NUT policies go well beyond the defence of our members pay and working conditions. In particular the Union has for decades been committed to free state comprehensive schools for all and opposed to selection, privilege and social division in education. Currently we want to see the end of imposed national testing, league tables and targets because of the damage they do to children and young people. As part of the wider trade union movement the NUT supports a Trade Union Freedom Bill in the UK and workers rights to organise freely across the world.
Few of these things will be achieved by the NUT alone no matter how militant, confident or well-organised we become. They require us to campaign much more broadly with the public and with other unions. They demand that we mobilise and help to organise all those forces who want to see public services and workers rights defended and expanded. Above all they cannot be achieved without changes in the law or in government policy. To ignore these facts is to fight with one hand tied behind our backs.
The tradition in the NUT, and the other teacher unions, has been that we should be above politics. In the NUT we don’t even have a political fund and therefore cannot support any particular candidates or parties locally or nationally. The Union can only campaign in the vaguest and most indirect way for members to ‘consider the stance’ of the various parties on some key issues at election time. We can and do lobby MPs of all parties on issues like the Education Bill. But this is merely reacting to events when we should be helping to shape them.
None of the major political parties represent the policies above. All three of them promise to continue the current divisive and market-driven ‘reforms’ of the public sector and to keep in place the Thatcherite laws which shackle unions from effectively standing up for their members. And yet there is huge support for alternative ideas. Millions of people support state comprehensive education, smaller class sizes and trade union rights but they are simply not represented in politics. We have support for key policies and aims but there is nowhere for it to be expressed. To think that we can address that weakness simply by lobbying the existing set of politicians and refusing to get our hands dirty is an absurd illusion.
At one time Labour would have been seen as the ‘party of the trade unions’, the voice, or potential voice, of millions of workers. This perception was about much more than its traditional base of support among working class voters. More significantly it was a party set up by the unions and other workers organisations. Through this vehicle the labour movement had a significant voice in politics. The fundamental change carried out by Blair and New Labour has been to attack that ‘umbilical’ link between the labour movement and the Labour Party. In practice the most significant legacy left by Tony Blair will be that he drove the working class movement out of politics.
Activists in the trade union movement and Labour Party have organised to overturn this terrible legacy. The Labour Representation Committee (LRC) was set up in 2003 by trade unionists and Labour Party members to restore a voice for organised labour in politics. It is supported by five major national unions at least one of which is not affiltiated to Labour (RMT). A leading figure in the LRC, John Mc Donnell, is so far the only person to have launched a campaign to present an alternative to the coronation of Gordon Brown as next Labour leader. McDonnell was decisive in organising the ‘Public Services Not Private Profit’ campaign which co-ordinated the recent lobby of Parliament against trust schools. His leadership campaign is organised around defending public services and restoring trade union rights and Labour Party democracy. We should, as a union (a collective force representing our members interests) be able to participate in and support the LRC.
Working class political representation is as much needed now as when the unions founded the original labour representation committee to organise working class candidates for Parliament at the beginning of the 20th Century. Political trade unionism should be about putting this idea of working class representation into action. It is not about going back to ‘old Labour’ with its culture of political conservatism and deference to the leadership. Rather it is about making us as effective as possible as a force for change in society.
As socialists we should not accept the division between the industrial and the political work of the Union. The industrial is political and this is most sharply seen when our work is in a key public and social service like education. ‘You’, as someone once almost said, ‘may not be interested in politics but politics is interested in you’. We should be able to sponsor and build initiatives like the LRC, to push the case for working class representation and stop Blair silencing the voice of organised labour in British politics.