade union umbrella organisation in the UK.  There is also the General Federation of Trade Unions which is smaller and tends to consist of organisations that the TUC won’t touch for one reason or another.  This just adds to the complicated position of talking about “the unions”.

There are also other political parties within the wider labour movement.  Much has been made of the possibility of creating a new workers’ party to rival Labour.  The Socialist Party holds the balance of power within the PCS union of civil servants and is a direct descendant of the Militant Tendency, expelled from labour in the 1980s – they made it into government after all.  They are determined to either get Labour back to what it was or else get their Party or one with similar policies into power.  They have great influence also amongst the National Shop Stewards Network (see below).  The current merger talks between PCS and UNITE are said to be advanced and whilst some see PCS as being swallowed up by the larger union there is also a view that the Socialist Party will become a much more significant player in the movement.  Considering UNITE provides millions of pounds to Labour this potential merger could become a major development within the party funding debate.

The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) are more revolutionary rather than just Old Labour.  They seek revolution and their own dictatorship during which we’re all expected to let them create some brand of socialism.  They are the largest far left party in the UK but struggling with internal splits.  A number of people still left in the party talk regularly of implosion and the end days.  It still packs a punch on most left wing demonstrations though as they tend to involve hundreds of SWP branded placards.  There’s clearly still enough money for printing.

Left Unity is the latest party to be set up.  This follows on from others such as Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party in the 1990s and George Galloway’s Respect Party the following decade.  Left Unity is small now but with initiatives such as the People’s Assembly still packing halls where they have influence, it could get larger.

The National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN)  is named after a rank and file trade union organisation formed during the First World War which had a rich history in organising militant action.  Since the modern version was set up in 2006 by the RMT but with the support of a number of other unions it has become to be seen as a front for the Socialist Party.  However it is significant because like the SWP it can get bodies on the ground to lobby important people at events.

In all of this it is easy to forget that there are individuals who aren’t active in their unions but they keep paying their subs and rely on the labour movement for a voice in politics.  Some will be less active than others but all will play some part in the fortunes of the movement, their unions and the Labour Party itself.  If the changing relationship between labour as a party and as a movement is about anything, it is about capturing the hearts and minds of individuals and giving them a sense of a shared, collective purpose.

The Labour Party leadership, the unions and all the other interested bodies are in a fine balancing act.  The shifting power of their relationship will affect British politics in profound ways for decades to come.  The dominant view within the movement is that it needs a party to seize power.  This despite the fact that we know what happens when parties get elected.  Unfortunately it is likely the battle between the Labour Party and the unions will dominate the wider movement far too much for far too long.  Meanwhile workers’ suffering and struggle will continue.

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