Labour and Tories: two cheeks of the same arse?

Submitted by AWL on 2 August, 2013 - 3:24

Recently the Tories drew level with Labour in opinion polls for the first time in 18 months due to the UK Independence Party's national vote collapse.

The probability of a second Tory government is increasing. The Tories want to cut our industry to the bone. But what would Labour do with it? Would a Labour government be any better? How can workers in our industry and across society have a say in politics as the major parties gear up for the next General Election?

The Tories have wholeheartedly endorsed the McNulty report, which recommends sorting out the problems caused by privatisation with a hefty dose of more privatisation. But this report was commissioned by the previous Labour government, and the Labour Party leadership have taken no stand against it.

Some back bench Labour MPs have called for renationalisation, but Shadow Transport secretary Maria Eagle has "welcomed" the report. Tom Harris, the Labour chair of the Parliamentary Rail group responded to McNulty by writing about the “frustration” TOCs feel at unions improving terms and conditions for workers and the “challenges” Labour would face if the report prompted strike action.

The Labour Party leadership are saying nothing to indicate they would act any differently than they have in the past. They did not reverse privatisation when they took office in 1997. In fact Labour could almost certainly have stopped privatisation in its tracks in 1994 by merely publicly opposing it and scaring off investors.

Labour did replace Railtrack with Network Rail, which is publicly-owned, albeit at arms-length from public control - but only did so when it became absolutely necessary.

However, it's wrong to say there are no differences between Tories and Labour on this question. The only voices in mainstream UK politics dissenting from the prevailing wisdom that railways should be run for profit are in the Labour Party, and this is not by coincidence.

It is possible for the workers’ movement to put pressure on the labour leadership and force them to act more in the way that as we want. Many Labour MPs are officially sponsored by unions, and can be pressured by them.

Trade unions have a voice in official Labour Party structures such as the national conference, although over the last three decades these have lost many of their powers and been replaced by less democratic “policy forums”. In 2004 Labour Party conference voted to back renationalisation of the railways, against concerted opposition from the Blairite leadership. Unfortunately, Party leaders chose to ignore the vote.

A high profile public campaign by the trade union movement could perhaps force the Labour Party to back public ownership. That would be difficult because the leadership of all the major parties opposes us. But in the Labour Party we have channels — albeit inadequate ones — to put pressure on the leaders.

Within our industry, our unions should launch an offensive to pressure Labour to commit to reversing McNulty reforms and renationalising the railways after the next General Election. TSSA, ASLEF, and Unite members need to use their unions' affiliation to Labour to push this. RMT, no longer formally affiliated to Labour, needs to engage more with Labour using bodies such as the Labour Representation Committee, which fights for socialist politics within and outside the Labour Party. RMT needs to be open-minded to different tactics to achieve its aims. This includes supporting working-class, socialist candidates in elections where there is a genuine base of support and the potential of a real impact, but it may also include considering re-affiliation to the Labour Party to increase the pressure on the sell-out Labour leaders.

Labour leader Ed Miliband has announced proposals that would further strangle the channels for trade unions to shape Labour policy, an unjustified response to Unite's attempts to get its own people selected as parliamentary candidates. Trade union influence in Labour is not a form of “corruption”. It's about working class people having a say in politics. As workers, we deserve more than a vote for a boss-backed party once in five years; we deserve the chance to get involved in our unions' policy-making and for those policies to shape what a political party is standing for. That's democratic.

The current union-Labour channels are far from democratic. Instead, they consist of unions handing over cash without attempting to hold Labour leaders to account or impose union policies. But that's a reason to fight to improve, not to ditch, the link with Labour. While defending the union link, affiliated unions, such as TSSA, ASLEF, and Unite, need to go on the offensive for union policies within the Labour Party, even if that means forcing a full-scale split with Labour's MPs, unelected researchers, and policy wonks who want to disenfranchise the trade union movement.

What better place to start than for a rail union campaign within Labour to reverse McNulty and fight for public ownership of the railways?

Off The Rails supporters have a range of views about the relationship between trade unions and the Labour Party. This article represents one view: what’s yours? Write to us at

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