Tiny step by tiny step, the unions reassert themselves as ballast against the hard left

by Rob Marchant

If last year’s party conference was an unabashed love-in for Corbynites and the party’s leader, this was the conference where – as always happens eventually in all environments where the far left runs the show – the cracks started to appear.

Ok, it may not be enough to stop the party from self-immolation. But, after the shock to Labour’s system of the tsunami of new members and a leadership dragging it off to the far left, the tectonic plates appear to be slowly, infuriatingly slowly, moving back towards their traditional positions.

There are reasons why the power structure within the Labour Party has grown up as it has. The party came out of the unions and the unions have always had a seat at the top table – some times more powerful than others, but always there.

Now, in general, unions and the union movement have so far been widely supportive of Corbyn. Why? Because the decline in union membership (and thus the accountability of union leaders to their members) has allowed the bigger unions to drift sleepily to the left, into a misty-eyed, 1970s nostalgia where globalisation never happened. Corbyn plays to the worst and most self-indulgent instincts of the left-leaning unions: he tells them they were right all along.

But the smarter ones among the leaders, left and right, are starting to wake up and see that not all is roses. They are realising that, first of all, a strictly member-led party may not pay attention to their views on, say, the leadership of the party. And the more power goes to the members, the less there is for them. Hence why they voted to dilute the rule changes for a more “member-run” party and actually increased their own say in leadership elections.

Second, that said members, although they are mostly pro-EU and have voted at conference for a second referendum, that is a mere conference motion. And that new, vastly-expanded membership may not be sufficiently assertive to secure an actual change to Corbyn’s position on that topic and hence protect the economy, jobs and workers’ rights (by the way, if anyone in the Leader’s Office can point to a paper which explains why a “jobs-first Brexit” is anything more than a breathtakingly meaningless slogan, it would be great to see it. Thanks).

Hence deep concern in the unions over Europe. Union members, by the way, back a second referendum by two to one. Of course, it is hardly unheard of for the big union leaders to go against their members (let’s face it, most are elected on a pitiful turnout) but eventually strong feelings bring some pressure to bear on their views, too.

Third, that, in slavishly following the Corbynite “anti-Semitism, what anti-Semitism?” position, those members may actually encourage the racism that the British labour movement has spent its whole history fighting against. It was no coincidence that the abstruse, yet symbolically vital, issue of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism finally caused unions to break cover against St Jez, in the form of Unison’s Dave Prentis and GMB’s Tim Roache (who memorably told him to “get his head out of his backside”).

All these things tend to put distance between union leaders, looking out for their union’s interests, and the party (we should probably exclude from this Unite’s Len McCluskey, who is generally looking out for Len McCluskey). But the bottom line is that unions have a long, long history in the party, and thousands of activists who will still be around when hundreds of thousands of dilettante Jezuits (most of whom are not, for the record, hard left) have long gone from the membership. They provide a continuity and, very often, a ballast against extremist views. As historian Professor Andrew Thorpe put it, “the unions have, on the whole, kept ‘the Left’ of the party at bay”.

And so it was, on September 30th 1935 – 83 years ago to the day – that a barnstorming speech by the T&G’s Ernie Bevin saved the party from the dangerous hands of its naïve, pacifist leader, George Lansbury, at a time when fascism was on the march in Europe. In the late 50s, after initially imposing unilateralism, they helped save the party from the unilateralists. And in the end, although they foolishly helped advance them in the beginning, they closed ranks to kick out Militant in the 80s.

Indeed, there is something of a pattern of unions, often naively, supporting a caucus or policy position and, in the end, rounding on that same caucus to defeat it, for the greater good of the party.

Let’s hope the unions have not fundamentally changed so much over the decades. The signs are that they haven’t and, if there were ever a time when their political ballast were needed to swing the party back to common sense, it’s now. It really is.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour party manager who blogs at The Centre Left


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18 Responses to “Tiny step by tiny step, the unions reassert themselves as ballast against the hard left”

  1. paul barker says:

    This was the Conference where a Labour MP called for a General Strike to overthrow The Government & was cheered to the rafters. If that marked a shift towards moderation then I would love to know what an extremist Party would look like.
    In fact Labour Centrists were largely absent & most of The Left didnt even bother attacking them. You just dont matter any more & you will continue not to matter until you leave the cosy Labour club & get out into the real world.

  2. Alf says:

    I’m a union member and I’m looking forward to deselecting my local Tory-lite Labour MP. The rest of my branch are also firmly behind Corbyn.

  3. Richard MacKinnon says:

    I am not sure what this article is about. Is Rob Marchant trying to convince us that it will be trade unions and the trade union leaders that will come to the rescue and ensure The Labour Party will once again regain its credibility?
    Rob Marchant needs to get out more often and speak to other people. If he did he would realise the vast majority of people working for a living these days are not trade union memebers and never have been. Trade unions only exist in the public sector. Most voters dont understand what they are about.
    Trade unions (two actually) may still be relevent within the LP due to the influence generated by their massive wealth but outside that they are seen as a 20th century historical oddity. And that is a big problem ( bigger in my view, than all the rest) for the Labour movement. A problem that will ensure Labour is never voted into power. A problem that Labour members, officials and politicians either do not understand or blindly choose to ignore.
    It is a fact of life, that a problem for one side is therefore a gift to their enemy. It appears that regardless of the ineptitude of the Conservative Party this gift will keep on giving.
    Funny when you think about it. Every time Len McCluskey shows face the bubbly pops at CPHQ.

  4. David Jonson says:

    That entire article is tendentious to the most preposterous degree but I want especially to point out that “…the tsunami of new members…” most clearly shows that the author is off his trolley.

  5. Anne says:

    Many strands of truth in this article. I like Francis O’Grady (TUC) – talks a lot of sense, and I believe she resonates well with females.

  6. peter carabine says:

    The real world my friend is 1) consistent polling showing more or less Labour trailing the Conservatives despite their chaos and 2) Corbyn well below Theresa May on preferred PM ratings and 3) three years of lost elections be they 2016 Local, 2017 GE or 2018 local again.

  7. Iain says:

    Paul Barker This did not happen at the conference as you are trying to suggest. It was at a Momentum TWT event. I was there and fully understood the context It was said in at the time.
    The small band of anti-corbyn personality cultists within the Labour Party would have a lot more credibility if they were more constructive and stopped maliciously promoting every smear, no matter how tenuous against the Leadership that comes along.

  8. Still here Rob? I’m sure you said you were leaving way back on the second Corbyn leadership election victory. I guess the new party isn’t ready yet. Just a thought on the right wing’s new fondness for the unions, shame that 13 years of New Labour government didn’t repeal Thatcher’s anti-union laws. Surely it couldn’t be that Blair and Brown were Maggie’s heirs? No surely not?

  9. Anne says:

    I do agree that Len McCluskey seems to do more harm than good – unite members would be better served if he concentrated on their interests rather than interfering in Labour – yes, I know Unite is a large donor to Labour funds. Look, I don’t think it is helpful to put unions against the far left or for that matter the left of the party against the right of the party – we should be coming together. Labour is generating good ideas, which are resonating with the general public. Also our position on Brexit is pragmatic. We most certainly should be preparing for a general election – bring it on.

  10. steve says:

    Rob gets it wrong.

    It was Corbyn who crucially supported the option eventually backed by Unite – the position that dilutes “rule changes for a more “member-run” party “.

    This allowed Unite, against union policy, to vote against the “member-run” option on the bogus grounds of backing Corbyn.

    Surely, Rob, you should therefore be thanking Corbyn for prioritising the “greater good of the party” over the interests of Hard Left?

  11. john PReid says:

    alf lots of labour mps were deselected in 1983, and stood for the SDP,then the tories won those seats

    what peter Carabine said

  12. John says:

    danny speight, democratising unions getting rid of the fascistic closed shop, yet still allowing people to strike, didn’t make those union laws anti union ones

  13. Anon, the presumed racist says:

    Can nobody in the Labour set-up understand – we are seeing a majority in the Labour Party – along with trade union leaders – lining up alongside the bankers and corporates of the EU; where the hell are the exploited and overwhelmed going to go to find support?

    I remember a time when, at a Labour or TUC conference, putting the letters C, B, and I together in a sentence would have seen a person thrown out on the street.

    Since when have Labour become the representatives of corporate spivs and chancers at the expense of the UK’s working class?

    It’s not the people shunning Labour and the unions – it’s the other way around.

  14. Peter Carabine says:

    Picking up Richard’s point and he is absolutely correct. Corbyn Labour cannot recognise we are in a Post Modern age, not the 1980s. The seats lost since Tony stepped down are typically in the South East/East Midlands typically the M1 corridor and M25 outer area such as Milton Keynes, Corby, Watford, Hemel, St Albans, Welwyn/Hadfield, Harlow …in fact all Essex and mostly Kent and of course, Swindon seats too. Yes, some industry but mostly not, or Services etc., no tribal class loyalties here. Politics is headlines, impressions, personalities. If I had a pound for every time I have heard someone down here say I would vote Labour but not Corbyn I would be a rich man!

  15. Tafia says:

    October 8th is a very very important date with regards us leaving the EU.

    I wonder how many Remainers actually know the prfound significance.

  16. Landless Peasant says:

    Here’s a novel idea, how about fighting the Tories instead of these articles constantly attacking Socialists? Perhaps the Unions could all get together and organize a National General Strike, that would be a start.

  17. Landless Peasant says:

    Still banging your Rightwing drum Mr. Marchant. Or should I say playing your fiddle while Rome burns. No one gives a flying fuck about the Unions or your paranoia about the “Hard Left” (aka Socialists). The burning issue is Universal Credit and a million people relying on foodbanks. Will Labour scrap UC or will they not? No fence sitting, no hand wringing, either scrap it, completely, or fuck off.

  18. John P Reid says:

    Landless peasant, am I correct in thinking you didn’t vote for Blair ,Kinnock,brown or Ed miliband, so how did you fight the Tories in that era
    By the way I voted for all of them in those 7 elections

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