Ties that bind a party to its roots: As the Transport and General Workers' Union begins its conference, Bill Morris argues that myths, misunderstanding and malice are undermining the importance of unions to Labour

Share
Related Topics
THE WHOLE issue of links between the Labour Party and the unions affiliated to it has become surrounded by myth, misinformation and, on occasion, malice. It has now reached the point where the most urgent need is to re-establish a basis for rational debate and stop the row over the block vote and 'one member, one vote' from distracting the party from what should be its central task: presenting a clear and attractive alternative to a disastrous Government.

First, let's nail a myth. The trade unions are not opposed to one member, one vote for individual party members in selecting Labour candidates or choosing the party leader. We believe that is the best way for the 250,000 individual Labour party members to express their preferences. And we believe it is correct that these members should retain at least 60 per cent of the vote in selecting MPs.

Our concern is to ensure that union members, who founded and sustained the party throughout this century, continue to have some collective input into the important decisions it takes. This is critical if Labour's policies and candidates are to continue to represent Labour voters as a whole. Unions, such as the Transport and General Workers', are highly representative of working men and women who place their hopes in the Labour party.

By this I mean no disrespect to those who, like myself, are individual members of the party. But Labour's membership is much too small and too middle-class adequately to reflect Labour voters, and proposals to increase individual membership generally fail to overcome this.

Some object to the trade union influence in the party being exercised collectively. However, a democratically-based collectivism is the foundation of trade unionism and, indeed, the foundation of Labour's approach to society itself. At work, as in politics, this enhances the power of the individual to get a hearing and make a contribution. Trade unionism is based on the recognition that there is little the individual can do to improve things in society on his or her own.

It is also a fact of British labour history that the trade unions have been the main structure through which the working class has been able to express itself politically. Unlike in many European countries, working people in Britain have not been great joiners of political parties. They have looked first of all for collective expression through trade unions. Someday perhaps this will change, but driving the trade unions out of the Labour party today would mean marginalising millions of working people from the democratic politics of the nation. That is why I wish to make it clear once more that, as far as the T & G is concerned, there is no question of any divorce or separation from the party being on the agenda.

T & G members - and those of other unions - have repeatedly expressed their support for their union's collective political role - in political fund ballots, at union conferences and, most recently, in a special survey conducted by Mori for the T & G, G M B, Nupe and Cohse.

Support for the trade union block vote does not mean that the T & G believes the nature of the trade union link is beyond improvement or review. Indeed, my union took the lead in proposing the reduction of the union share of the vote at Labour party conference. The T & G is also ready to discuss proposals to make the union input into the selection of Labour candidates and the party leader more democratic, and be seen to be more democratic. Democracy should mean extending the involvement of trade union levy- payers in the union's collective input, not discarding that input altogether.

The present system is not perfect, and there are certainly loopholes. It is essential that all those who pay the political levy into their unions are given the opportunity to express their preference before the union's collective voice is heard. The T & G has proposed that a code of practice addressing these issues be drawn up. This could form the basis of a democratic solution to the issues involved. The bottom line is that the views of the political levy-paying members are accurately reflected when a union organisation casts its vote in Labour candidate selections.

Seen in this light, the millions of Labour party members affiliated through their unions are a great source of democratic legitimacy for the party. Candidates could be chosen with the votes of thousands of their constituents, and Labour's leaders would be elected through a process drawing in hundreds of thousands of Labour supporters (as John Smith was).

If Labour is to open the door to this prospect, it must also address the issue of malice. No one would accuse Mr Smith of anti-trade union attitudes. But when one sees, as I have, a Labour MP on television fulminating against 'faceless union bureaucrats', it is a sign that views previously the preserve of neanderthals in the Tory party are percolating into Labour.

We should be clear - the leaders of Britain's trade unions not only have faces, we also have franchises. We are elected in individual postal ballots, in some cases with far more votes than any single MP, to advance the economic, social and political interests of our members in a world where the economic and political cannot possibly be disentangled. The policies that I address at Labour party conferences are not some personal invention - they are formulated by the T & G's own conference, composed of hundreds of delegates elected by tens of thousands of trade unionists throughout the country.

We discharge our responsibilities to our members in a forward-looking way. Dubbing oneself a 'moderniser' gives one no monopoly on modern thinking. The T & G has taken the lead in addressing the changing nature of work and the workforce with our Link-Up campaign, aimed at part-time and women workers. We were proud to host a major conference on Clinton Economics earlier this year. And I will be recommending to my union conference this week, with the support of the T & G executive, that we support change in our national electoral system away from the first-past-the-post method.

The Labour Party needs trade unions. We are democratic, modern, working- class organisations that root Labour in the soil of British society. Building on this link is how to make the future ours.

The writer is General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union.

(Photograph omitted)

React Now

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

Tradewind Recruitment: Phase Co-ordinator for Foundation and Key Stage 1

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: Phase Co-ordinator for Foundation and Key S...

Tradewind Recruitment: SEN Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: SEN Teacher We have a fantastic special n...

Tradewind Recruitment: History Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is an 11-18 all ability co-educat...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 6 Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 6 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

If I were Prime Minister: Every privatised corner of the NHS would be taken back into public ownership

Philip Pullman
 

Errors & Omissions: Magna Carta, sexing bishops and ministerial aides

John Rentoul
Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee