The Trade Union Movement, New Labour, and Working-Class Politics: Part VII. Politics and trade-unionism are not the same thing

Submitted by AWL on 16 November, 2006 - 1:15


“The fact, that through this mechanism of ruling class domination [the Labour Party] the trade unions have also secured piecemeal reforms and concessions, is no more remarkable than the idea that the union leaderships can sometimes achieve concessions through agreements regulating the terms of the labour contract”.

Here too, one of the old descriptive commonplaces of our tendency — that the Labour Party was the trade unions extending their bargaining on behalf of the workers into Parliament and generalising it into society-wide interests and demands — is invoked, but given a new content.

The problem is that the generally true description is here used to collapse the qualitative political advance by the working-class which even the old “bourgeois-workers’-party” Labour partly embodied, when it went in for society-wide political “bargaining”, back into routine trade unionism, pretending that there is no meaningful difference. But there is.

Lenin described politics as “all issues to do with the overall running of society”. Generalised to the whole of society by way of a political party created for just that purpose, “bargaining” necessarily deals with society as a whole: with the social context in which the exploitation of labour is carried on, in which worker-bourgeois wage bargaining takes place.

That is a qualitative step forward into something radically in advance of trade-union bargaining within a wage-labour relationship set in a social context over which the workers or their trade unions can attempt no control.

Why else would we be advocating a “workers’ government” as a transitional form to working-class revolution?

We do not, of course, pretend that this Labourist step of the unions into generalised bargaining on the level of society, that is into politics, is adequate. We do not forget the state power which the capitalists would retain even under a “left-Labour” government.

But J & S’s conception of the relationship between mere trade unionism and the unions in politics sinks the working class movement in politics by way of the Labour Party back into the mere trade unionism from which the LP emerged.

It is enormously to undervalue the old Labour Party both for what it was and for what it might have been a step towards. It is not — like so many things in their polemic — to know the difference between quantity and quality.

That Jack makes this mistake in the course of advocating a variant of our old attitude to the Labour Party suggests that the explanation for his muddle is that he did not in the past understand, or has now forgotten the whys and wherefores, of our involvement in the Labour Party and the perspectives we fought for in relation to it.

It belongs to the same order of things, it is the same sort of mental operation, performed for the same reasons, as the use of the great historical abstraction, “bourgeois workers’ party”, to avoid registering the difference between New Labour and Old Labour. “Concrete analysis?” Please!


But there are other important things wrong with J & S’s approach. What they suggest would in practice mean a political orientation — and an exclusive orientation at that! — not to a political party, that is to people who are members of that party by way of some degree of political self-selection, but to the trade unions, whose members are selected not by politics but by the needs of self protection on the job and the defence and betterment of wages and conditions!

It is not to be taken as given that all or most trade unionists will even have “Labourist” politics. There is no element of political selection in the British unions, such as there is or used to be in, say, France.

Nor should we pretend that trade union affiliation to the Labour Party amounts to the same thing: one of the developments that put Thatcher in power in 1979 was that a segment of skilled workers switched to voting Tory.

In the 1960s and 70s we had to argue with the Grantites (now Socialist Party and Socialist Appeal) that the passing of trade union conference resolutions in favour of “nationalisation” could not be taken as indicating that there already was a viable “socialist consciousness in the labour movement” (as they used to put it: see What We Are And What We Must Become). Events since then do not suggest that we got that wrong. Nor were we wrong to see what the Grantites made of that idea as the cultivation of self-poisoning delusion.

The attitude of J & S is made even odder when one remembers that they are at pains to rule out the idea that the socialists and pseudo-socialists who often make trade union decisions should be taken as representative.

Or is it that they think it out of order for an unrepresentative manipulative minority to decide “bureaucratically’ to give money to the Socialist Alliance, or whatever, but all right for a similar group of people to hold the New Labour Party link in being?


Nor is Trade Union control of the Parliamentarians necessarily one of our goals. It depends.

Right now, for the trade unions to “control” the Labour Party even in the sense they once did, would be better than what exists. But we are not syndicalists.

Our viewpoint is not that of trade unionists, even the very best of trade unionists.

We want to restructure the labour movement so that the Parliamentarians are under the control, and the trade unions under the leadership of, a Marxist party.

One of the reasons for socialists standing in elections now is that it contributes to the building up of such a party, and therefore to its work in the unions.

Not the least problem with the politics of J & S is that their talk of the unions controlling the parliamentarians presupposes — if they have in mind, politically, anything like what we have in mind, and we assume they do — that the existing labour movement, in the first place the trade unions, have already been radically changed, from top to bottom… That is a programme for an entire period of unknowable duration.

“For the union to be unable to speak with a unified political voice is to put the union in a subordinate relation to the parliamentarian — or would be parliamentarian. Only if the union has a unitary bond with the parliamentary representatives and their party, is any form of accountability possible.”

A “unified political voice” means what? A whole world outlook?

This, if they are serious about it, is a syndicalist position. It is not a revolutionary Marxist position.

It is not even the world outlook of revolutionary syndicalism.

Trade union control of the parliamentarians is not our goal! Our goal, as above, is that the parliamentarians should be firmly under the control, and the trade unions firmly under the leadership, of the Marxist party.


All sorts of questions are begged in what J & S write. A “concrete analysis” is precisely what they don’t make! For example: the unions don’t, in fact, control their sponsored MPs.

Since the days of the Arthur Deakin-style stone-age right wing trade union barons, half a century ago, the unions have not even appeared to control what Labour MPs do in government or in opposition. [Deakin was the General Secretary of the TGWU, then the biggest union in Britain.]

There is no trade union control or LP accountability in the situation J & S want to conserve. In which period of the TU-LP tie-up was there ever real TU control of the MPs, or anything approximating to it? What “precise” — controlling — link is there between any MP and any union now?

In fact the Prime Minister and his Office control the Parliamentary Labour Party, about 200 of whom are union-sponsored MPs, and they in turn “control”, what, by way of them, the unions do in politics.

The old notional control and accountability depended on the structures and rituals of the pre-Blairite Labour party. It is the central pillar of our case that that sort of thing has already been changed out of all recognition.

At best J & S are saying that they want to get back to it and that we should not do anything to change the elements of an entity which they hope one day to turn back to what it was.

They spin and misdiagnose what the old system was in terms of the trade union accountability of MPs in order to recommend a status quo which they find as uncongenial as we do.

Independent working class politics is rendered impossible with such an approach. If we adopted it, it would make us into a political tail of the dominant forces in Labour Party and Trade Unions alike.

The present situation is one of flux, of interregnum. Many things are unclear. The future shape of relationships in the labour movement is unclear. To let that fact (together with revulsion against the experience of the SWP-dominated Socialist Alliance) demoralise us into a timid, inert conservatism would be a gross dereliction of our political duty.

In fact, however, other questions are raised here.

Since when have we thought that the old Labour/union relationship was ideal? In practice, the dominant union influence on the Labour Party was always the influence of trade union bureaucrats — at first, a century ago, people of liberal political outlook, then of reform “socialists”.

At the crucial turning point 8 or 9 years ago, the dominant influence was that of bureaucrats turned Blairite.

If there was accountability, it was always accountability to the trade union barons. We never thought the old situation was even tolerable, let alone ideal. We argued for a trade union rank and file movement. We argued for the possibility of subdividing the trade union block vote.

Back in that strange political world that came into existence for a while after Thatcher beat the incumbent Labour Government in the 1979 general election, when we found ourselves with Moss Evans, leader of the TGWU, in meetings to plan the campaign for Labour Party Democracy, we did not fail in Socialist Organiser to point out the disabling contradiction in having the head of the TGWU, which was far from a model of democracy, fighting alongside us for democracy in the Labour Party. We advocated a rank and file movement in the Trade Unions. Didn’t we? Don’t we?


“The most powerful objection to what the Socialist Alliance proposes is that it misses the central concern of Marxists—not just in relation to the fight for a workers’ party, and workers’ candidates but in relation to all our work in the class movement—the idea of workers’ control and democratic accountability. We want candidates, councillors and MPs who are answerable to the trade unions and accountable to them. One cautious pro-Labour proposal that seeks to impose a measure of control and accountability on union representatives in the Labour Party structures or Parliament, or which seeks to get more workers into parliament to promote union policy, embodies more of our programme than the Socialist Alliance’s ill-disguised gambit to get its hands on union money. We should vote accordingly”.

Note how unambitious and “evolutionary” they are here. Not accountability but only “a measure of control and accountability” will satisfy them. And “a measure of control and accountability” to? “The trade unions”!

The phrasing here, (“embodies more of our programme”), suggests that the “text” running through Jack’s pre-conscious as he formulated the words quoted here was Karl Marx’s well-known statement that “every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes”. Jack, in his own mind, invokes Karl Marx’s sense of a “real” movement steadily evolving and growing. The trouble is that he applies it inappropriately to... the Blair retrogression from the Labour Party and our bureaucratised trade unions.

Plainly he sees the Labour-union framework as (a) what it was throughout the 20th century; and (b) as entirely adequate, and, it seems, “reclaimable”.

The other “trouble” with what Jack writes is that it deals in phantoms, fantasies, falsifications of the past, and definitions arrived at by way of false-bookkeeping.

Jack applies the great generality, “workers’ control and democratic accountability”, in the way we have seen him again and again misapply generalities and “big ideas”. “Workers’ control and democratic accountability” of ..? Of the Blair party. Who, which workers, are going to exercise it? Not workers organised in soviets, not workers led by a revolutionary party, but... the bureaucratised trade unions!

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