Then and Now

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The Independent Online
September 1996: The Labour Party is reported to be considering a ballot of members after the next election on whether to strip the trades unions of their voting rights in the party conference and their seats on the National Executive Committee. The reports, which provoke union anger, arise from dinner table talk by a Labour employment spokesman, Stephen Byers, who denies the comments.

October 1959: In the immediate aftermath of a crushing election defeat, the Labour leader, Hugh Gaitskell, finds himself embroiled in a row over suggestions that he wants, among other radical reforms, to break the party's links with the trades unions. The young Shirley Williams is one of those to criticise the idea in the press, saying "a break with the unions is a counsel of despair". On the Left, it is widely believed that the proposal is part of a "hidden agenda" cooked up at a gathering of right-wingers at Gaitskell's Hampstead home. Such fears are reinforced by apparent "kite- flying" by Gaitskell confidants, including one newspaper article, written by Ivan Yates, arguing that Labour had lost the election because the voters "did not like one thing above all, its close links with the unions ... the block vote and strikes official and unofficial". Yates very soon finds himself playing down the notion that Labour was about to part company with the unions. Yet, there is some truth in the Left's fears, for the idea was discussed at the Hampstead gathering. According to a new biography of the Labour leader by Brian Brivati, however, Gaitskell never actually embraced the idea and the "kite-flying" was not done at his instigation. Instead, he was working towards his proposal to drop Clause IV of the party constitution (which referred to common ownership of the means of production). The rumours about the unions nonetheless had their effect, for according to Brivati "the 'kites' had so outraged the Left and trade- union MPs that other reforms suffered guilt by association". Gaitskell was defeated and Clause IV survived another 35 years.