Even New Labour needs the unions

So disturbed were my members by the easing out of sitting MPs before the election that we held back a quarter of a million pounds in contributions

Share
Related Topics
So the proposed Fabian pamphlet by Alan Johnson and Tony Young on loosening Labour's links with the unions is not now to be published. That's a pity, because we may as well have the debate and bring out into the open what some of those jostling for influence in New Labour have been saying behind cupped hands: put an end to union presence and union influence at all levels of the Party, from local constituency parties to the National Executive Committee. And do it now.

These may or may not be the words of Alan Johnson and Tony Young, for whom I have the utmost respect, but they are the words of others who want to cast off millions of ordinary union members and move into, as they see it, more exciting, yet uncharted, waters.

Yet trade unions are something about which these protagonists know nothing. They don't understand the need for unions, because they have neither had to struggle to make ends meet, nor had to work for an employer who denies them a living wage, sick pay or holidays.

They are blind to the possibilities of the Nineties and beyond because their fears are frozen in the Seventies. If at some future date, unions and union members can no longer affiliate to, contribute to, and play their part in New Labour then we shall all suffer. The losers will be first democracy; second the Party, and third the nation.

Had it not been for the affiliation of the unions, there would have been no New Labour to offer to the electorate. It was unions such as my own which worked with Neil Kinnock and John Smith to drive out Militant. It was we who had to persuade the rest of the Party to adopt one member, one vote. It was we who turned the Party from unilateral nuclear disarmament and adherence to Clause Four. It was we who initiated the reforms so enthusiastically and ably espoused by Tony Blair. In short, we made New Labour possible.

And had it not been for our affiliation fees, there would have not been the campaign that swept the country. No Millbank Tower, no Media Centre, no Excalibur, no Rebuttal Unit, no expensive poster campaigns.

But much more important than the money we were able to donate was the assistance given to New Labour by thousands upon thousands of ordinary union members who tramped the streets, staffed the phone banks and stuffed the envelopes because they wanted a government that could give their families, their children, a better deal. New Labour is going to need the continued support of union members, the more so as increasing numbers of recent recruits opt out of doing the weekly or monthly chores, content that Tony Blair is in Number Ten or bored with the hard slog of keeping local politics alive.

And, until such time as the Government introduces state funding of political parties, New Labour will need our affiliation contributions, contributions our members are happy to make to secure a more equal and prosperous Britain. It is true that some companies have donated money to Labour, but will their contributions still be there when times get tough?

If the links are broken democracy would lose and New Labour would lose too; for my fear is this: that without continued union involvement, New Labour would become unrepresentative of the British people and too narrowly based.

One of the important contributions unions make is to identify and encourage members who feel they have much to offer as an MP. People who, without the advice, support and training their unions are able to give to them, would feel inhibited. Ordinary people. Engineers, nurses, steelworkers, computer programmers, builders.

There are those in New Labour who don't want people like these as MPs. They want lawyers, lecturers and journalists. More and more and more of them.

We saw some of this in the weeks preceding the General Election when steps were taken to ease out sitting MPs from industrial backgrounds, hold back support from candidates who weren't university graduates, and ease in people from the professions. In fact, so disturbed by this were our members that we felt we had to signal their unhappiness to the Party; and to do so, we held back a quarter of a million pounds in campaign contributions.

If the unions' link with Labour is broken, New Labour would, I'm afraid, become the preserve of those who inhabit the worlds of the media, courts and academia. New Labour could become as unrepresentative of our nation as Old Labour was when it was in the grip of Militant and its cohorts. We surely haven't thrown off the dominance of one group only to be subjected to the dominance of another.

At present, unions affiliated to the Labour Party are able to bring to the party the views, the aspirations, and the concerns of a cross-section of our country - postal workers and plumbers, dockers and electricians, car workers and fire-fighters, scientists and shop workers. If we were not able to contribute their views at all levels, then New Labour would be much the poorer.

Unions like mine are working in partnership with companies to protect and promote Britain's manufacturing base. Manufacturing is something very few MPs - and even fewer New Labour administrators - understand. Despite changes in the spread of business in Britain today, it is still manufacturing that creates the wealth which funds our schools, hospitals and welfare services. That is why we are spending so much time and energy campaigning for industrial projects - and taking this message to constituency Labour parties, district parties, regional parties, the National Executive Committee and right through Westminster and Whitehall. Company directors have told me that the most important contribution we can make to the health of manufacturing is to ensure that New Labour, from top to bottom, understands the priorities for the nation.

Some commentators, Donald Macintyre among them in his article in these pages on Tuesday, say that unions can still have their say without having to be affiliated to any one political party. That of course is true. But it is not the way to be the most effective. Ad hoc support of this party or that cannot begin to match the kind of fruitful relationship that a more enduring partnership between the unions and New Labour can sustain.

New Labour, cut adrift from supportive unions, could become unrepresentative, too narrowly based, and unable to mount - ever again - the kind of General Election campaign that it did this year. That would be bad for democracy, bad for our country, and bad news for union members, too. For they want to continue to play their part in securing a fairer and more decent society.

The writer is general secretary of the AEEU (Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union).

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment C...

Recruitment Genius: Interactive / Mobile Developer

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital production agency ...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer - Midweight

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital production agency ...

Recruitment Genius: Junior Front End Developer

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital production agency ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The UCAS clearing house call centre in Cheltenham, England  

Ucas should share its data on students from poor backgrounds so we can get a clearer picture of social mobility

Conor Ryan
A study of 16 young women performing light office work showed that they were at risk of being over-chilled by air conditioning in summer  

It's not just air conditioning that's guilty of camouflage sexism

Mollie Goodfellow
Giants Club: After wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, Uganda’s giants flourish once again

Uganda's giants are flourishing once again

After the wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, elephant populations are finally recovering
The London: After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

Archaeologists will recover a crucial item from the wreck of the London which could help shed more light on what happened in the vessel's final seconds
Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

The invention involves turbojets and ramjets - a type of jet engine - and a rocket motor
10 best sun creams for kids

10 best sun creams for kids

Protect delicate and sensitive skin with products specially formulated for little ones
Tate Sensorium: New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art

Tate Sensorium

New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art
Ashes 2015: Nice guy Steven Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

Nice guy Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

He was man-of-the-match in the third Test following his recall to the England side
Ashes 2015: Remember Ashton Agar? The No 11 that nearly toppled England

Remember Ashton Agar?

The No 11 that nearly toppled England
Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks