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The Trade Unions, the Left and the Labour Party

Pete Firmin

IN A RECENT letter to What Next? ("Stop this Entrist Nonsense", in No.14) Jo Green questions why the magazine should bother with so many articles about the Labour Party when so much of the left is no longer in the party. If only political life were so easy.

A strange thing has happened to the British far left in the last few months. Many of those, like What Next?ís correspondent, who couldnít care less what happens in the Labour Party or at most take a distant academic interest, have woken up to the fact that a battle is taking place which, in Blairís words, "is about the future of the Labour Party". The struggle for the partyís nomination as candidate for London mayor has at least partially alerted the left to the fact that what goes on in the Labour Party affects the fortunes of the whole working class movement. To their credit, most of that left has come out in support of Livingstone (the major exceptions being the Socialist Party and the Socialist Labour Party), even if this has involved several organisations in strange about-turns along the way.

Yet this attitude, and indeed involvement, to the extent of building support for Livingstone within the unions, is a marked exception for most of this left. The rest of the time the Labour Party is usually seen as the exclusive property of Blair and his coterie, only occasionally as including the individual membership and virtually never the affiliated organisations, in particular the unions.

The left seems to have woken up because of the involvement of the unions and their members (through the ballots that will take place in most unions) in the electoral college to determine Labourís candidate. But this union involvement in Labour Party affairs is the norm, not an exception. Affiliated unions have almost 50% of the votes at Labour Party conference, a sizeable number of members on the partyís NEC and National Policy Forum, delegations to regional conferences (when they happen these days) and the right of local union branches to send delegates to Constituency Labour Party (CLP) General Committees. Union nominees also made up a fair chunk of the panel deciding on the shortlist for Labour candidates for London mayor. Anyone who is a member of about half of Britainís unions, and all the biggest ones (AEEU, TGWU, UNISON, GMB) is a member of an organisation affiliated to the Labour Party with a say in its policy and organisation.

No self-respecting trade union activist, let alone socialist, would say it is no concern of theirs what policies their union leaders pursue. Yet when it comes to these leadersí activity in the Labour Party, this is precisely the attitude much of the left adopts. If we are concerned about the position union leaders take on PFI, pay, anti-union laws etc within our unions, then we also have to tackle what they do on these issues within the Labour Party. If union delegates to Labourís National Policy Forum (which now has a nominally greater role in policy-making than annual conference) vote against their own union policy on, for instance, the restoration of the earnings link for the state pension, is that not something which trade union activists should take up? How many unions attempt to ensure their sponsored MPs follow union policy on key issues? Rather, they are allowed free rein with no threat to withdraw support. If union leaders ditch union policy in negotiations with employers the whole of the left organises to criticise them (and more, if possible). If they do the same within the Labour Party most of the left shows no concern at all.

Yet the issue of accountability is similar, and in many ways more acute, since we are here talking of the policy of the party in government. While I am not pretending that, if all the unions got behind a policy of scrapping the anti-union laws at Labour Party conference and won a majority, Blair would immediately carry it out, nevertheless the effect and repercussions within both the Labour Party and the wider movement would be massive. The point being that even from a solely trade union angle the union leaders are being let off the hook if they are allowed to misrepresent or flout union policy on key issues. The fact that it happens in the Labour Party weakens the left and the rank and file at least as much as when it happens in direct negotiations with the employers.

Such examples do not only apply at the national level. For example, UNISON branches rightly condemn cuts and attacks on their conditions carried out by local Labour (and Liberal and Tory) councils. Yet to suggest that UNISON branches take up their right to send delegates to local Labour Parties, where they could link up with other Labour Party members also opposed to such actions, generally produces a response along the lines of questioning your sanity or total indifference. But even in these days of supposed total domination by Blairism UNISON activists in Haringey have managed to win opposition to the new sickness procedure in Tottenham CLP. It has, however, been left to UNISON head office to push for local branches to take up their affiliation to CLPs, as most of the left wonít go near that part of the union Ė the Affiliated Political Fund Ė which deals with such issues.

Most union leaders are more than happy to allow Blair to proceed on his current path, even if they do make the occasional dissenting noise (and nothing more). None of the "counter-reforms" in the Labour Party over the last 15 years could have been achieved without the support of the unions. From Kinnockís attitude to the minersí strike, the witch-hunt of Militant and a "Policy Review" ditching much left policy, through the introduction of One Member One Vote for parliamentary selections, removing the input of affiliated unions, to the adoption of Partnership in Power, downgrading conference and codifying the National Policy Forum (with the unions having a smaller proportion of votes than at conference), all have been backed by most of the unions.

Throughout this, much of the left in the unions has not batted an eyelid, barely taking note of the event, at most criticising it as something somehow not affecting them. Yet these defeats in the "political" sphere have contributed to the present weak state of the labour movement in the same way as did the defeats in the major strikes. Labour Party leaders, backed by union leaders, have capitalised on those defeats at the hands of the Tories to move the whole labour movement to the right, whether it be "Blairism" in the Labour Party or "Social Partnership" in the unions. The abstention of the left from that fight in the Labour Party has allowed the union leaders to get away with giving their support to the Labour leadership with little challenge within the unions.

In its usual late, pragmatic fashion the left has recognised that in the battle for Labourís candidate for London mayor a struggle is taking place which will affect the future of the whole labour movement, and that they, through their activity in the unions, can affect the outcome. They have put aside (much of) their sectarianism in realising that a victory for Livingstone would be a defeat for the right in both the Labour Party and the unions. The logic of this (not that many of them would accept it) is that the same applies to other struggles in the Labour Party. We could hope, for instance, they will take up the issue which will be fought over at next yearís Labour Party conference as to whether or not General Committees will be abolished in CLPs. This is no minor, mundane issue, but will affect whether or not unions continue to have the right to send delegates to local parties and therefore whether they have any say in local policy. The left ought to be putting motions to all affiliated union conferences mandating their delegations to vote against such proposals.

But to be effective in this fight the left would have to bite an even more unpalatable bullet. Within the unions the left recognises that fighting for policy alone is not sufficient, you also have to replace right-wing union representatives (NEC members etc) by ones who will pursue the policy. Yet there is often little challenge by the left for the places on union delegations to Labour Party conference, let alone the National Policy Forum. The left is happy to leave it to the right and the few Labour lefts still holding out against the stream. This only gives the leaderships an easier ride, since they face little challenge within the delegations to their continuous flouting of union policy. Yet to stand for such delegations (at local as well as national level), the left need to be individual members of the party.

Thus, I would turn Jo Greenís question around. If the left accepts that developments in the Labour Party, not least but not just the struggle over the nomination for London mayor, affect the future of the whole labour movement, then these developments are not only of academic interest to that left, but a fight which they need to be fully involved in.

From What Next? No.15 1999