This week, I took part in a debate at my university between our campusâ Labour Party Society and a branch of the Alliance for Workersâ Liberty (AWL), a UK-based network of socialist activists who seek to create a working-class movement against capitalism. The debate sought to answer the question: âIs Labour the party for labour?âÂ and explored the relationship between the party, Trade Unions, and the working-class over the course of the 20th century.
Labour has been entwined with the interests of organised labour since its birth in 1900. Back in the 1940s, Nye Bevan described how Labour âgrew from the bowelsâ of the Trade Union movement, and Ed Miliband stated earlier this year that âthe link [between the unions and Labour] will stay and I believe in that link.”Â Â The Unions have traditionally been seen as the political vehicles of the working-class, and have been courted by Labour throughout the 20th century in order to provide funds, members, and activists for the party. Labourâs alliance with the Unions has also historically been seen as legitimating its claim to be âthe peopleâs party.â
However, the course of history shows that Labour has not always been as close a friend of the Unions as it likes to profess. As a speaker for AWL explained,Â the problem with the party is that it committed itself from the very start to parliamentary democracy, disavowing other methods of political expression in order to pursue representation in the Commons. This principle is blamed for limiting Labourâs ability to accurately represent the interests of labouring men and women. AWL promotes a much broader conception of democracy, where the working-class can gather together, make decisions, and take action as a self-organised collective.
Labour has also always shied away from openly taking the side of the unions during industrial actions. This tendency originates way back to 1926, when Labour lent only lukewarm support to the General Strike of that year, and continued right through the 1980s, when the party sought to distance itself from the âultra-leftistsâ leading the Minersâ Strike. Again, this is a result of the partyâs commitment to established political practices. Labourâs first Prime Minister, Ramsay Macdonald, argued that the party had to win ârespectabilityâ in order to compete meaningfully for control of the Commons, and claimed that this could not be gained by endorsing disruptive strikes and direct action.
This tendency has frequently set the Unions at odds with the party leadership. In recent years, there has even been talk of certain Unions disaffiliating from Labour in order to dramatically demonstrate that the party is no longer seen as representing working-class interests.
How important is it that Labour is seen to be on the side of the working-class and organised labour? In this age of austerity, the answer is self-evident. Labourâs next majority can arguably only be won by regaining the 5 million voters it lost between 1997 and 2010. These âlost votersâ were overwhelmingly working-class or unemployed men and women who gradually came to believe that the party they once supported no longer represented them. In the last Labour government, where was the policy on employee rights, union freedoms, and a living wage? Today, talking about continuing to chop away at the welfare state in a similar- if not identical- fashion to the Tories will not win those voters back to Labour.
The Unions can help Labour here. The number of Union members in Britain far exceeds the number of Labour party members, and as political organisations they produce policy ideas and suggest reforms that can be utilised by the party to bring it more in line with working-class needs.
The AWL speakers at our event suggested that Labour must democratise its internal party structures in order to incentivise working-class people and union members to take a leading role in the policy process. For too long this has been in the hands of the party leadership and MPs, out of reach of the vast majority of party members. Perhaps a full-scale review of internal decision-making procedures will ensure Labour’s policies will be more in line with the people it says it represents- and win back those 5 million voters to boot.
Louie Woodall is Assistant Editor of the Young Fabians BlogÂ