A “trade union party”?

Submitted by Matthew on 26 March, 2014 - 10:22

The Annual General Meeting on 29 March of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy will discuss the idea of proposing to the unions that they set up their own semi-party, tied to Labour by an agreement but able to campaign autonomously.

A motion from Jon Lansman calls for “exploratory discussions... to seek to establish (after the general election)... a ‘trade union party’... along the lines of the Co-op Party - that is to say a political party to further the political interests of the trade unions by seeking an agreement with the Labour Party (rather than by opposing it or replacing it)...”

It also suggests that CLPD “campaign for the rights of all affiliated supporters to have full rights of participation in OMOV ballots for the selection of parliamentary candidates... consider whether to promote the right of members of unions which are currently not affiliated to the party, but which have political funds, to become affiliated supporters...”

Talking to Solidarity, Jon Lansman stressed the need to advocate a positive initiative by the trade unions in response to the Collins changes in the Labour Party, which threaten, over time, to stifle the trade union voice within Labour. Repeated defensive measures and damage limitation ploys cannot be enough.

If the trade unions decide to mobilise politically, we asked, why not propose they do that through the channels already provided by the Labour Party (the union vote at Labour conference, the right of union branches to send voting delegates to local Labour Parties) rather than setting up a new structure which would then lobby and pressurise the Labour Party?

The Labour Party, replied Jon Lansman, is at present discredited among trade unionists. A structure which belongs and is congenial to the trade unions might attract many who are unwilling, as of now, to take on the uphill fight against careerists and entrenched interests in the Labour Party.

The new initiative, he said, would have to be done collectively by the unions, or at least by a number of unions. That is preferable to each union having its own political strategy and its own, often ineffectual, effort to mobilise members politically.

The new initiative would not be a revolutionary party. It would reflect and campaign for trade union policies on issues such as employment rights, union rights, the living wage, and so on.

Now is an odd time to cite the Co-op Party as a model, after the scandals and crises at the Co-operative Bank. But it is a loose analogy rather than a model.

The Co-op Party was set up in 1917, in the political tumult around the end of World War One. Until 1927 there were Co-op MPs, who took the Labour whip in Parliament. In 1927 the Co-op Party did a deal whereby the Co-op Party is a “sister party” of Labour, sponsors some “Labour and Co-op” candidates (32 MPs at the last count), has individual-membership local organisations, and has its own party conference.

Currently it has about 9,000 members. People can and do join the Co-op Party without joining Labour, but the 1927 deal says that they must not also be members of parties standing candidates against Labour. In practice, Co-op organisations have sometimes functioned as caucuses for political factions intervening in Labour, including sometimes the Communist Party.

A “trade union party” would have to be set up differently from the Co-op Party, with some structural role for trade union organisations. But, says Jon Lansman, that can be sorted out if unions are keen on the basic idea.

Could this “trade union party” end up helping Labour right-wingers to quash the union voice in the Labour Party itself, by allowing them to tell trade unionists that they have their voice through the “trade union party” and do not need extra? Jon Lansman thinks not: the “trade union party” would not have votes within the Labour Party, but could act as a force to uphold and enliven the votes the unions do have.

If the idea gains support at the CLPD AGM, then further discussion will be needed throughout the labour movement.