Trade Union and Employment Forum

The Labour Party and the trade unions

History & Policy Trade Union Forum

This meeting of the Forum set out to examine the key aspects of the Labour Party's relationship with the trade unions. The first paper by Professor Andrew Thorpe, Professor of Modern British History and Associate Dean of Research and Knowledge Transfer, University of Exeter, gave a perspective on the long-term historical sweep. The second paper focusing on the contemporary Labour Party/trade unions relationship, was given by Billy Hayes, General Secretary of the Communication Workers Union and Vice-Chair of the Trade Union-Labour Party Liaison Committee.

Professor Andrew Thorpe

The debate about the relationship between trade unions and labour politics is even older than the Labour Party itself. It has been the stuff of negative media images for the Establishment and the other political parties. The first classic is the idea of union domination. So, Ed Milliband's recent victory as Labour leader is constantly attributed to votes cast in the union part of the Electoral College. The second classic is of union 'bad manners' when union delegates react rudely to Labour leaders' exhortations against threatening or taking industrial action. These negatives have all too rarely been balanced out against the more positive story that can be told about Labour-union relations since Labour first formed a minority government in 1924.

Relations between the party and the unions have been complex and between constantly changing entities since the Labour Representation Committee was first formed in 1900. The Labour Party (1906) has changed from being a parliamentary appendage of the Liberal Party to becoming a major party of government, culminating in the great reforming government of 1945-51. However, this very success posed new problems for the relationship in government, especially in the 1960s and again in the late 1970s when the Party held office during periods of economic crisis. These proved unmanageable when the party leaders in government felt obliged to carry out incomes policies or union reforms which the union leaderships could not or would not support. After eighteen years out of office, a very different 'New Labour' leadership returned to government in 1997, still with union support. This time there was no pledge to reverse the previous Conservative legislation restrictive of union activities or to restore unions to a more influential role in government policy. Dramatic loss of membership and industrial strength had significantly lowered union expectations, though they naturally expected to benefit from Labour's more generally progressive policies and to some extent did so - with the introduction of the minimum wage, employment rights and statutory recognition of trade unions. However, by 2005 it was clear that that was the extent of their gains and then Labour lost office in 2010. The relationship has been described as an alliance, sometimes as a contentious one. Metaphors of 'marriage' abound, and talk of 'divorce' characterised much of the New Labour period. Worse things than this have been said in the past, such as Ernest Bevin's remark in 1935 that the party 'grew out of the bowels of the trade-union movement'!

Nevertheless, most of the larger affiliated unions still regard the link with Labour as the best mechanism to influence politics in their members' interests, though a far cry from the days when Labour governments were part of a labour movement jointly committed to 'socialist' objectives.

This major change owed much to the fact that unions themselves had also changed, not least in the kind of people they represented. In 1900 their main membership and support was drawn from manual workers in industries like cotton, coal, heavy engineering, railways and so on. Their leaders too had risen from that background, many of them outstanding national figures with little education, such as Ernest Bevin of the T&GWU, (who became Minister of Labour in 1940). Their wartime contributions to the national effort were rewarded with respect and status within the state, symbolised by TUC leaders' presence as equals on the National Economic Development Council in 1962. In the full employment conditions of World War II and after - the Welfare State, the NHS, nationalisation and total repeal of legal restrictions on their activities, internal affairs and affiliations - unions seemed to have become a new 'estate of the realm'.

However, the decline of Britain's 'smokestack' industries from the 1970s onwards eroded the union base. Their service-type replacements in the south were not easily amenable to unionisation. This at the time of serious industrial actions/civil disobedience in the 1970s by the union movement in opposition to government-imposed incomes policies and attempts to regulate/reform their activities, especially strikes, strained the relations with Labour governments to breaking point. For example, Wilson/Castle's 1968/9 White Paper (In Place of Strife) and Callaghan's 5% incomes policy ceiling of 1977-8 (leading to 'the Winter of Discontent'). These failures by Labour and the trade unions to resolve their differences produced a public mood hostile to 'abuse of union power', which succeeding Conservative governments exploited. Mrs Thatcher was able to confront and defeat high-profile union strikes in the steel, print and mining industries of the 1980s, thereby wrenching power away from the unions. Membership slumped and collective bargaining diminished as recession and restrictive legislation bit. Labour then was out of government for eighteen years. When the Party eventually got back in 1997, it was under the dramatically altered New Labour of Tony Blair. The party leadership now viewed the union link as more of a liability and eschewed any of the traditional policies which might be thought as likely to restore union fortunes.

Thus we are dealing with two ever-changing entities - Labour and the unions. But that's not all. The whole idea of 'the unions' is problematic, if it is taken to mean a single homogeneous block with a single view and a single set of interests. There were all kinds of potential conflicts between unions, and sometimes within them - national unions as against local or regional ones; craft, industrial and general unions; skilled and unskilled workers; the gender balance overwhelmingly male in 1910 to mainly female in 2010 (55%); public as against private sector, white collar as against blue collar unions/members. Professor Thorpe then posed some questions:

What have the unions done for the Labour Party?

The unions have made many notable contributions to the creation and development of this major party of national government through:

  • the creation and establishment of the party in the first place;
  • the cultivation of its ethos of solidarity, loyalty to majority decisions, and a positive class consciousness and identity (at the extreme, those who seemed to stand against this, like Stafford Cripps in the 1930s or Militant on the 1980s, were expelled);
  • the establishment of a membership political levy and funding crucial to its electoral success at local, regional and national levels (a mandate which is largely passive but renewed every 10 years);
  • the organisation and participation by union activists at all levels;
  • the making of party policy: e.g. the welfare state; the national minimum wage, employment rights and a wider range of social and political matters;
  • the provision of stability in moments of crisis for Labour - e.g. 1931 (Bevin - 'This is like the General Strike. I'm prepared to put everything in.'); bringing it back from the brink on many occasions, as in the 1980s;
  • the sustaining of Labour governments, especially in 1945-51, 1974-79, and 1997-2010
  • the provision of a training ground for Labour leaders, MPs, local party leaders, councillors, etc.

If the union contribution were somehow removed, then it is hard to see how Labour's history could have been anywhere near as successful as it has been, though many of the other strands of the party contributed as well.

That said, of course, some aspects of the relationship have been more negative:

  • when the unions took a prominent role, they were seen to 'dictate' through their 'block vote' e.g. 1931, late 1960s, and late 1970s;
  • strikes were often easy to portray as disruptive to the public; this could allow the unions to be presented as an unrepresentative minority, and as 'other' and oppositional to the national and/or public interest; not just in the more spectacular set-tos of, say, 1926, 1978/9 or 1984-5, but also regularly with transport strikes, for example;
  • perceptions of unions as an over-mighty 'sectional interest', particularly in the 1960s and 1970s; as in the Society of Conservative Lawyers' 1958 pamphlet, A Giant's Strength; or Harold Wilson's well-known 1969 comment to Scanlon 'Get your tanks off my lawn, Hughie'; very difficult to play down;
  • unions were thought to create a negative image - in the 1950s, Hugh Gaitskell, after yet another election defeat in 1959, blamed the unions for imposing a unilateral nuclear defence policy at the Annual Labour Conference; similarly Roy Jenkins talked about 'aggressive and intolerant proletarianism' when splitting to form the SDP in 1981;
  • the union block vote at the Labour conference was often seen by party activists as inhibiting or even preventing debate;
  • the unions have, on the whole, kept 'the Left' of the party at bay - their support for MacDonald and Henderson in the 1920s, their support for Attlee in and after World War II, the existence of the 'Big Six' in the 1940s and the triumvirate of Lawther, Williamson and Deakin in the 1950s;
  • however, in other periods of Labour's most pronounced swings to the left - the early 1930s, the early 1970s, and the early 1980s - the leaders of many of the biggest trade unions were most antagonised by the behaviour of the parliamentary leadership of the Labour Party. By and large though these have been quite transient periods.

What has the Labour Party done for the unions?

There have also been many positives for the unions from the Labour link: in terms of legal position, defence of workers' rights, and the implementation of various social and economic policies by Labour governments, about both the narrow sectional interests of the unions and groups of workers, and the broader concerns of union members. The contribution that Labour local authorities often made, for example, by building up large direct works departments which were heavily unionised and which could in turn set a benchmark of wages and conditions for certain trades within a particular town or city.

This is not to say that unions have always been happy with what they have had from Labour governments. The first minority governments of 1924 and 1929-31 were the most disappointing, with only slum clearance being achieved from a 14-point set of demands from the TUC. (General Secretary Walter, later Lord, Citrine). Where the possibilities were greater - as in 1945-51 - or the demands more modest - as in 1997-2010 - then it was possible for unions to come out of periods of Labour government with more of a feeling of satisfaction.


Recent years have seen lots of conjecture about the future of the party-union relationship. The early years of New Labour were awash with it. Leader writers competed with each other to invent the most ludicrous marriage-divorce metaphors possible. For some, quite prominent Labour figures (now forgotten!), unions were 'a thing of the past' with membership falling inexorably. Soon New Labour would become the 'progressive party' some had wanted all along - and without all that working-class baggage.

But it did not happen as the need for union funding returned. And initially, the Blair government did deliver some important gains, e.g. the national minimum wage, stronger rights of recognition, etc. However, no Labour government ever could deliver all the unions wanted, especially as 'the unions' are not one homogeneous mass but instead have diverse interests themselves at times. But the continuing need of union funding reminded Labour leaders that unions would remain crucial to their electoral fortunes and success in government.

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.


There followed a short discussion with these questions and replies:


1. How important were the institutional links between unions and the party at all levels and the interconnectedness between them as individuals and organs?

AT Between 1928 and the 1970s the party was based at Transport House, Smith Square (the T&GWU HQ), as was the TUC until the 1950s. Similarly in the regions and at constituency levels, there was much overlap, and so no dichotomy.

2. What about unions not affiliated to the LP. Why have so few joined since WWII?

AT This requires further study, as most of their leaders were members of the party. The growth in union membership was certainly not reflected in affiliation numbers. This probably reflects the political views and party (non-party) attitudes of the more white-collar and professional groups joining unions since then. A few smaller ones which merged with affiliated unions eg., BT clerks and supervisors in NCU/CWU, in 1980s, did ballot to affiliate.

3. Where did the relationship go wrong from the 1960s onwards? Why had the unions' image, so positive during and after the war, become so negative in the public mind? Had the unions become institutionalised as a corporate part of the state during and immediately post-war and so out of touch with its roots and activists?

AT Membership growth did relate to the corporatism of unions and their leaders in the 1960s and '70s. Their prestige and power encouraged all governments to bring them into national policy making, eg. seats on the National Economic Development Corporation since 1962. This posed a dilemma as unions wanted to be involved in policy making but also 'to be left alone' to conduct free collective bargaining and run their internal affairs without interference from the state. As a result, even left-wing union leaders like Jack Jones (T&GWU) and Hugh (Lord) Scanlon (AUEW), increasingly could not deliver their members for unpopular Labour Government policies in the late 1970s. They felt 'bound and gagged' and were at pains to explain that there was a limit to how much they could deliver. This close relationship with Labour governments also allowed Communist Party and Trotskyist influence to grow in the unofficial shop steward movements.

Billy Hayes

Billy addressed the recent changes in the relationship, a relationship which he said is today actively debated in the Labour movement.

He started by recalling Tony Blair's comment that the split between Labour and the old Liberal Party had been a historic mistake, as it allowed the Conservatives to dominate 20th century British politics. Merger with the modern Liberal Democrats had been the Blairite 'project'. Some of his vocal supporters 'in the nexus of Purple Labour, Blue Labour and Progress' still cling to this hope. However, he discounted this possibility in view of their hostility to the trade unions, they regarded unions as 'out-dated' and 'Jurassic'.

Others on the left outside the Labour Party, regard the link as an obstacle to the establishment of a more socialist party. In the 1960s this contradiction seemed most stark, with union support of the Labour Party electorally but the Labour government's refusal/inability to deliver union interests. In 1967 Perry Anderson of the New Left Review asked 'how long would the unions go on propping up their executioner?' Today, the same contradiction looms large in the minds of many active unionists and those on the left. He felt that if the Labour leadership persists in its present course, the political allegiance of the trade union movement could be re-opened. In those circumstances he asked, 'will it opt for a non-party "business unionism" or transfer its allegiance to new political institutions'? Those questions, he said, 'are waiting, just over the horizon, behind every industrial dispute in wage-frozen Britain'.

However, he personally favoured and would assert the central value of the link. It offers the unions a practical resource in their dealings with Parliament and state power in general. To the query, 'but do you get anything back for your members' contributions?', he gave the case of his union, the CWU, in its lobby against privatisation of the Post Office. When he took up office as the General Secretary in 2001, the Labour Government (Secretary of State at the Department of Trade and Industry, Patricia Hewitt) was privately negotiating a sale of Royal Mail to the Dutch Post Office. That fell through, but such attempts continued and in 2004 Royal Mail management lobbied for a share flotation, which successive Labour Ministers favoured, especially Peter (Lord) Mandelson in 2008. But the union was able to utilise the structures of the Labour Party to block the legislation when a majority of Labour MPs not part of the payroll vote, were persuaded to oppose the Postal Services Bill. It fell in 2009, he believed because Gordon Brown would not use Tory MPs to get privatisation through the Commons. Mandelson's memoir, The Third Man, acknowledged how effective the union's lobby and campaign had been with conference resolutions, a commitment in the 2005 Labour Manifesto, pickets, rallies and lobbies. He wrote, 'The CWU began to lean on Labour MPs warn that they would withhold support from candidates in marginal seats who backed the government's plan. That was no empty threat.' The point was that the union had used the constitutional link to overturn government policy.

Billy then gave another illustration of the value of the link to the unions. This was about two different attempts to exert union influence on the National Policy Forum of the Labour Party for pro-union employment rights and other progressive legislation. In 2004, there was a highly coordinated negotiation with Tony Blair through the union umbrella organisation, TULO, which culminated in a very satisfactory first 'Warwick Agreement' for the unions. To this are owed such improvements as statutory holidays counting separately alongside the National Minimum Wage and a whole package of other benefits (including the commitment to keeping the Post Office public). By contrast, similar negotiations at Warwick in 2009 with Gordon Brown were 'an entirely inconsequential affair'. This was because the unions were divided over Brown's continuation as Leader, some supporting a challenge to him. This hardly improved Brown's willingness to negotiate seriously with those calling for his replacement. This example also showed that although the formal party process was pretty ineffectual , 'the real influence of the unions meant that a parallel process had to operate'.

Billy's final point in favour of the link was its cultural impact. In support, he cited, Professor Lewis Minkin's 1991 study, The Contentious Alliance:

The relationship is more than a policy process and an agency of power.. It is public testimony to the remarkable political creativity of working people, 'hands' who gave themselves political voices. And it represents a prominent symbolic claim for them for parity of status. embodies an ideal of a participatory democracy linking the decision-makers of Whitehall with the policy input of millions in offices, shops, factories and other workplaces.


He argued that this noble sentiment still had force. Though the proportion of MPs with experience of unskilled labour is lower than ever, Labour still offers a unique route to political office for workers trained by the trade unions. Despite the weakening of the unions since the 1980s, their connection to the Labour Party still maintains that culture. Despite the widespread tainting of all politicians by the fiasco about MPs' expenses and the media and commentariat's insistence that government is an issue of administration best left to the professionals - the trade unions continue to embody that culture. Even after the excision of socialist ideology under Blair, still the prime instinct of Labour activists is that the party represents a different political economy and moral compass. 'Blair's "Third Way" died somewhere between Iraq and the Lehman Brothers' collapse.' There are now some signs of a revival of left thinking. The new leadership of Ed Milliband still seems uncertain about the social alliances needed to win, for which he blamed those from the Blairite wing who remain influential. But abroad, the victory of the Danish socialists and the potential victory of Francois Hollande are other signs. In Greece the anti-austerity parties have over 40% of the vote. In Ireland, Sinn Fein's line of 'investment not austerity' and unification has lifted them to second place in the Republic as well as in the North. He felt that the British Labour Party cannot be unaffected.

He asked 'just how contentious is the alliance at present?'

Externally, the Tory/Lib Dem Coalition government's intention to change the law on political contributions, which would cap each affiliated union's political levy contribution, could pose a serious strain for the union-Labour alliance. In the Tories', and some Lib Dem, eyes trade union funding of Labour is corrupt, undemocratic and a vested interest in politics, but their aim is to break the link and deliver a big blow to progressive politics. The Labour leadership has been invited to discuss a review of party funding and though they opposed the £50,000 cap proposed in the previous Hayden Phillips and Kelly reviews, it wasn't clear how firm they were. Billy's view was that consensus is not possible and that any dilution of the current funding arrangements would weaken the alliance. In the CWU, they had experienced both relationships - forced to disaffiliate in 1927 and pressed to rejoin by activists and members when allowed from 1946.

Internally, there had always been some opposition to the link - the anti-union phalanx in the party and the anti-Labour tendency in the unions (less than 10% in his view). This flares up when the Labour leadership is thought to act against the unions, in or out of government. However, the centre of gravity holds, due to recognition of the benefits of the union's involvement in Labour politics by most members and activists. In the party, there is also some scepticism as to the value of the union link, which they see as 'a narrow or vested interest'. Electoral calculation seems to require a distance from unpopular unions (still by far the largest voluntary organisations in the country). He thought that such views have existed since the party was founded by the trade unions and 'are no great worry'. At the end of the day, it comes through that union member concerns tend to be those of the majority of the electorate.

Finally, Billy commented on some recent policy pronouncements of the Labour leadership, about acceptance of the coalition's cuts in expenditure and public sector jobs. He discounted such pronouncements as not altogether unusual and part of the 'contentious' nature of the alliance since its formation. He favoured the late Jack Jones' aphorism to describe the oftimes strained periods of 'the marriage': 'murder possibly, divorce never', as best describing the relationship.


1. Asked about the relationship with 'sponsored' MPs? Only 7% now come from manual working class backgrounds. A recent study of participation in public affairs, by the National Council of Voluntary Organisations, found a similar low level generally. It didn't follow, of course, that more working class involvement translated into progressive politics. The examples of Aneuran Bevan (probably,middle class, and on the left) and Ernest Bevin (working class, right) was cited.

BH The CWU had 22 on its panel, some from the Lords. They are not 'mandateable' and indeed not expected to support the union on all issues, only on the key ones such as, privatisation of Royal Mail.


2. In selecting MPs, is there a place for the 'darkest arts' to ensure that 'one of ours' (TU) got it?

AT In the days when unions had a large chunk of the constituency votes, those dark arts were a specialism of union political officers, and they had considerable success. [JM It used to involve deals between rival unions and their candidates, with all the major unions having their 'spheres of influence' - so there were 'mining seats', 'railway seats' and so on. Since One Member One Vote was introduced, New Labour favourites replaced Old Labour candidates with solid union backgrounds. The new intake come largely from professional or consultancy-type business backgrounds (some even former Tories in 'big tent' politics). Only local council leaders with union backing and able to 'nurse' seats, have withstood this metropolitan push. Labour Party gender politics also mitigated against the mostly male union candidates, though this has had the good effect that most unions now put forward more women candidates.]

3. What are the lessons from this historical relationship? It was class-aligned up until the 1970s but all changed with the Blair project being a watershed from the 1990s. Are we sleep-walking into an identity crisis, as there is no longer an ideology which binds the unions and the Labour Party together?

BH He deplored this patronising development, as it expressed a deep pessimism by the anti-union wing of the party as to the socialist aspirations of ordinary people and democracy. He would settle for a bit of social democracy at the moment. He compared it to what Brian Epstein had been told by Decca Records, ('guitar bands are out') - which is how many MPs now see trade unions. Things like the National Minimum Wage started from an ideological dispute within the unions and the Labour Party.

4. Strikes and Labour governments. Where has there been a strike Labour leaders have supported? 1926, 1978/9 or 1984/5 to take the biggest challenges. Neil Kinnock has since said that he should have said to the miners in 1984, 'if you have a national ballot, the Party will support the strike'. The public services strikes of 1978/9, were about a Labour government trying to hold low paid workers to a very low pay norm (5%).

AT Strikes do pose a particular difficulty for Labour leaders whether in government or in opposition, as the question indicates. The General Strike 1926 was especially difficult as it became a strike intended to change government policy. What could the Labour leadership have done as the fledgling party was trying to emphasise its constitutionality? On the other hand, the 1978/9 unnecessarily tough 5% incomes policy, was curious in view of Callaghan's decision not to call an election in Autumn 1978? 'Taking on the unions' seemed a bit of a virility test.

5. What can we learn from other comparable advanced countries? Germany, Scandinavia and Australia seemed to have maintained successful social democratic governments, whereas Britain has failed. Is there something wrong with the mechanics of the UK unions and Labour Party relationship?

AT Attlee was interested in the Swedish model in the 1930s. But then came the war and the 'golden age' of unions being almost part of the state. By the late 1950s/early '60s, the Swedish model seemed less attractive. BHThe 'Social Contract' of the 1970s has got a bad name now, but the approach had something to commend it. His trips abroad for TUC International conferences bring home the importance of other social democratic models.

6. Were the far left in unions elsewhere (eg Scandinavia) as strong as in the UK then and did this have a bearing on their different approaches?

7. One attendee from Ruskin College, who was also a branch secretary, felt that members at the grassroots want to sever the link now and they no longer take part in local LP activities. He believed that divorce will happen because of the lack of representation/opportunity for trade unionists or ordinary working people in the Labour Party today.

BH Acknowledged that feeling but thought that things can change and so it was premature to adopt such counsels of despair. Ed Milliband was already a shift back to a more responsive leadership in his view.

8. Another contribution was to the effect that the new generation of [female] Labour frontbench spokespersons were more in touch with union reps and showed a lot of promise.

9. When unions had the power, were they too resistant to change e.g., from the 1950s onwards? Employers and both parties used to say, 'the unions won't wear it' and so they had an effective veto. Since they lost the power, much one-sided change has been foisted on them without consultation, even where they had a strong case. Would a future Labour government redress the balance?

BH He was optimistic that the new Labour leadership would take a more balanced view of the role of unions and their positive features. He did worry about the attitude to trade unions of some of those advisers which Milliband was surrounded by, as they tended to discount the need for any such important role. Equally, there were many trade union activists, e.g., those who, perhaps unrealistically, wanted a total repeal of all the anti-union legislation, were more pessimistic in their expectations. Things can and do change and there was no rule of history which says otherwise. AT Stressed the importance of building teams between both sides as had happened when the LP, TUC and T&GWU inhabited the same Transport House, Smith Square. However, there was never a 'golden age' when the relationships were perfect.

10. One of the great strengths of the old Labour Party was its contribution to democracy, viz., participation of ordinary working people in building it up, rather than any particular ideological commitment. Keir Hardie had opposed the adoption of its socialist programme initially on the grounds that it would exclude Liberal supporters, which were then common in the mining and other communities. Arthur Henderson of the Ironfounders, who later became a Labour MP and Party Leader, was originally a Liberal agent and MP. Again in local government, unions and women Labour activists built the party up by how well they represented local people. We have lost that local dimension entirely as local government today has no power. So, a key plank of a revitalised Labour Party should be to restore power to local government, and have a much less centralised political structure/system. Unless this happens, ordinary people won't have a chance to get involved. The LP/TULC shouldn't just focus on national level developments but embrace a true localism.

AT gave the example of Stoke-on-Trent, where there had recently been controversy about the selection of a Labour MP from academia, rather than someone from the local trade union and labour movement.

BH Agreed and saw a parallel need for unions to reach down to their members where they lived and worked also. He referred to Ken Livingstone's comment about the lack of experience in running local or regional councils which most ministers like Tony Blair now lacked. This is probably true of the entire Labour frontbench, with some exceptions. In sidelining 'Old Labour', the LP also neglected this essential training ground.


11. On this same theme, another contributor, saw the need to change the terminology of politics as the common parlance no longer reaches working class communities. Over the years many of the bonds and cement which held many communities together have been broken or eroded and cannot now be easily reconstructed. They need rejuvenating below the union branch level in the actual workplaces and communities themselves. He thought that the history of how those communities were built and operated would have a role in assisting that process.

12. It was also pointed out that this would be very difficult today as people have become so individualised, spending less and less time in group activities, but at home sitting before TVs and PCs.

13. Some of today's union leaders were picked out for comment. Bob Crow of the RMT, although viewed by many in the party as a major liability electorally in London, in fact was a highly successful trade union leader for the London Underground workers. Yet he was now politically outside in the cold, perhaps through choice, but he was also representative of a strand of London working class opinion. Len McCluskey of UNITE is another substantial leader, but his recent statement about the party also seemed anti-political if not anarchistic. However, he is too important to be ignored as Bob has been. If the disaffection signalled by such utterances were not addressed, it could seriously affect future relations between unions and the LP.

It had to be recognised that there was a tension between union adherence to the tradition of voluntarism, especially in 'free collective bargaining' (a philosophy exploited by the Communist Party in the 1970s) and their leaders' socialist commitment to a collectivised economy (not a Labour commitment any more). Trade unions, if they are to revive, must do so around a strategy or narrative which reconciles these ideologies (which exceptionally, only Jack Jones and John Monks both came close to doing).

Unless they do so, such expressions of the profound confusion which has developed around socialist and union ideals, can only deepen. That is why history is important as a means of reviewing and re-assessing the union and labour appeal, a task H&P TUF is contributing to.

14. It was also noted that as unions have divergent interests - as Andrew had highlighted in his talk - to construct such a narrative in modern times is quite challenging. BH Bob Crow does a good job for his members, following the old CP line that that is the first thing to do. We do need to construct an alternative narrative for a much more diverse membership, low paid and some quite high paid as the CWU represents in the Post Office and BT.

15. It was said that trade union research departments are not what they were, powerhouses of ideas for the labour movement. The diminution of intellectual effort and ideas around the macro economy and political economy, seems particularly noticeable. The current global crisis of the financial system, since Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008, - a classic case of what's wrong with capitalism - has not been use to define alternatives to the austerity programmes universally adopted as the solution. This seems to reflect a crisis of confidence and identity within unions and so some self-examination is needed. Unions should be coming up with ideas and proposals for the party. No wonder Milliband is confused and surrounded by graduates who laugh at the trade unions, as BH has stated. In the past, senior reporters such as Robert Taylor on the Financial Times would have received such documents from the unions.

BH Yes, we do need an overarching analysis of the system and in the past we did have better think-tanks such as the IES. to assist.

AT Yes, but the narrative needs to be positive.

Another contributor wondered whether the union-Labour Party relationship had been distorted by recent mergers of major unions, leading to a shrinkage of voices. The party leadership was nervous about being funded by so few large unions, particularly as only tiny minorities of their members bother to vote in union leadership elections (14% in the recent UNITE GS election). These low turnouts open the winners to the charge of un-representativeness, especially on political issues. At the same time, the number of union activists also active in the party at constituency or ward levels has been shrinking dramatically (the London region of the old T&GWU, which used to produce hundreds is now said to have 5 or 6, most of which are very critical of the Labour leadership).

BH Yes, the activist base has shrunk and unions find it tough to operate today. The middle tier is missing.

AT Mergers since WWII have dramatically reduced the number of unions (735 to 58), with the loss of that middle layer of activists in each union who no longer serve actively as branch representatives. The old mosaic of unions has dissipated and super unions do make members feel remote from them. It raises questions of democracy and representation.

17. So, was the power of the trade unions in the twentieth century a historical phenomenon, which had expanded and grown because of wars and favourable state and employer support and networks? In this expansive mode, with their huge dominance of Labour Party policy and structures, they didn't need to think too deeply about their wider social role. They could adopt 'ourselves alone' attitudes to all legal regulation and transmit political and economic demands via the party they controlled. But when those supports and props were withdrawn and their manufacturing and heavy industrial base declined, following some industrial confrontations, the party which had become a major force in the parliamentary system, went its own way. That, put starkly, is the challenge they now face and how they answer it will define the future relationship with Labour.

AT Contexts change - the economic context, employers and state attitudes, so unions' fortunes wax and wane.

18. Finally, the Chair asked, 'what would the Labour Party look like without the trade unions?' Would it represent a wider group in the UK? How would it do this in a systematic way? There doesn't seem to be a viable alternative view of society from either the trade unions or the Labour Party. The 'Third Way' was a trivial concept which was described as falling somewhere between 'the Second Coming' and the 'Fourth dimension'! He thought that the party needs a clearer identity and needs to feel more comfortable with its ideology.

On that note, a very wide-ranging and at times thought-provoking discussion concluded.

James Moher and Alastair Reid


Sign up to receive announcements on events, the latest research and more!

To complete the subscription process, please click the link in the email we just sent you.

We will never send spam and you can unsubscribe any time.

Related Policy Papers

About Us

H&P is based at the Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, University of London.

We are the only project in the UK providing access to an international network of more than 500 historians with a broad range of expertise. H&P offers a range of resources for historians, policy makers and journalists.

Read More