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They echo the New Labour spin. “If [RMT general secretary] Bob Crow wants to sit at the table with a bunch of Trots, that’s up to them,” said Labour chairman Ian McCartney.
But the fact is that the union-Labour Party link is the most important relationship on the left of British politics. It is one of the main reasons why there has never been any effective pluralism in the political representation of the labour movement.
This makes holding Labour prime ministers to account depend on the democracy or otherwise of the party. And Westminster’s relatively strong institutions of scrutiny that Adam Tomkins invokes (-House of correction) have been rendered void by a neutering of democracy in the Labour Party.
In reality, the union-Labour link has always been more a force for bolstering the party leadership than of democratic pressure. Parliamentary leaders have always been able to exploit the fact that the unions have nowhere else to turn, and union leaders have commonly used the unions’ dependence on Labour to isolate dissent.
Imagine a scenario in which the union-party link was made democratic: able to fully express the variety of ways in which the unions might further their goals politically. If political funds could be spent on campaigning irrespective of the fact that they might lead to electoral challenges to Labour, the momentum for a left political alternative would grow beyond “the bunch of Trots” in the caricature. A movement for electoral reform would gather unstoppable momentum. England and Wales would then have, as in Scotland, a left challenge to Labour working alongside the Greens. Never again could Labour whip rebels into line and spin any challenge as “letting in the Tories”. The Parliamentary institutions that Tomkins details would really be tested and, as Stuart Weir advocates (-Let the people decide), probably radically strengthened.
Any shift in this direction would involve fierce conflict with New Labour. On the one hand, New Labour’s authoritarian, managerial view of politics drives it to cling fervently to the party’s historic dominance over centre-left political representation; indeed, it seeks to extend this monopoly rightwards.
On the other hand, Labour has contempt for the institutions on which this monopoly has traditionally rested. Tony Blair has long wanted to end the union-party link. This goal was always a central plank of “the project”. Hence, Blair and his henchmen will do little to discourage moves to disaffiliate. Communications Workers Union general secretary Billy Hayes and Fire Brigade Union leader Andy Gilchrist cannot expect support in their efforts to hold the line on affiliation.
The unions’ frustration with their essentially masochistic relationship with Labour is at boiling point, especially in public-sector unions. In Scotland, the Scottish Socialist Party offers an obvious escape route. South of the border some unions are tentatively experimenting, through working with campaigning social movements like those against the war and occupation of Iraq, racism and fascism. In some localities there are growing relationships between unions and community groups over issues like privatisation and also low pay.
Followed to their logical conclusion, these moves towards a more independent and plural political stance imply much deeper changes than a simple reallocation of funds. As Labour became the party of government, the unions” special link became a route for union leaders to become subordinate members of the British establishment – whether as members of the House of Lords, national quangos or the predominantly male elites that hold sway in many cities and localities.
In other words, the union-party link has often pulled union officials into a routine away from the needs of their members. As for the growing awareness among the new generation of union leaders that the renewal of the left requires a new relationship with radical campaigning and cultural movements, there is much to learn from the international social forums (see From Mumbai with hope). The RMT was a founder of the Labour Party, if it opens itself to the radical social movements, it could help found a new, open, plural left politics in Britain, willing to challenge rather than defer to the power of the establishment.