John Carson makes the case that talk of disaffiliating from Labour might satisfy some Trade Union interests, but it would ultimately do more harm than good.
Labour has no divine right to trade union support. For trade unions, the Labour Party must be marked by what it was set up to do: to give representation to working people, and their interests, in parliament and in government. If Labour were to consistently fail in such representation, then trade unions have a right to question their direct support for it. We saw this in practice with the disaffiliation of the FBU in 2004, and my own union, the CWU, was very close to this in the past due to New Labour’s moves towards Royal Mail privatisation. Since the election of Keir Starmer to the Labour leadership, this process has opened up again with the Bakers union (BFAWU) committing to reassess its relationship with the Party and Unite the union continuing to withhold political funds. The question of trade union disaffiliation from the Labour Party is therefore more relevant than ever, and it is one that we all, as democrats, need to confront.
In an objective sense, it would be entirely reasonable for trade unions to embrace a non-party position and to put our industrial interests first. Other unions in other countries have successfully pursued this very path. In the US, whilst nominally Democrat, unions have embraced candidates from both main parties in pursuing their industrial interests. At the end of the day, what really matters for most workers is results, and only parties in power have the capacity to deliver anything. Labour have only won three of the past ten general elections - and even then those victories have been continually derided by some leading trade unionists. The ability to work openly and honestly with all parties, based on industrial credibility, could well help develop a political credibility which could open doors, as well as help develop internal political credibility with our members who at present do not follow the Labour Party line, particularly in Scotland.
There are, however, two key problems with the above position. Firstly, trade unionism in Britain is overtly political. The distinct class divisions still present in our society are repeatedly exposed by Tory governments in their continual ideological assaults on our working-class communities and institutions. It would be unconscionable to remain neutral in engagement with a Tory government. Secondly, current conversations surrounding potential trade union distancing from the Labour Party have nothing to do with establishing a potentially advantageous neutral positioning. Instead, what is being considered is that trade unions should establish another party altogether which would cling even tighter to that red flag; raise its fists ever higher; and shout even louder about the cause of ‘socialism’. Now, whilst this would undoubtedly ease the tormented consciences of some current Labour Party trade unionists, it would be a fundamentally damaging activity for trade unions to engage in.
At heart, there is a fundamental contradiction between trade union politics and wider society. Trade unions produce political positions from within a small ‘red bubble’ which encompasses everyone from social democrats to ‘literal’ Communists. Wider society is reflective of an even bigger bubble which captures everyone from the rigidly conservative to the completely apolitical. Our politics and language, reflective as they are of conflicts and divisions in industry - and nurtured by ideological abstractions produced by such conflict - are still totally out of sync with many in wider society. Any political strategy based on political purity within the ‘red bubble’ would inevitably end up in a socialist wilderness where so many left projects have ended up in the past. This is not to say that our trade union values are not relevant to the rest of society, but that to effectively communicate them our base needs to be far wider that what can be achieved from within trade unions. Ultimately, we would still need a political party that bridges the gap between trade union values and representative government; that compromises with the electorate to achieve power; and that doesn’t just proclaim the interests of working people but delivers on them. In short, we would still need the Labour Party.
Accepting the need for a pragmatic, modern Labour Party, that has to change to remain relevant, should not be so difficult. Every day in trade unions, our industrial work involves a pragmatic accommodation with ‘capitalists’ and businesses whom we might not agree with but need to work with in order to deliver realistic gains for our members. Holding on to political and ideological dogma would only get in the way of our industrial duties. This doesn’t mean that we ever lie down to injustice, but there has to be a certain amount of tongue-biting and prioritising to get things moving. For sure, there is great strength in rising up, but most of the time there is greater strength in building broad support, sitting down and getting the right agreements. In my experience as a shop-steward, saving jobs is more important than saving face. If we can do this in industry, why not in politics?
The greatest mistake of the last few years was the foolish impression, given to many trade unionists, that the Labour Party was a reasonable reservoir for every demand; and that a Labour government was a cure all for every industrial and political error in society. Naturally, any retreat from such overly inflated expectations will produce a kickback. As a result, discussions about trade union affiliations must be handled calmly and responsibly. In the end, whilst the Labour Party does not have a divine right to trade union support, trade unions also don’t have a divine right to dictate political terms to the Labour Party - there needs to be a compromise. One thing is for sure, facing the destructive combination of Covid and Conservatism means that we have no time to lose, and we cannot afford to go back into the wilderness again.
John Carson is a postman and CWU activist on the Young Labour National Committee. He writes in a personal capacity.