Union leaders are usually satisfied with sops and gestures. So why are many on Labour’s right wing pushing Ed Miliband to damage and weaken the link?
It is because they remember, or have been taught by those who remember.
After 1979-80, a breach between the union leaders and the Labour parliamentary leaders opened space for an unprecedented rank and file upsurge in the Labour Party.
The upheaval was triggered by the intersection of two curves: ferment within the trade unions, and successive collapses by the Labour parliamentary leaders. Both were, in turn, generated by the economic turmoil of a capitalism crashing and lurching through transition from the consensus-politics boom of the 1950s and 60s to the neoliberalism of the 1980s.
In March 1971 the TUC organised a march of 150,000 through London, protesting at the anti-union legislation of the Tory government which had been elected in June 1970.
Part-way down the Embankment, the march paused. Hugh Scanlon, then president of the big engineering union which would after many mergers become part of today’s Unite union, jumped up on one of the street benches and gave an impromptu speech.
We must drive out the Tories, he declared, and get a new Labour government. But — he added to applause — it must be a Labour government committed to socialist policies! Never another Labour government like the one that had lost office seven months before!
That government, starting off quite popular in 1964-6, had by 1970 become deeply discredited on the left and — after it tried to bring in anti-strike laws in 1969 — even with union leaders.
The Labour leaders were trying to manage capitalism in times when the world market allowed less leeway. They were directly under the influence of bankers, bosses, and top civil servants, who had definite ideas on how to manage crises while the Labour leaders were baffled
Meanwhile a susurrus of working-class industrial militancy, starting in the mid-1950s, was becoming a roar, and would become an explosion in 1972-5.
Scanlon had made his career in the union as a supporter and promoter of shop steward organisation, which became increasingly dense in many industries in the 1960s and 70s.
The unions, bureaucratised though they are, are also based on workers organising as workers in our workplaces. They have to be. They die if they are not. That makes them unstable from a conventional capitalist point of view.
Scanlon himself would end up in 1979 as “Lord Scanlon”.
He followed the usual route for a once-militant shop steward who climbs the ladder of union position without clear working-class politics and without the discipline of an active rank-and-file movement or a coherent socialist organisation.
But the pressure from the rank and file, piecemeal and politically inchoate though it was, continued. At the end of the 1970s, the union leaders’ desire to conciliate and temporise could not move fast enough to keep pace with the Labour leaders’ pursuit of capitalist interests.
The 1974-9 Labour government had come to office in the wake of a wave of working-class revolt. It started off with some reforms. Then from early 1976 through to 1978 the Labour government made deep cuts — sharper cuts in the NHS, in fact, than Thatcher would ever make — and tried to limit wage rises by law.
Labour’s elected National Executive Committee, dominated by trade unionists and elected representatives of local Labour activists, remained leftish. In November 1976 it supported a demonstration against the Labour government cuts which mobilised 80,000 in London on a working day.
Still, the Labour leaders thought they could deal with such things. Demonstrations? Protests? Votes at Labour conference? Those were irritations, but surely the top union officials would ensure that nothing became too serious.
In the winter of 1978-9 the Labour leaders still felt confident to flout a decision of the 1978 Labour conference against continued wage controls, and to try to squash an ensuing revolt by low-paid workers (the “winter of discontent”).
The union leaders of 1979 were people who felt they had faced down the Tories in 1970-4, and were as yet fairly confident that they would face down the new Tory administration. Behind them stood hundreds of thousands of workplace union reps, similarly minded. They wanted to pull Labour back into line, and see off the Tories.
Straight away, in October 1979, the Labour Party conference voted for mandatory reselection of MPs — meaning a new selection contest before every election — and control over the Labour Party election manifesto by the National Executive (not the parliamentary leader).
Both measures had been campaigned for steadily since 1973.
Tony Benn had been a minister in the 1974-9 government, with a more left-wing image than other ministers, but no rebel. Now he distanced himself from the discredited leadership of James Callaghan.
In May 1980, the Rank and File Mobilising Committee was formed, on the initiative of SCLV, a forerunner of AWL. As Patrick Seyd puts in a detailed academic study of the period:
“Each organisation associated with the RFMC was represented on the organising committee but it was CLPD [Campaign for Labour Party Democracy] and the Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory, later to become the Socialist Organiser Alliance, which provided the direction and organisational drive for the campaign.
“John Bloxam from Socialist Organiser was the campaign organiser and Jon Lansman [CLPD] became its secretary. Prior to the 1980 Party conference the RFMC organised twenty country-wide rallies to win support for the Left’s reform proposals.
“It successfully provided the tactical drive and organisation in the face of opposition from both the Right and parts of the parliamentary Left, to secure the adoption of new procedures for electing the Party leadership, and it then went on to provide the main base for the campaign to elect Tony Benn as the Party’s Deputy Leader.
“The RFMC was a remarkable organisation in the history of the Labour Left. For a period the Labour Left was united... and the multitude of organisations operated together as a single unit”.
The regular 1980 Labour conference, in October, voted for the principle of election of the Party leader by the whole party, not just the MPs. (The exact procedure would be settled by a special conference in January 1981).
It also adopted unilateral nuclear disarmament and backed direct action against local government cuts.
Callaghan resigned as leader on 15 October 1980, trying to get a successor in place before the new leadership election procedure was installed. MPs, feeling the heat from below, rejected Callaghan’s chosen candidate, right-winger Denis Healey, and instead chose Michael Foot, who was a left-winger, though a faded one, and at age 68 obviously an interim figure.
In March 1981 a whole segment of the Labour right split off to form a “Social Democratic Party”, which at first did well in the opinion polls and then merged with the old Liberal party to form the Liberal Democrats.
Between April and September 1981 Tony Benn campaigned against Denis Healey for Labour’s deputy leadership. Benn won 83% of the votes from local Labour activists, and Healey scraped in only thanks to the union vote.
In Socialist Organiser (a forerunner of Solidarity), we warned of the limitations of the upsurge at the same time as we made ourselves central to organising it.
We argued that the struggle for democracy must be taken into the unions. The left’s alliance with top union leaders could only be temporary and fragile.
“The victories so far are formal”, we wrote. “They must be filled out with the content of working-class struggle if the movement is to be regenerated. A ‘democratised’ labour movement will become a fighting organisation of the workers, hammering at the Tories and their backers, or it will quickly fall again under the control of bureaucrats and timeservers” — and, we warned, they would use witch-hunts and bans to help them neutralise the democratic reforms.
So it was. In January 1982 the union leaders met with the Labour Party leaders at Bishops Stortford and agreed to work together to tame the rank and file. A long, slow, grinding counter-revolution got underway.
Many factors helped the Labour right reassert itself: the industrial defeats of the early 1980s; the political vagueness of the Labour left.
But the Labour right had been given a frightening glimpse of its own mortality. It had been shown how frail its position became as soon as the working-class base began to move, even in a limited way.
It has shored itself up both by Blair’s restructuring of the Labour Party in 1997, and by striving, with some success, to embed some self-limiting adages in the common sense of the labour movement.
We mustn’t go back to the strife of the 1970s, they tell us — when in fact that strife won victories, and without it the Tories would have done ten years earlier what they did in the 1980s, when we couldn’t rouse enough strife against them.
We can’t have the Labour Party divided as it was in the 1980s, they say. Actually, in early 1981, at the peak of the “division”, Labour stood at 51% in the opinion polls. It was the subsequent disappointments which brought it down to a miserable 28% in the 1983 general election.
Labour should never promise much, they declare. Promises in 1964 and 1974 led only to Labour governments which at first made popular reforms and then collapsed abjectly. Instead (they say) Labour should commit itself in advance to orthodox capitalist policies — as Neil Kinnock, Labour leader 1983-92, put it, it should do all its betrayals in advance — and then if things go well it can hand out some reforms.
To try to make adage into unbreakable law, the Labour right want to exorcise the union link.