Trade Union and Employment Forum

The unions and political parties reconsidered

History & Policy Trade Union Forum

The Conservative Party

The sessions began with the Conservatives, and an overview from Peter Dorey, Professor of Politics at Cardiff University, who highlighted the 1947 Conservative Party pamphlet, The Industrial Charter, which sold 2.5 million copies and laid down the framework for their industrial relations policy until the 1960s. It accepted a greater role for the state in the direction of the economy, but left it to the two sides of industry to regulate their relationships in the established peace-time British tradition of 'voluntarism'. Thus, significantly, it accepted trade unions as an 'estate of the realm' - an attempt to overcome the bitterness of their relations with the unions stemming from the 1926 General Strike, the 1927 Trade Union Act, the Great Depression and the Jarrow marches. However, by the 1970s this 'One Nation' outlook no longer commanded the support of the mainstream of the party, as a result of their experience in the intervening decades over union practices and confrontations while in government, culminating in their humiliating loss of office in 1974 over a failed attempt to impose a far-reaching legal framework on trade unions by Edward Heath. As a result, his replacement, Margaret Thatcher, was set on revenge through the reversal of the entire post-war social-democratic consensus. In government from 1979, she set about this with a careful 'step by step' approach to whittling down union legal immunities. Because of the loss of large parts of British manufacturing industry, which was the union heartland, combined with trade union divisions and failure to respond effectively, she was able to take her 'reforms' to the far shores of anti-union ideology.

This historical overview was complemented by Lord Richard Balfe, Conservative leader David Cameron's 'envoy to the unions' since 2007. Until the general election of 2010, his role had been to ensure that the Shadow Cabinet knew as many trade unionists as possible, which he thought had been substantially achieved, with Michael Gove at education, for example, meeting the leaders of the teachers’ unions. However, though this envoy arrangement was continued in the Coalition government, it did not appear to have given rise to any significant change in policy towards the unions, largely because there was a settled consensus at Westminster on industrial relations matters, based on the Thatcher 'Six Acts' revolution. He thought that this consensus had been established when Tony Blair, as Labour's Shadow Employment Secretary, had declined to oppose Thatcher's final trade union legislation on the closed shop, surprisingly without much protest from a demoralised union movement, which seemed unsure whether to campaign for the repeal of all those laws or for a softer reform approach and a switch of emphasis to a legal rights and the EU Social Chapter campaign. Balfe thought there were no plans among the Coalition Conservatives for further trade union legislation. Senior ministers such as Oliver Letwin, were advising that further attacks would not be sensible as union members were now volunteers and join unions as a 'life style choice'. This applied particularly to skilled public servants who they felt would be needed to help implement Civil Service reform. Balfe claimed that British politics was becoming Americanised: that Labour was no closer to the trade unions' values than the Democrats were to their US equivalents. As such Labour was the unions' first, but not their only choice. He repeatedly stressed that Cameron still saw the unions as an important part of the state, would not go out of his way to alienate them further and might surprise them by comparison with what Labour would do for them in office. In the discussion which followed, Lord Balfe's open contribution was appreciated, though there was scepticism about the substance or enduring value of his party or leader's diplomatic mission to the unions. This was to prove the case, sooner than anyone expected! Further restrictions figured prominently in the debates at the Conservative conference in 2013 and this was followed by another government inquiry into union requirements for balloting in disputes.

The Labour Party

The next session turned to the Labour Party with an overview from Andrew Thorpe, Professor of Modern British History at the Exeter University, who began by pointing out how the relationship between trade unions and labour politics has always been the stuff of negative media images of union domination of and union 'bad manners' towards the Labour leadership. It is true that the unions, long used to freedom from state interference in industrial relations or in their internal affairs, reacted in such an uncompromising fashion during the 1960s and 1970s that there could no meeting ground. This created most of the tension between the unions and the party which few leaders on either side seemed to be able to resolve satisfactorily. Meanwhile, the Conservatives were able to exploit their depiction of 'union power' with the aid of a mainly hostile media, with negative images playing strongly on the doorsteps in successive Labour election defeats, especially in 1987 and 1992. The unions were portrayed as an over-mighty sectional interest, dictating through their block vote at Labour Party conferences and conducting strikes that were disruptive to the rest of the public in such sectors as transport. The memories of those negative images helped shape 'New Labour' in the 1990s, with the unions getting little understanding or sympathy from the Blair’s leadership.

But meanwhile major changes had been taking place in the union world. From being in predominantly manual sectors, such coal and the railways, they had begun to represent very different groups of workers in mainly public service and white-collar occupations. And instead of there being more than a hundred separate union organisations of varying size and voting strengths, a wave of mergers had concentrated membership into a handful of mega unions the four largest of which - UNITE, UNISON, GMB and PCS - controlled most block votes in the 6 million-plus TUC, while the Labour- affiliated ones commanded a still major 50%  block vote in the Labour Party.

Moreover, the many positive contributions of the unions to the founding, growth and success of Labour governments, were coming to be forgotten, including:

  • the ethos of solidarity, loyalty to majority decisions, and a positive 'labour' identity;
  • getting millions of members to pay the political levy funding crucial to success;
  • strong organisation and participation by union activists at all levels;
  • vital inputs to the making of party policy on a wider range of social matters;
  • the provision of stability in moments of crisis for Labour - e.g. 1931 and the 1980s;
  • the provision of a training ground for Labour politicians and leaders at all levels.

There have also been many positives for the unions from the Labour link: despite significant restrictions, maintaining their unique legal position in the face of hostile employer, media and some sections of middle class prejudice; defence of workers' rights; the implementation of various social and economic policies by Labour governments, as well as a myriad of lesser advances, eg. through Labour local authorities. So, Professor Thorpe concluded that the union link has been valuable and remains so. The challenge for both the party and the unions remains how to manage the risk around those aspects that can be seen as negative, especially in periods of Labour government.

This historical overview was complemented by Billy Hayes, General Secretary of the Communication Workers Union (c 250,000 members) and vice-chair of TULO, the main union political campaigning organisation. He agreed in seeing this 'contentious alliance' as of enduring value for most of the larger affiliated unions. They still regarded the Labour Party link as the best mechanism to influence politics in their members' interest. He instanced their successful lobby of the Labour government from 2001-2004 over the Royal Mail privatisation proposals then being considered by ministers, and also the outcome of the first Warwick Agreement on the National Policy Forum in 2004-5 with TULO. Quite apart from the concrete programme of worker and union rights achieved during the last period of Labour governments (including the minimum wage and union recognition legislation), he also saw a cultural impact for the link, giving union-trained workers a unique route to political office, which no other body could match. For him, the Labour Party represented ‘a different political economy and moral compass'. He warned however, that any significant changes to the current political levy arrangements, which the Labour leadership were seeking, could place a serious strain on the alliance.

The Liberal Party

The third session was about the Liberal Democrats with an overview from Alastair Reid, Fellow of Girton College, Cambridge, who began by emphasising the strength of the Liberal-union or Lib-Lab alliance in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. This relationship was partly pragmatic but also a very congenial one philosophically as well as politically. This was because of developments in liberal thinking in this period, moving away from individual rights towards social utilitarianism and a new valuing of organisations intermediate between the individual and the state, including trade unions. Consequently the Liberal Party supported devolution of decision-making in industrial relations and, at least in theory, gave support for strong unions in collective bargaining. Another key feature of this 'radical liberal' tradition was its distinction between the 'productive classes' who created real wealth and the ‘parasites', who creamed off a surplus through unearned income - landlords, bankers etc. Thus the emphasis of socialists on public ownership of the means of production was largely an emphasis of middle class activists, while the combination of a strong commitment to free collective bargaining and a passionate criticism of unproductive wealth remained dominant in the views of many trade union leaders on the left up till the 1930s. Even after 1945 the 'voluntarist' element of this tradition was ironically still fiercely defended by the Labour Left and Communist activists. From this brief outline it can be seen that the Liberal strand in trade-union politics continued long after the replacement of the Liberals by Labour as the main progressive party, and it still has many significant echoes today. Dr Reid hoped that bringing out the roots and the characteristics of this tradition more systematically and placing specific demands in a longer intellectual tradition would help both with Labour's ongoing search for a clearer identity and with the exploration of possible areas of cooperation between Labour and the Liberals in the future.

This historical overview was complemented by Baroness Susan Kramer of the Liberal Democratic Party, who found its reminder of aspects of the liberal tradition revelatory and fascinating. However, she was bound to acknowledge frankly that there was not now any relationship between the Liberal Democrats and the TUC or the unions, not even with any of those which were not affiliated to the Labour Party. She accepted that the Lib Dems were themselves partly to blame for this but argued that, in view of the complete lack of interest from unions in those aspects of Lib Dem policies which might have had some benefits for them (eg on industrial partnership and employee share ownership), it had not been seen as worth the effort to cultivate a stronger relationship. There had been some superficial contacts - Charles Kennedy MP addressed the TUC once and Danny Alexander MP, the GMB conference - but these had not been followed up. Paddy Ashdown's close relations with Tony Blair when leader, over the prospect of a Lab-Lib pact in 1997, might have yielded some closer working, but Labour's huge majority scuppered that prospect.  There were also serious resource restraints within the Lib Dems’ small central office making them unwilling to prioritise what they felt would be an unproductive exercise. Nonetheless, this seminar had given her food for thought and she would report back positively.

The Communist Party

The final session focussed on the Communist Party (CP) up to its dissolution in 1991, with an overview from Professor Kevin Morgan of the University of Manchester, who highlighted its different fortunes in two contrasting periods: in the 1920s and then from the 1930s to the 1950s. The first was a turbulent period of mass industrial unrest during which the CP came into existence as the British arm of the Comintern and Moscow-funded revolutionary agitation, and tried to pull the unions into the ambit of the Red International of Labour Unions through what was known as the ‘Minority Movement’. However, not only did divisive attacks on the established union leaderships not succeed, but even able and respected Communist activists, such as Harry Pollitt, could make little headway in their own unions as they had to follow the doctrinaire revolutionary instructions coming from the CP leadership and ultimately from Moscow. In the second period, their greater success stemmed from a sharp change of line during the 1930s as the Soviet Union became more open to cooperation with social democrats in the fight against fascism through ‘Popular Fronts’, culminating in its high-profile role alongside the Western Allies during the Second World War. Professor Morgan then saw a sort of 'de-Leninisation' occurring after 1945, with the CP relaxing its control of union activists and no longer making them play an overtly 'vanguard' political role, as organisers for revolution or critics of the union leaderships. As a result a whole new cohort of Communist activists or former activists became senior union officials - Jack Jones, Hugh Scanlon, Clive Jenkins, Jim Mortimer and Len Murray - to name but a few who had passed through the CP 'finishing school'. This huge influence of CP and far-left leaders in the trade union movement of the 1960s and 1970s has been little acknowledged in histories of the period. Yet their uncompromising stances explain the creative but also self-destructive mood of the union leadership, and made a major contribution to the extreme reaction against union power symbolised by Mrs Thatcher, and which proved so destructive of the previously powerful union position in British society, and the loss of its manufacturing and heavy industry far beyond anything happening in similar European countries.

Thoughts arising

Jim Moher felt that these four sessions of presentations and discussions had been very worthwhile and might be relevant as a historical perspective to the current policy debate in the Labour Party over the future shape of their trade-union and political funding generally. The other parties, especially the Liberal Democrats, might also find this Forum's material of interest about the close involvement which the old Liberal Party had with the trade unions, and so as to ask themselves why their relations are so distant today. Even those Conservatives, who in David Cameron's initial 'husky phase', toyed with restoring some relations with the trade union movement as 'an important part of the State and society', might also find something of interest in H&P's developing historical reassessment.

But it is the trade unions and the Labour Party we seek to assist with their ongoing search for a clearer identity for the twenty first century. And Dr Moher took the case of their current debate over the proper balance between the unions' pursuit of their legitimate political objectives and the party's concern about public perceptions of undue union power in Labour conference decisions and in its leadership elections. As the main paymaster, the unions can insist on retaining the status quo, as their last major power. Yet they recognise that once the issue has been brought into the open by a progressive Labour Leader, Ed Miliband, who they helped secure the post, they would have serious difficulty in exercising that power and refusing to change.

If there is one clear lesson from the imbroglio of their history which led to the rise of a deeply anti-union Conservative leader, it was that whoever's fault it was (and it was by no means all down to the union leaderships of the time), it was unions and their members who suffered from the failure to resolve differences with Labour governments and to reach innovative accommodations which improved people's lives.


Beyond the current debate on union political funding and party mechanisms, there are other issues concerning the unions on political avenues for solutions to their primarily industrial problems. Our discussion focussed on a few of these. Firstly, there was a sharp challenge to Dr Reid's point that the early unions had good grounds for not placing their faith exclusively on a single political channel of representation, viz. through the election of MPs with a socialist ideology to transform society through government action. He had argued that socialism was not a product of the unions but an ideology grafted on by middle class politicians of the Independent Labour Party and the Fabian Society. However, others contended that many of the leading union leaders of that late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century period - Will Thorne, Ben Tillett and Tom Mann - were working class socialists who sought a party independent of the Liberal Party for union objectives as well as their own. This opens up a major seam for further discussion and debate, whose outcome could be that Labour-affiliated unions might explore other options to secure political influence, as indeed many non-affiliated unions already do.

Another, more modern issue arose from the recent history of 'New Labour’ governments. After much heart-searching in the 1990s, the unions had been persuaded to abandon their traditional demand on Labour 'to repeal all the anti-union laws' for a more reformist approach. This placed their faith on a programme of legal rights, mainly individual focussed, but with some collective ones (e.g. statutory recognition of unions), to be buttressed by the EU Social Chapter. In government, however, after an initial progressive legislative phase, these petered out and no changes to the array of anti-union laws were contemplated. The disappointment extended to a reluctance to embark on the kind of social partnership common throughout the EU.

To be fair, it was recognised that not all, or indeed many, unions were enthusiastic for such a programme, some with more political influence placed their faith on legislating for recognition to bring back membership and collective bargaining rights, which proved illusory. Similarly, few unions used the Brussels Directives - e.g. on Information and Consultation rights (ICE Regulations) - effectively. It was said that union activists were schizophrenic in answer to George Woodcock's famous question, 'What are we here for?'  Some saw their union as a vehicle for fundamental, if not revolutionary change, whereas others saw it very much as an insurance policy against the vicissitudes of working life. It was also said that there were two outdated industrial relations models, the management 'command and control' one and the trade union-one which insisted on having an 'independent channel' of representation.

Another good question was posed. Can unions be anything other than conspirators? To take the economy forward, can they not be collaborators also? The leadership want to collaborate, but members only up to a point. Yet, why do so many of them vote for an anti-union party. This conflictual dilemma needs to be thought through. Certainly the conflict model enabled lawyers to become very influential from the time of Geoffrey Howe QC's Bow Group pamphlet A Giant's Strength.

Interestingly, another contributor talked about the stock market, which can affect jobs severely when shares slide. Management has to react to stock market trends in order to maintain share value. In Germany, its role is much different. A good place to start examining this approach may be the recently privatised Royal Mail, where the CWU has just negotiated a legally-binding collective agreement covering a whole range of issues. The union is setting up a CWU Shares Trust attempting to coordinate individual members' share transactions to enhance their collective influence. The turmoil in the mutually-owned Cooperative Society over future governance arrangements seems another.

Whatever the answers, there was a general consensus that the value of trade union membership needs to be clearer to members and potential members.  We must define what unions are about in the twenty-first century. We must explain why being in a collective organisation would provide individuals with more protection than being on their own. Unions’ ability to negotiate good apprenticeship terms as opposed to the weak model promoted by government was one example given. The social partnership successes of the first two post-1945 decades, when unions and employers' associations set up proper training schemes, was also cited.

This forward-looking discussion from the perspective of union history, did not prevent a gloomier note creeping in. One asked whether the labour movement has come to a standstill intellectually? He felt that very little new seems to be happening and previous attempts seem to have run into the ground. Attempts to persuade the Labour front bench to interest themselves in exploring and developing ideas to promote collective bargaining - - e.g. in public sector care homes - do not seem to have been well received. He thought that the cultural difference between the unions and the Labour Party did not help: that politicians seem to have little stability of thought, appearing always 'to blow with the wind', whereas unions expect solid deals that will be implemented, rather than be met with 'things have changed'.

By contrast, another colleague felt that unions need to get back to key aims: raising wages and improving the conditions of workers. He felt that unions have not been bargaining aggressively. If the economy is looking up, then unions should again start organising around this approach. However, it was also pointed out that a union needs the members to negotiate higher wages, while companies have fragmented themselves into smaller workforces and eliminated much labour. A recent Incomes Data Services survey of pay settlements still shows hundreds of new collective agreements with average wage increases of around 2-2.5%pa. So the move seems not altogether from collective to individual but from sectoral to plant/company level.


This outline of how British trade unions have attached so much emphasis to influencing the political parties to achieve their wider aims brings out an important feature of their history, namely the philosophical predisposition of their leaders to see the state as the main vehicle for social change. As we saw, it was not always so, which raises the question whether, in the changed circumstances they find themselves today, and the changed nature of the party they created and still place so much store on, this emphasis still remains valid. 

At the very least, the unions are now beginning to ask that question. They certainly need to start by considering their general role in society today and how best their aims could be realised rather than, as UNITE's Len McCluskey recently seemed to be suggesting, simply attempting to repeat history by setting up another party along the old lines.  The unions have contributed a lot to society over the years and certainly do not deserve the obloquy they suffer in the media and government circles. They could not be blamed for striking out in a new direction which best suits their own interests.

James Moher and Alastair Reid


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