"Forward to the past" is no answer for Labour

Submitted by Matthew on 20 April, 2011 - 3:05

“Family, faith and flag” is being promoted as Labour’s new big idea.

Nostalgia for a time when men were men, the church had more social control, and England used to win World Cups is patently ridiculous. But nostalgia can be a strong political force — a negative one.

I was pondering the negative power of nostalgia after the National Executive Council meeting of the CWU recently. The meeting formally agreed to wipe out the discipline charges made by the previous Union of Postal Workers (UPW) Executive against members of the London Divisional Committee (LDC) who took solidarity action for the Grunwick strikers.

Everyone lauds the brave Grunwick strikers now but in 1977 the Annual Conference of the UPW upheld the decision of the Executive and imposed sanctions on the London activists, including substantial fines. (For the record, a certain delegate from Slough called Alan Johnson spoke up in support of the LDC activists.)

The picture painted by many socialists of the strong organisation, militancy and class consciousness of the trade union movement in the 1970s often hides much more complex and interesting stories. I am not disputing the relatively weak situation of the trade union movement now but rather challenging the idea of a “golden age” of trade unionism that we can return to.

The idea of class, and the cutting edge of class struggle, changes along with changes in the modes of production, distribution and exchange.

A large part of the perception of the “militant 70s” or “true blue collar” trade unionism is unhelpful nostalgia that covers up real history. It does us no favours to present a cartoon story of workers’ struggle when the real history is contradictory and uneven. We cannot learn the important lessons of history if we live enthralled to myth.

Then, as now, solidarity was a dangerous idea when put into practice. Then, as now, collective class consciousness was fragile. Then, as now, the conservatism of apolitical trade unionism was destructive. Building practical solidarity, developing class consciousness and opposing apolitical trade unionism are worthwhile priorities for trade unionists today.

A short footnote on “blue Labour” — it is a mix of social conservatism and relatively progressive political economics, promoted by Jon Cruddas, Maurice Glasman and Jonathan Rutherford. It has little to do with mainstream Labour traditions and a lot more to do with the left communitarianism of a Christian “third way”.

These ideas have only ever had minor political purchase in the UK, though the influence of similar ideas in the US such as that of Jim (“God’s Politics”) Wallis has been much greater, mainly because they don’t have a Labour Party.

But even if “blue Labour” was fully in the mainstream of traditional “old Labour” we should still reject it — for reasons that the Grunwick strikers know.

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