Tag Archives: labour

Nothing new about Labour-unions relations being controversial

Professor Andrew Thorpe reviews the history of the relationship between Labour and the trade unions.

Ed Miliband’s proposals to reform Labour party funding have been big news this week.

Miliband is reacting to events in Falkirk, where the Unite union is alleged to have tried to fix the selection of the parliamentary candidate for the next general election. In a speech on Tuesday he outlined various proposals to reform the party-union link.

There is nothing new about Labour-union relations being controversial, especially where money is concerned. The Labour party was formed in 1900 as a federation of trade unions and socialist societies, but the crucial movers were the unions, who wanted the party as a defence against attempts to place legal restrictions on trade union activity. Since then, the unions collectively have always played a major role in the Labour party, because they represented a large part of the electorate that Labour saw it as its job to represent. But they were never the sum total, and they were never able simply to ‘dominate’. Indeed, ‘the unions’ are not a monolith and have always had varying interests and concerns.

In the 1990s the main unions tended to take the view that what was needed above all was a Labour government and they therefore confined themselves to very specific issues like statutory right to recognition, the national minimum wage, etc. This began to change once Labour came to power and as it became clearer that it was likely to stay there for some time, and as New Labour began to reform public services after 2001. The Rail, Maritime and Transport union, led by Bob Crow, left the party altogether in 2004.

Some New Labour people would have liked to end the union link but this was resisted ideologically and emotionally. It was also financially unthinkable once other sources of funding began to dry up after 2000.

It is always possible to talk about crises but actually the relationship has been reasonably amicable in recent years. Pictures of union domination are overdrawn. In terms of the selection of candidates, criticism of the behaviour of Unite has to be set against the parachuting in of celebrity candidates in other seats.

And in any case, what Unite and others have tried to do – enlist more union members as active members of the Labour party – is in itself a good thing for anyone who wants to see active political parties, representing a wide range of people, as an essential component of a lively democracy. A fundamental issue is the current historically low level of working-class people in parliament and more broadly the narrowing of the political class. While the Unite scheme may be open to criticism, it was at least trying to address this fundamental problem that our democracy currently faces.

Today Miliband faces a problem that has faced every leader from Ramsay MacDonald onwards – how to behave in relation to the unions. Unions are not always an easy ‘sell’ politically. They are easily portrayed as sectional, supportive of workplace inefficiency, and ‘left wing’. There are also many people in society who are opposed to their fundamental aim of enhancing the life chances of ‘ordinary’ working people. Therefore Labour leaders often run in fear of being ‘soft’ on unions, and this in turn can lead them into being trapped, or trapping themselves, into situations where they end up trying to take the unions on in order the get electoral credibility. This worked for Blair in 1995 when he abolished Labour’s commitment to nationalisation. It worked less well for Callaghan in the winter of 1978-79, or for Wilson ‘In Place of Strife’, his plans to reform union law, in 1969.

The danger for Miliband is that in trying to satisfy the anti-union agenda of his opponents he will lose control of the debate and also lose support within his party. The opportunity, perhaps, is that by being ‘tough’ he can win over new supporters. But those new supporters are unlikely to remain supporters for very long if this is all he has to offer. It is interesting that Lord Whitty has refused the invitation to oversee the changes – seeing them as ‘unworkable’. Whitty is no fool, having been the party’s general secretary at a time of considerable positive reform under Neil Kinnock in the 1980s.

It is also noteworthy that the man who has been portrayed as the victim of the planned reforms – Len McClusky of Unite – has himself refused to fall into a trap. Instead of fulfilling the media stereotype – and the hopes of some of Miliband’s advisors – by coming out against the reforms with all guns blazing, he has welcomed the prospect of real reform. Trade union leaders often are, and always have been, much cannier political operators than the stereotypes allow. It is one reason why more of their members need to be in parliament.

The progressive fallacy: Liberals and Labour in 20th and 21st century British politics

David Marquand wrote a book in the late 1980s called The Progressive Dilemma, in which he argued that there was an essential identity of interest between the British Liberal and Labour parties, and that the great tragedy of 20th century politics was that they’d been somehow artificially divided, particularly by the issues of trade unionism and socialism. He suggested that as unions became less relevant to politics, and as socialism appeared to move into the ‘historic’ category, so it ought to be possible for the two parties to come closer together once again. This he suggested was the ‘progressive dilemma’.

I’m interested in looking at this issue of the historical nature of the division between the Liberal and Labour parties, which is of course particularly relevant today in the context of the Liberal / Conservative coalition government. This has been presented by some people as some kind of great innovation, but in fact reflects a much longer-run strain of Liberalism which didn’t seek to be some kind of surrogate social democracy, but which was in fact much more centrist, even right-wing, in terms of political identity.

So the rather tired old debates about the rise of Labour and decline of the Liberal party around the turn of the 20th century, which seemed to resolve themselves into footnotes about whether Stockport was in fact in Cheshire or in Lancashire, are really not what I’m interested in looking at.

But I am interested in the politics of identity and the politics of possibility, and the ways in which people formed and developed their own different political commitments. This isn’t a criticism of Liberals as such, just a recognition that they need to be understood on their own terms as a broad church, and not as surrogate social democrats.

This leads me into a number of different avenues of research at the moment. One of those is a biography of one of the great early Labour leaders, Arthur Henderson (1863-1935), who was a Liberal until his early 40s, but who ended up as one of the founders and leaders of the party, cabinet minister in World War I, Home Secretary and later Foreign Secretary in the 1920s, and Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1934.

It’s also led me into research on the development of Labour politics and its relationship with Methodism around the early part of the 20th century, and the ways in which Methodist identities could be moulded in either a Liberal or a Labour direction.

I’m also involved, with my colleague Professor Richard Toye in History, in editing the diaries of a Liberal MP, Cecil Harmsworth, who was a relative of Lord Rothermere, the founder of The Daily Mail and The Daily Mirror.
Further down the road there might be further collaborative possibilities. We have a lot of expertise at Exeter in these areas and it might be an area where our growing links with Bristol might also come into play.

Ultimately this might all end up with a much broader and perhaps more popular study of the relationship between Liberal and Labour politics in the 20th and early 21st century Britain: showing that the Progressive Dilemma is in fact a Progressive Fallacy, and that there were and are significant differences and divergences between the Labour and Liberal parties.

Posted by Professor Andrew Thorpe, Associate Dean of Research and Knowledge Transfer (College of Humanities)