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TRADES UNIONS AND THE LABOUR PARTY – AN INEVITABLE ALLIANCE?

Henry Falconer writes

During the course of the last century, the Trades Unions and the Labour Party have seemed to be linked together inseparably by a kind of political umbilical cord – or, in the lyrics of a popular song of the 1950s, “You can’t have one without the other”. The aim of this article is to challenge the assumptions behind this belief. I will contend that the Unions were infiltrated by Socialists and Labour politicians and diverted away from their roots to the detriment of the best interests of their members.

The early Unions (with the exception of Robert Owen`s short-lived Grand National Consolidated Trade Union, which sought to combine all workers in the same organisation) were associations of skilled craftsmen. They are best understood when considered as an aspect of the Victorian belief in “self-help”, as expressed most eloquently by Samuel Smiles in his book of that name published in 1859. Robert Applegarth, Secretary of the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners (1869) described the aims of his Union as being “to teach workmen the practical lesson of self-reliance, to provide during the term of prosperity for the hour of need… to establish libraries and listen to lectures”. Workers were already familiar with the practice of combining together for mutual benefit, realising that “self-help” could most readily be realised through voluntary agreement to act together in co-operation. The Co-operative Movement, most associated with the principles of the Rochdale Pioneers (1844), is a classic example of this; a group of working men in Rochdale came together to found a shop to sell basic necessities to their members and share the profits equally with them (most people born before 1960 will remember the “divvy” payable to Co-op members at the end of each month as a percentage of how much they had spent – the supermarket loyalty card is not a new idea!). Mutual Building Societies (members clubbing together to help each other to buy houses) were already common by the 1840s. Friendly Societies helped their members to cope in the event of accident or illness – indeed this was a prime function of most of the early Trades Unions as well. Applegarth`s emphasis on self-improvement is also worthy of emphasis, serving as a reminder that Trades Unions had a MORAL dimension whose highest duty was “to teach man`s duty to man” (Applegarth). Robert Owen too thought of Unions in these terms – he himself was a pioneer of the Co-operative movement and founded model communities along these lines in New Lanark (Scotland) and New Harmony (U.S.A.).

Trades Unions shared in the general pre-occupation with the improvement of workers` living standards, with an emphasis on security of employment, public health and universal free elementary education. Measures along these lines were passed by Liberal and Conservative governments alike, as even a cursory glance at late-Victorian social legislation will demonstrate. A separate Labour Party was largely an irrelevance; there was a growth in state intervention in any case. Old Age Pensions (1908) and National Insurance (1911) were introduced by a Liberal government, based on the 1889 German model of the arch-conservative Chancellor Bismarck, who saw a welfare state as a means of reconciling workers to the existing social and political system and thus an antidote to Socialism. A healthy and educated workforce was regarded as necessary for “national efficiency” (a National Efficiency League was formed under the leadership of the Conservative Field Marshal Lord Roberts, a hero of the Boer War 1899-1902). This trend continued after the First World War. A Conservative government finally abolished the workhouse system of poor relief in 1929. The post-1945 welfare state was based on the Beveridge Report (1942); Beveridge was a Liberal M.P. None of these measures so beneficial to the working classes depended on the existence of a separate Labour Party. So why did most Trades Unions become so inextricably linked to Labour?

Such a process was not inevitable. In continental Europe, the churches developed powerful Trades Unions (particularly the Roman Catholic Church). In Lancashire, textile workers` unions were drawn towards the Conservative Party because most of the mill-owners were Liberals (even in the Labour landslide of 1945, the cotton town of Bury returned a Conservative M.P.). The Labour Party (founded in 1900 as the Labour Representation Committee) was regarded by many of its founders as little more than a pressure group. Trades Unions were attracted to it in part by the prospect a separate Labour representation in Parliament – an even more attractive prospect after payment of M.P.s was introduced in 1911. Trade Union officials developed a bureaucracy and career pattern of their own, offering them a higher status and standard of living than almost anything available to them elsewhere. Thus they had a vested interest in perpetuating a sense of working-class grievance which only they, allegedly, were in a position to remedy. Ideologically motivated Socialists jumped on the bandwagon, regarding Union members as little more than cannon fodder. Spawning a vast public service bureaucracy attractive to intellectuals and aspiring middle classes, such vested interests are still evident in the Labour and Trade Union movement to-day. Which Labour minister or Trade Union leader ever left office poorer than he or she entered it? The moral dimension and thirst for knowledge and self-improvement have been lost somewhere along the way.

Large numbers of the working classes and Trades Unionists have consistently rejected the Labour Party. There has been a working-class majority in the electorate at least since 1918, yet only twice in the period down to 1997 have Labour governments with working Parliamentary majorities been elected (in 1945 and 1966) – and the Labour Party has never won more than 46% of the national vote. By the 1960s, the Trades Unions, far from being well-regarded champions of the underdog, were widely perceived as bullies (the 1963 film “I’m All Right Jack”, starring Peter Sellers as recognisable caricature of a shop steward, is an interesting straw in the wind here). When the minority Labour government legalised the “closed shop” in 1977, anyone expelled from a Union would automatically lose his or her job. This, together with the “winter of discontent” in 1978-79, helped to usher in the Thatcher Revolution after 1979.

Perhaps the time has come for a Union divorced from a political party to dedicate itself solely to the pursuit of the interests of its members.

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