The future of the left since 1884

Make or break

The relationship between Labour and the unions has been crucial since the party was first founded. But is this historic alliance now under threat as never before? Christopher Massey takes a look.


Long read

The labour party and the trade union movement are intrinsically linked. In 1899, a Trades Union Congress resolution began a chain of events that led to the establishment of the Labour Representation Committee in 1900 and the Labour party in 1906. Undoubtedly, the Labour party was a child of the unions, but, in recent years, has the child outgrown its parents?

The unions have provided stability, finance, and an activist base since Labour’s foundation. Thus, for much of the party’s first century, there was broad acceptance of trade union domination within Labour’s structures. The unions controlled 90 per cent of the party conference vote until 1993; a de facto majority at the National Executive Committee (NEC) until 1997; and at least one-third of the ‘electoral college’ vote, which selected party leaders between 1981 to 2014. However, the New Labour years saw the relationship with the unions markedly change, with the party’s former masters playing an increasingly minor role.

The link between Labour and its trade union affiliates has often provoked controversy. Labour historian Lewis Minkin described this as a ‘contentious alliance.’ Yet, the unions have largely served in the vanguard of the party for much of its history, providing a supportive base for the leadership. However, the election of Keir Starmer in April 2020 has seen a return of hostile relations not witnessed since the 1970s. During his first year at the helm, over half of Labour’s affiliated trade unions have publicly attacked either his policies or leadership. Consequently, as the party shifts direction under Starmer, what is the future of the historic union-party link?

Lessons from previous Labour governments Throughout Labour’s history the party has been at its strongest when the trade unions have played a supportive, backstage role away from public vision. During the first majority Labour governments of 1945 to 1951, the party’s relationship with the unions was based on the principle that the parliamentary party controlled policy whilst the unions served as a ‘praetorian guard’, protecting the leadership from outside threats. In the lifetime of these governments, a ‘triumvirate’ of Arthur Deakin from the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU), Will Lawther of the National Union of Mineworkers, and Tom Williamson of the National Union of General and Municipal Workers afforded Clement Attlee incredible stability. Their stewardship saw the Labour party conference vote against the leadership’s position on only one occasion between 1949 and 1960.

The party-union relationship began to change after the election of Frank Cousins as the leader of the TGWU in 1956. This was the start of a swing to the left within the union movement. Cousins challenged the party’s parliamentary leadership on policy issues, particularly over defence, thus abandoning the unions’ usual supportive, backstage role. The shift to the left in Britain’s biggest union was consolidated on Cousin’s retirement in 1969 with the election of Jack Jones. Along with Hugh Scanlon, of the Amalgamated Engineering Union, Jones led left-wing opposition to the 1966–70 Labour government’s prices and incomes policy.

Tensions remained in the 1970s when Jones’ successor at the TGWU, Moss Evans, alongside David Basnett of the General and Municipal Workers’ Union, and Alan Fisher of the National Union of Public Employees (NUPE) led the unions into a major conflict over pay policy. The strike action taken during the Winter of Discontent, including the closure of hospitals and schools, was part of the most determined act ever taken by trade unions against a Labour government. These events contributed to Labour’s loss in 1979, its constitutional changes between 1979 and 1981, and the election of Michael Foot as party leader in 1980.

A fightback of the party leadership and the ‘traditional right’ trade unions in the early 1980s began to return the unions to their supportive role. Through secret meetings and campaigns, by 1981 the St. Ermins Group of right unions recaptured control of Labour’s NEC from the left for the first time since 1973. This fightback continued with the election of Neil Kinnock in 1983. The new leader established a stable internal majority from 1986 through the additional support of ‘soft’ left unions, the TGWU and NUPE.

The election of Tony Blair as party leader in 1994 began a  new chapter in Labour’s relationship with the unions. Blair inherited a positive relationship with a supportive union movement; however the new leader was determined to avoid a repeat of the breakdown in relations which had catalysed the demise of the last Labour government in 1979. Blair wanted to create a ‘new’ Labour party and avoid what he considered to be the painstaking and time-consuming tribal rituals on which the party had built its relationship with the unions. Independently of this process, the unions also shifted into a less confrontational role. This was articulated by the TUC general secretary John Monks from 1993 as part of his ‘new unionism’.

The New Labour era fundamentally altered the balance of the party-union relationship. Building on John Smith’s one member, one vote (OMOV) reforms, Blair cut the bloc vote of the unions at party conference from 70 per cent (since 1993) to 50 per cent in 1995. In 1997, under the Partnership in Power reforms the unions also shifted into the minority at the NEC, controlling only 40.6 per cent of the seats, compared with 62 per cent before the changes.

Blair was determined to create public distance between the unions and the party, announcing to the TUC in 1999: “You run the unions. We run the government.” Despite monumental pledges to introduce a new trade union act and the minimum wage, he consistently refused to reverse the Conservative trade union laws. Throughout the lifetime of the New Labour period, Blair found himself in battles with the trade unions over the Employment Relations Act, pensions, the Private Finance Initiative, and foundation hospitals.

In 2004, two smaller unions left the Labour fold; the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), which disaffiliated, and the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), which was expelled. However, none of these events boiled over into widespread industrial unrest (or significant internal conflicts) as they had in 1979, suggesting that Blair’s reforms and the desire for a Labour government after 18 years in opposition held the party together.

Despite speculation about an impending ‘divorce’, the union-party link survived the New Labour years and played an increasingly prominent role from 2010. Ed Miliband became Labour leader through the votes of the trade unions in the electoral college. This led to accusations of Miliband being in the pockets of the unions and the ‘Red Ed’ label. Yet, by 2014, Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire have written that Miliband began to see the unions as a ‘drag anchor’. In this year, following highly publicised controversies with selections in Falkirk, the Collins Review scrapped Labour’s electoral college for leadership elections and with it the unions’ 33 per cent share of the vote. From this point Labour operated true one member, one vote.

Jeremy Corbyn’s election to the leadership rejuvenated the link and provided left-wing unions with the type of leader they had long dreamed of. In the 2015 leadership contest, Corbyn gained support from six of the 11 trade unions to nominate a candidate, including the two largest affiliates, Unite and UNISON. Significant numbers of affiliated members, the vast majority of whom are trade unionists, voted for Corbyn to be leader in 2015 (57.6 per cent) and 2016 (at 60 per cent). Yet, affiliate members comprised only 16.9 per cent and 24 per cent of the total vote at these elections, highlighting the decline in union influence since the Collins Review.

Throughout the Corbyn years, an alliance of unions and party members, in defiance of occasional parliamentary opposition, safeguarded his leadership. Len McCluskey, the leader of Unite, became Corbyn’s loudest backer. In addition, the leader’s office featured several former union employees: Andrew Murray and Anneliese Midgley from Unite, Andrew Fisher from the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), and Kevin Slocombe from the Communication Worker’s Union (CWU) – whilst Labour’s general secretary from 2018, Jennie Formby, was also a  former Unite official.

Corbyn also forged closer ties with left-wing unions outside of the party, including Matt Wrack of the FBU – which reaffiliated to the party in 2015 – as well as the RMT and PCS, which endorsed Corbyn in 2018 but stopped short of affiliating.

The Labour leader could also count on Manuel Cortes of the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA), Mark Serwotka of the unaffiliated PCS, and Dave Ward of the CWU within his inner circle. In addition, Mick Whelan, of the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (ASLEF), and Ronnie Draper of the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU) provided unwavering support.

Thus, despite changes to the relationship between Labour and its affiliated trade unions, the party-union link was still able to provide stability. However, new challenges have emerged for Starmer since his election in 2020.

The challenge ahead: Where next for Starmer?

Labour’s new leader appears passionate about the union link, pledging to “work shoulder to shoulder with the trade unions” during his election campaign, but the unions are increasingly divided along the same lines as Labour members between ‘left’ and ‘moderate’. Whilst Starmer has been able to count on the loyal support of three of the four largest trade union affiliates, UNISON, GMB and the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (USDAW), the opposition of Unite and several smaller unions on the left are increasingly prickly thorns in his side.

In August 2020, McCluskey claimed that Labour’s decision to pay damages to former staff members, who had spoken out on a BBC Panorama documentary about anti-semitism, was ‘an abuse of members’ money.’ Unite made further headlines in October 2020 when it announced a 10 per cent cut to the affiliation fee it pays to the Labour party. In the following month, the FBU and CWU were reported to be considering similarly sized cuts to their contributions. Unite also campaigned against Starmer’s initial support for the Conservative’s ‘spycops’ bill.

Labour’s decision to suspend Jeremy Corbyn in October last year, after his comments on the Equality and Human Rights Commission Report, posed the biggest threat to the party-union link for a generation. Seven of Labour’s 12 affiliated unions openly criticised the party’s decision to suspend their former leader. Crucially, for Starmer, UNISON, GMB, and USDAW did not. Corbyn returned to party membership in November but continued to have the parliamentary whip withheld by Starmer. The leader’s decision was lambasted by the general secretaries of the CWU, Unite and TSSA. The BFAWU went a step further, signaling plans to consult their members on the union’s continued affiliation to the Labour party, whilst the CWU accused Starmer of leading the party into ‘civil war’.

Across the first year of his tenure, Starmer has been able to build a fragile majority within Labour’s internal structures despite the opposition of several unions. The support of UNISON, the GMB and USDAW has been vital, alongside his removal of Corbyn allies on the NEC and the fightback of Labour ‘moderates’ within local parties, to securing control of the internal party structures. Attempts were made in February 2021 to unite the party and the unions around a new campaign, linked to Covid-19, featuring all 12 of Labour’s affiliated unions named the ‘Recovery and Rebuild: Power in the Workplace’ taskforce. Indeed, due to the health, societal and workplace impacts of Covid-19, the link between Labour and the unions has never felt more necessary. However, contests to replace the top officials of Britain’s largest three unions could make or break Starmer’s tenure. The election of Christine McAnea as UNISON’s new leader removed one threat, but forthcoming elections within Unite and the GMB could tip the balance of power within Labour’s internal structures.

The unions continue to play a crucial role within the Labour party but their relationship with Starmer has become increasingly strained. The union-party alliance remains key to both internal and external party unity.

Internally, at present, the unions control 50 per cent of Labour’s conference vote, 33 per cent of the NEC seats and around 14.7 per cent of the National Policy Forum’s membership. In addition, the unions continue to be a major funder of the party, contributing 30 per cent of Labour’s income in 2016, though down from 75 per cent in 1992. The support of three out of the four largest union affiliates, alongside other allies, has enabled Starmer to capture an internal majority in the face of left-wing opposition. However, externally, the relationship between the party and half of Labour’s affiliated unions has broken down. Such public spats threaten both the future of the historic alliance and Labour’s chances of victory at the next election.

Following Labour’s 2019 defeat, the party is some distance from power. The millions of additional voters that Labour requires for victory at the next election cannot come solely from its union base. A new, broader, coalition is required. Starmer’s initial months appear to be laying such foundations, despite vocal opposition from some left unions. The voters which Labour needs to capture will likely be those who observe workplace relations from the sidelines, outside of union membership.

The unions still have a vital part to play within the party but must return to their backstage role for Labour to be successful. In 2017, an Ipsos MORI survey recorded that 49 per cent of the public believed Labour was too close to the unions. Consequently, the unions must take action to reinvigorate the party internally, ensuring that Labour looks outwards to engage the interest of new voters. In this way unions can return to their historic, supportive role and provide a reliable ally to a party that will need all the friends it can find in the years ahead.

Image credit: LSE Library/Wikimedia Commons

Christopher Massey

Christopher Massey is a senior lecturer in history and politics at Teesside University and the author of The Modernisation of the Labour Party, 1979–1997. He is also a Labour councillor


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