As a result of the absurd threat to expel Bakers’ Union President Ian Hodson from the party, the union is holding a recall conference, with the implication that it could disaffiliate.
More broadly, since Keir Starmer’s election, there has been increasingly vocal left-wing advocacy for trade unions to disaffiliate or at least weaken their links, cut funding or similar. Understandable as that may be given the leadership’s behaviour, and well-intentioned in many cases, it is not an effective left-wing position. It is a distraction from the struggle.
Far from having exhausted the possibilities, affiliated unions could do vastly more to use their positions to promote democracy and left-wing policies within the party and win Labour support for workers’ struggles. That does not just apply to “moderate” unions, but to left-wing ones as well.
For example, Unison, one of Labour’s two biggest affiliates, is generally seen as part of the party’s right. It has a long and continuing history of failing or refusing to fight within Labour for democratically agreed Unison policies and for members’ interests.
But the other one of the big two, Unite, which saw debate about its relationship to Labour during its recent general secretary election, is generally regarded as part of the left. Unite has failed to fight for left-wing policies and party democracy too.
Famously, in 2018 its leadership and party conference delegates voted against open selections for parliamentary candidates — in defiance of the position taken by Unite’s policy conference. Similarly, Unite has never fought in Labour or more broadly for repeal of the anti-trade union laws, despite a clear policy conference stance. The same applies to many other issues.
In the Unite election, it was widely accepted that the “left-wing” position was to advocate loosening (at least) the union’s link to the party. The dominant debate was pitched around to what extent to do that. Assessments of how seriously Unite has actually fought in and around Labour, and whether there’s more it could do in this regard, rarely featured. The ambiguous rhetoric around “no blank cheques” served to obscure the reality and the issues.
To take another important example relevant to both Unite and Unison, neither has used its position in or links to the party, or their political voices more broadly, to vigorously prosecute the fight for a substantial NHS pay rise.
Left-wing unions walking or stepping away from Labour would only serve to further weaken and disorganise the left and working-class representation in the party; further depoliticise the trade union movement; and hinder meaningful debate about why unions have mostly not fought for their policies.
If more affiliated unions got serious about fighting politically for their policies and for their members’ interests, both directly through Labour structures and through wider political campaigning which put pressure and made demands on Labour, the whole situation in the party and in politics would shift significantly.
There is no lack of mechanisms by which this could be done. Such campaigning would certainly run into barriers in the party: but the fact is that we are nowhere near those barriers yet. A serious union fight in and pressure on Labour, not stepping away, is the left-wing policy.