The Trade Unions: a Link With Reality
The conflict in the Labour Party over its relations with the trade unions goes to the heart of the British political system. This system is based on a conflict between parties which represent real social interests – the Labour interest and the capitalist interest.
Having said that, the parties also operate, or have operated, within an overall consensus embracing such things as social responsibility for the general welfare of the people, and reform as the means of change, allowing for a middle ground comfortable moving between the two parties.
Mrs Thatcher tried to break away from that consensus. She wished to remake the British political and social system along American lines. She was facilitated in this by the last flowering of the Bevanite left under the leadership of Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock.
Bevanism was by instinct pure oppositionism. It opposed the Beveridge Report in 1943 and any attempts to lay the foundations of the welfare state while Labour was still in coalition with the Conservatives. But it was held in check by the Attlee/Bevin leadership which insisted on implicating the Tories in the proposed reforms – thereby making it impossible to reverse them if and when they came to power.
After 1979 Foot and Kinnock proposed a whole pile of “Left” policies, for example on the Common Market and Nuclear Weapons. These were policies pure and simple and were disconnected from any attempt to promote the social interest which Labour was supposed to represent. Gone was any plan to extend democracy to the workplace, any idea of what to do with the public sector enterprises, any notion of a social contract, any policy on prices and incomes.
The Bevanites took their notions to the electorate and the electorate could make no sense of them. Mrs Thatcher was on her way. The effect on the Labour leadership was not to make them reflect on their politics. From being infantile idealists they suddenly switched to being careerists. Kinnock and the group of former student activists with whom he surrounded himself, decided that politics was about personalities.
Kinnock has recently admitted that he even went off the idea of building a mass party; though at the time he was peddling the notion of mass recruitment being a substitute for the block vote as he promoted the idea of one-member-one-vote.
Meanwhile that mass party, the Conservatives, got fed up with Mrs Thatcher’s social-engineering and, more to the point, saw that the electorate was fed up with it as well. They threw her out and began moving away from the American dream she was trying to achieve.
The Labour leadership had by this time become thoroughly Thatcherised. They were mesmerised by America. The main organs of the social interest they were supposed to represent, the trade unions, were never to be mentioned. They wrapped themselves up in pretty packaging, released their ironically symbolic hot air balloons and went to the electorate.
The electorate rejected them. The Tories were at a low ebb. People wanted a change. But in John Major’s Tories they detected a streak of honesty and a semblance of a social purpose. They didn’t have the stomach for Tammany Hall.
Neil Kinnock resigned and his succession was fixed with the use of the union bloc vote. This was arranged primarily by those who now cry loudest against the bloc vote.
John Smith is or was an old-fashioned social democrat. But he clearly hasn’t got the hunger required to rep lace the Tories. He has let himself be manipulated by people who see themselves as the future leaders – particularly Gordon Brown and Tony Blair.
Not alone do these people believe in nothing other than their own special suitability for high office, but they have carried out the tasks given to them as
Shadow Ministers lazily and ineffectively. They must know that they are not up to the job. And this is what gives the air of desperation to their campaign to quickly end the voting power of the trade unions. There are very few union leaders who could face their members after being responsible for making either Gordon Brown or Tony Blair the leader of the Labour Party.
The conflict on the issue therefore comes down to a division between those who wish the Labour Party to remain the representative of a real social interest, and those who wish it to be the vehicle for the furtherance of their own personal interests.
The Labour Party has an organic relationship with its constituency through the trade unions and through its branches. It can be no coincidence that as the campaign to weaken the union link developed, there was also a weakening of the branches, through centralisation of the membership- membership by direct debit rather than direct recruitment.
The aim of the individualist tendency is to get rid. of power bases, both in the unions and the CLPs, and have one self-perpetuating centre of power. One-member-one-vote is designed to make all members powerless. The member as an individual has no way of influencing decisions or the debate that goes into making decisions. He or she has no knowledge of those for or against whom they are asked to vote for office, other than an image presented remotely.
One-member-one-vote gives the appearance of real democracy. It is in fact a travesty of democracy. It amounts to the atomisation of the membership. It would indeed be ironic if the Labour Party does to itself what Mrs. Thatcher has signally failed to do to society as a whole.
A body of people has come to the fore in the Labour Party under the Foot/ Kinnock leadership for whom the cut and thrust of party politics is repellent. They can never be comfortable operating with or on behalf of a great part of society which holds its values and beliefs deeply and fights for them passionately.
Their ideal is the make-believe set-piece in Parliament suitable for transmission on TV. (And they’re not even very good at that.) Tony Blair recently gave a speech on the moral role of the family and seemed to feel he had achieved something because a Tory Minister about the same time was able to give an almost identical speech. People like John Prescott and Kenneth Clarke are crass and uncouth to people like him.
But people like Prescott and Clarke represent something in this turbulent and changing world. People like Blair represent only themselves. The debate over the trade union link is a debate to decide whether the future of politics is about real social interests or is a beauty contest to determine who gets the spoils of office.
It suits today the weak and base
Whose Hearts are set on pelf and place
To cringe before the richman’s frown,
And tear our sacred emblem down. (The Red Flag).
This article appeared in July 1993, in Issue 36 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs. You can find more from the era at https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/ and https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/m-articles-by-topic/.