Refounding the politics of labour

Ed Miliband's speech had little to say on the unions. Hilary Wainwright urges the Labour leader to embrace a newly political trade unionism

September 29, 2011 · 11 min read

Like so much from Ed Miliband, his proposal for ‘Refounding Labour’ promised welcome and radical change, only to be strangled by the continuing triangulating legacy of New Labour. He proposed turning the party’s aims from simply gaining and remaining in office to also building collective power from below. But then, instead of exploring how such a new kind of party could support collective action in both the workplace and beyond – for it surely must be both to make any sense? – woolly talk of ‘community’ takes over. Positive proposals on the workplace and the trade unions appear only as a hesitant afterthought.

The truth is that Miliband’s radical imagination is undermined by a profound defensiveness about the unions. It is this I want to challenge – not by romanticising the unions as they are, but by arguing that they could be a vital ally in developing an alternative economic vision that can be prefigured in everyday campaigns and bargaining strategies that capture the popular imagination.

The gold Labour can get gratis

In the public sector especially, and potentially in the private sector too, the trade unions organise millions of knowledgeable, skilled and caring people who collectively carry much of the know-how to move our economy in a socially just and ecologically sustainable direction.

Companies pay consultants thousands of pounds to find out how ‘to tap the gold in the mind of the worker’, as one Japanese management consultant has put it. The Labour Party has this gold gratis – if only it would find the self-confidence to realise it.

Here is where a genuine, and collaborative, process of refounding has to take place. The constraints on building on the imaginative fusion of organising in the workplace and organising in the community that is already taking place lie in the founding assumptions of the party’s relations with the unions, as well as in the pressures of the present.

Refounding labour politics means digging up the old foundations, rather than yet further elaborating on structures that are by now pretty rotten, whatever good sense they made at the beginning of the 20th century.

Clause I: re-unite the industrial and political

The foundation stone in most need of replacement is what became an almost sacrosanct division between the industrial, the sphere of the unions, and the political, the sphere of the party.

The rules governing this relationship have had a significant flexibility – otherwise this ‘contentious alliance’ (to use the title of the must-read analysis by Lewis Minkin) would not have survived.

But by the 1950s the division of labour had produced a profoundly institutionalised abdication of politics by the trade unions to the Labour Party. ‘We became reactive; we lost a sense of the wider world beyond the workplace,’ remembers Kevin Curran, a trade unionist with extensive experience of creating community trade unionism, as well as having been general secretary of the GMB. ‘As long as wages and conditions were improving and membership growing, we were happy to leave the wider social and political issues to the Labour Party.’

With the collapse of the boom in the early 1970s, this complacent division of labour became unsustainable. The following two decades saw the emergence, in many forms, of a more politicised trade unionism. This included real innovations from which lessons could well be adapted for today’s challenges.

Red Pepper has previously pointed to the relevance of the principles driving the Lucas Aerospace alternative corporate plan for strategies for green production as an alternative to factory closure. One of the principles behind this workers’ plan has a wider relevance. Its creativity and credibility, with its detailed proposals and prototypes, lay in the recognition by the trade unionists who led it of workers as knowledgeable, creative citizens wanting to contribute their skills to the good of the wider community.

This view amounts to seeing labour itself as highly political, as always containing the potential to be more than waged labour – more than the workers selling, or alienating, their capacity to work for a wage while the employer controls the profit. In more theoretical terms, one could say that these workers’ alternative plans held out and demanded recognition of the worker as a producer of what Marx termed ‘use value’, as well as in a capitalist economy the production of ‘exchange value’.

But this view of labour, with all its political potential, was not the one built into the foundations of the trade unions’ relationship with Labour. Trade union struggles were seen as concerned with wages and conditions, not the nature and purpose of the work itself. Their role in the party was as a source of funds, of electoral support, some power over the election of the leader and very occasional influence on policy.

Only exceptionally have trade unionists been valued as a unique source of inside knowledge and vision about how production could be better and more socially usefully organised.

The answer under Labour’s nose

Labour has beneath its nose potential alternative agents for economic and social reform far superior to the forces of the market now revealed to be so corrupt and short-sighted.

Imagine if now, instead of Ed Miliband trying to distance the Labour Party from the unions with a wrangle over voting power, he was drawing together the know-how and popular credibility of the workers who sustain the NHS with the insights of users and academics, to present an alternative direction of reform to the destructive path of marketisation.

This could be emblematic of a wider approach to rebuilding public services. This kind of initiative would be laying the basis for a real refounding of the labour movement. It would be recognising the political significance of decades of a transformation in levels of education, self-confidence and sense of entitlement, plus now the possibility, through new technology, of sharing knowledge and collaborating on its production. It would be recognising that trade unions, operating as worker-citizens with communities, have the capacity to help organise that knowledge.

This is not wishful thinking. Already in the public sector, the threat of privatisation has led staff to become alert to the importance of their commitment and skills for the quality of the services they provide.

Beneath the surface of national trade union structures, there is a new angry and political spirit in the workplace, across local government in particular, but also in health, education and the civil service, often where women are in the majority.

Bristol home care

One example among hundreds, vividly documented by Lydia Hayes, previously a Unite official and now an academic researcher, is of the home care workers in Bristol. Their fury at a nonchalant announcement by the Lib Dem council in 2007 of privatisation as if it were somehow inevitable arose from awareness that their work, in the words of one of the workers that Hayes interviewed, requires getting older people to ‘open up to you’ and having ‘a bond with a service user’ – things that could never form part of a service delivery contract. Things that would be wiped out once the service became a commodity.

The Bristol workers reached out to the community, using everything from petitions to family networks to build up popular pressure. In a matter of days an angry crowd became an organisation, ‘campaigning methodically’, as Hayes put it, to Keep Bristol Home Care.

With thousands signing the petition, and a room booked for 40 overwhelmed by more than 200 care assistants, the campaign spilled over the confines of traditional trade unionism. It became a political movement for public services, led by women who valued their work and their relationship with the old people they cared for. A struggle over ‘use value’, if you like.

They won. In the process they made home care the big issue of the 2007 council elections. Having supported the women, Labour gained seats and briefly led a minority administrattion.

A case, then, of a new kind of relationship between unions and the Labour Party. The women, through the union, developed an autonomous politics and a public power built through all kinds of representation: the media, community campaigning, a physical presence on the streets. On this basis they expected and won the support of Labour as their elected representatives.

Newcastle Council

Newcastle is another case in point. There, the workers’ and the community’s commitment to council services has been the basis for successful struggles to keep those services public and improve them in the process.

One of the trade unionists driving this process was Kenny Bell, who died this summer of cancer. His work as a highly effective and practical trade union leader with a radical strategic vision exemplifies how it is possible to bring together community and workplace organising.

In doing so he created with others – and he would be the first to stress the ‘with others’ – a newly political trade unionism, which Labour politicians came to respect and to support, not as the ‘industrial wing’ of the party but as a form of politics beyond their reach and yet essential to improve the lives and build the power of working people.

The 1,000 and more people who crowded into Newcastle’s civic centre to remember him gave testament to the way his work touched, and often changed, many lives. There are few politicians who would get such a send off.

He and the regional convenor Clare Williams turned the northern region of Unison into a means of involving shop stewards and branch secretaries from across the region in developing the Newcastle experiment into a region-wide strategy.

This became the basis of a bargaining strategy with the political parties running the local councils. Several backed it – indeed it could be argued that Newcastle Labour group’s support for Unison’s alternative strategy helped it to win back control over the council from the Lib Dems.

The point, though, is that Labour was supporting not a narrowly industrial agenda of the unions but an alternative rooted in the politics of public services. This was based on a level and kind of knowledge that was beyond the reach of the Labour Party on its own but whose implications it was willing to represent. Here again, representative politics is one kind of politics. It does not have the monopoly of labour movement politics.

Fighting the BNP

A further implication is that representative or electoral politics does not have a monopoly of political leadership. This is born out by the experience of the Northern TUC in leading a highly effective campaign against the BNP from 2003 onwards, through the founding of North East Unites Against the BNP.

This work transformed the regional TUC into a kind of community trade unionism. ‘It was quite a shock for some of the male officers,’ recalls Kevin Rowan, secretary of the NTUC, describing how regional officers were expected to leave their offices not just for workplaces but to door-to-door canvass in the most neglected communities in the north east.

‘Labour was not prepared to talk about the threat of the BNP but when they saw that our open campaigning was working, councillors and MPs came on board,’ says Rowan, recalling the day that the conference of the NTUC decided to break up and go on to the streets to counter and, as it turned out, completely overwhelm a BNP demonstration in Newcastle. Here again, Labour representatives were supporting an autonomous trade union and community politics.

Let go of the monopoly

Almost by definition this wider politics is grounded outside of and autonomous from political parties. That does not mean its relationship to political parties has to be one of separation.

There is no single model of how this wider politics might develop. But one thing is certain: for the Labour party nationally to win the kind of support that a transformed labour movement has won in the North East and those Bristol care workers won for their service, Labour leaders have to let go of their presumed monopoly of labour politics and learn the positive lessons from imaginative and political trade unionism.

Labour needs to recognise the potential of workers and users, democratically organised and politically supported, to be a vital basis of an alternative strategy of public service reform – one driven not by the market, but by democracy. This approach requires a far deeper refounding of the politics of labour than tinkering with the rules of the Labour Party.

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