The blame game: Can Labour and trade unions work together?

In the rush to distance themselves from the New Labour era, many of the party’s brightest thinkers have failed to form a coherent analysis of the Blair/Brown legacy. It has become common parlance to criticise the last Labour government for overspending and to place the Iraq War at the centre of the party’s recent history. But in all the obvious finger pointing and distancing, more nuanced debates have been missed, particularly around Labour’s altering relationship with trade unions.

The central cause of tensions between trade unions and the Labour Party was exemplified in the case of Mark Serwotka and the removal of his vote for the leader of the party. There were many who felt that as an active trade unionist Serwotka had an inalienable right to participate in the election. The fact that he was not demonstrates, hypothetically, that the party has fully disregarded its roots in the labour movement and further evidence of a lost soul. 

But Serwotka also demonstrates why the relationship with the trade unions is so strained. As Labour walked away from traditional socialist policies in the early nineties to build an electoral dialogue from the centre, it was the trade union movement that filled that political void on the left. The vacuum that Labour created on the left caused unions to take up a broader radical platform. Whilst the unions have always championed wider social injustice, figures such as Serwotka felt that the only way that this could be done was in direct opposition to New Labour and abandoned the party altogether. 

For example New Labour’s foreign policy created the political environment where trade unionists found greater affinity with the Stop the War Coalition than with the party. These events directly led to the situation that we have today where a number of unions have policies that support the boycott of Israeli goods and have motions passed at conference for unilateral nuclear disarmament. Whilst there is an economic link to the latter, these processes have alienated a great number of members of unions and have diminished Labour’s ability to hear the voices of working people. As the party stopped listening the unions stopped talking. 

In 2015 Labour’s manifesto was strong on short-term solutions for workers but woefully lacking on long-term strategy. Policies such as the implementation of a living wage and the banning of zero hour contracts were born out of opposition to coalition policy and not from a positive vision developed through the unions. The breakdown in the relationship has hurt all parties; Labour has lost its direct experience of working life and public services and the trade union movement is growing more distant from its membership base. Whilst the unions may feel that they are better at listening to their membership than the Labour Party, there is a reason that the Conservative Party remain confident that unions would fall short of their proposed quorum laws. 

The solution is a simple, academic one but much more challenging in practice. Labour needs to open proper and structured channels to the unions so that there is a greater amount of communication on policy. The unions too must also do the same for their members and take on narrower messages as advocates of their particular trades and professions at the expense of their wider political struggles. 

Daniel Downes is a Young Fabians member

This article was first featured in Volume 19, Issue 1 | Autumn 2015 of Anticipations

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