The Cost of Unity - Should Labour Disaffiliate from Trade Unions?

As Labour’s relationship with Trade Union movement has been in the spotlight, Elliot Sloman assesses whether this close affiliation is still fit for purpose in modern politics. 

Labour has been affiliated to an ensemble of trade unions for as long as the party has existed, but is it an appropriate affiliation for a modern Labour Party to hold and does it truly reflect an institution which is ready and prepared for government? This question has been circling the Labour inner circle for the past few weeks given the recent developments in the trade union industrial action and the Labour leadership’s newly adopted view for the Shadow Cabinet to stay away from picket lines. This approach needs to be addressed by the party and membership to move forward together in unity and be ready for government. 

The most central and obvious reason not to disaffiliate would be the resources that unions provide the party, a significant amount of our funding comes from the trade unions and the amount they give and how freely they give it depends on how accommodated they feel within the party. This is why, love him or hate him, Corbyn brought in a lot of funding for the party because of his unconditional affiliation with unions. On top of this, an even more significant chunk of our members will be members of trade unions and to disaffiliate will not only lose many of those members but risks losing the confidence of many others, as for many members, especially those who joined in 2015-2020, Labour and the unions go very much hand in hand.

    That being said, with the pull of our membership, comes the alienation of a part of the electorate untouched by labour until the 1997 general election, and again untouched after 2005: The Mondeo Man. Those who make up the middle class, are comfortable with their income and comfortable with their life, your accountants, bankers and business owners. The type of individual who is unlikely to be a part of a trade union and just as unlikely to support them. It is appealing to this demographic that Blair won his unprecedented landslide without the union’s direct influence on his policy. It would be nigh-on impossible to get a landslide of this scale without the Mondeo Man’s vote.

    Even so, Attlee won a landslide very comparable to that of Blair in 1945, he is undoubtedly one of the most successful and popular Prime Ministers ever and was firmly on the side of the unions. This can be put down to the context in which he won, post-war, economic instability, and the need for a national health service. The socialism offered by Attlee was miles from the social democracy offered by Blair and yet both won because they were smart enough to understand the context in which they were standing. Union affiliation and influence were not right for the Callaghan administration because it was not what the electorate was calling for. So the question is: does the electorate want to see solidarity with the unions and is it appropriate and conducive to winning an election? Judging by recent polling and public support, Yes.

    Problems with union affiliation come when unions take action in a way that a government of any party, even Labour, could not realistically support (at least not openly), like in the late 1970s. This situation leads to a very slippery slope of falling further and further out of public support and confidence. Labour gets blamed in the media and soon gets blamed within the political institutions which they run. This was disastrous in the 1970s and could be disastrous to the same scale at present or any time in the future if we were to let the situation fall into that of the 1970s again. Situations like that do not have to descend into chaos, however, If we as a party would come across as more collected and together, sophisticated and elegant in our support, then we could easily create a political atmosphere comparable to that of 1945 under Attlee, given it is appropriate for the time.

    Regardless of this, unions provide a regulatory voice, if the party is allowed to exist in a bubble of only its own voice, then its policy cannot accurately reflect the wants and needs of the British public. We as a party often get accused of political fractionism, but at least to a degree, opposing views on the same side of the political spectrum can make sure that the other doesn’t take over the party and force their views onto the majority. Some would argue that this has not happened in recent years, from both sides, but it can absolutely be a force for good when done properly. Properly means giving the unions equal influence over the party as other affiliate organisations. Pre John Smith in 1994, unions had mass influence with the block vote and would impose rather than advise, this is not how a democracy works and the current system is far more appropriate for civilised and democratic policy discussion. 

In conclusion, Labour should be on the side of the unions, Labour grew from the unions and they provide a significant chunk of our funding, policy and membership. However, we should take a more pragmatic approach to our action alongside trade unions, we cannot create a political atmosphere of chaos, comparable to that of the late 1970s. We are teetering on a time of large-scale industrial action, which we should categorically support, but we should be more collected and prepared in providing that support, support which should not only include the shadow cabinet but be led by them. To make the most of our relationship with unions, we should make ourselves collected and sophisticated in our action and support, to not let our image descend into that of the Callaghan administration, or risk giving an excuse to another hard-right Thatcher-type conservative. 

Elliot Sloman is a passionate leftist campaigner and young carer, currently studying his A-levels in South London. He tweets at @elliot_slmn.

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