Beyond parliamentary politics: why trade unions and social movements are key to a Labour victory

Adrian Weir

By Adrian Weir, Campaign for Trade Union Freedom

In this blog I will make three clearly inter-related points (i) the union link with Labour is good for the left (ii) that the link allows the unions’ extra-parliamentary work to permeate the Party, and (iii) attempts to break the link will only benefit the right.

There has been the battle of ideas about the direction the Party should take that has raged for most of the time the Party has existed, sometimes posed as when and if the link with the unions should be broken.

The evidence of history shows that it is important for the left project to maintain the organic link and of course as Calvin Tucker noted in the Morning Star on 30th July arguments about the past are really debates about the present and future.

For example, at the start of the 1970s Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon had been elected as leaders of the T&G and the engineers’ union respectively, both from the left.

Between them – and with the miners – through strike action, the threat of a generalised strike and the mass mobilisation of union members outside of Parliament – they faced down the Conservative government of the early 1970s and effectively forced the General Election of 1974.

I would argue that in the early to mid-1970s it was the unions that were in the leadership of the shift to the left in the labour movement, their extra-parliamentary activity was pulling the Labour Party and the Labour Government to the left with it.

Without the organic link between the unions and the Party the pull on the Party would not have been so profound.

For this reason, the link was not always valued by the right in the Labour leadership.

The Morning Star has reported this week that Callaghan, the Labour Home Secretary and future Prime Minster, plotted with senior civil servants about how they may brief and leak to the press negative stories about Jones and Scanlon that would humiliate them both.

In the 1980s the unions suffered huge demoralising defeats … the miners, Wapping, Stockport Messenger, the dismissal of Derek Robinson … and as is well known 60% of the union vote went against Tony Benn in the Labour deputy leadership election.

During the 1990s, in the depths of this demoralisation and demobilisation, the Blairite right captured the Party and set about marginalising the unions and ignoring them when in Government.

In fact, breaking the link with the unions was an unfulfilled Blairite ambition.

We can track the tide starting to move in our direction again in the early years on the 2000s with the election of what become known as the “awkward squad”, a new crop of general secretaries intent on winning back the Party from New Labour.

These were:

  • Bob Crow – RMT
  • Andy Gilchrist – FBU
  • Billy Hayes – CWU
  • Mick Rix – ASLEF
  • Mark Serwotka – PCS
  • Jeremy Dear – NUJ
  • Paul Mackney – NATFHE

Not all, I acknowledge, affiliated to Labour but able to exert influence nonetheless.

If this was the embryonic move to the left in the unions, what gave this group critical mass was the election in 2004 of Tony Woodley as General Secretary of the T&G, now Unite.

It is this new leadership in the unions also supporting extra-parliamentary activities and mobilising the unions’ membership that created the opportunity for a later move back to the left within the Labour Party.

Andrew Murray made a key point at the rally last night; he said “the anti-war and anti-austerity movements kept the flame burning when parliamentary politics was looking unproductive.” He was speaking of:

  • Stop the War Coalition
  • European Social Forum

and, since the creation of the Coalition Government of 2010

  • Peoples Assembly Against Austerity.

The link allows the unions to bring these extra-parliamentary issues directly into the heart of the Party.

If the unions identified with the “awkward squad” have been constant in supporting extra-parliamentary work, the other constant in all of this has been Jeremy Corbyn who has supported from the inception all of these initiatives and more.

In other words, there has been an alliance between the left in the unions and Jeremy Corbyn for most of this century and before.

An outcome of this alliance, as far as the unions are concerned, is the 20 point plan to reform labour rights as set in the manifesto ‘For the Many, Not the Few’.

Blair and Mandelson ignored the unions’ call for reform; Jeremy and John McDonnell know that free trade unions and sector wide collective bargaining are the vehicles for raising working class living standards and realising many working class aspirations in the future.

The unions are an essential component of the Corbyn project; any attempt to break the link must necessarily be an attempt to unseat Jeremy Corbyn as Leader and should be resisted.

This blog is based on the contribution that Adrian Weir made at a session with the same title at Arise: A Festival Of Labour’s Left Ideas on 28th July.


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