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General Secretary: Labour: We need a relationship that delivers

22 August 2013

There has recently been widespread coverage in the British media of the relationship between the Labour Party and its affiliated trade unions.

Sadly, most of this coverage has been sensationalist and riddled with inaccuracies. You know, the money that ordinary working people contribute to British politics is by far the cleanest in the business. Let’s not forget how the Labour Party came into being. In 1899, Thomas R Steels, a member of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants – a predecessor of our sister union, RMT – proposed to his local union branch that the Trades Union Congress call a special conference to create a single body to sponsor Parliamentary candidates. His vision was far-sighted and in 1900 led to the creation of what we now know as the Labour Party.

Workers’ desire for representation in Parliament came on the back of mass social and economic struggles towards the end of the 19th century. During this period, trade unionism had transformed itself from being predominantly craft based to becoming a movement that embraced all workers and increasingly adopted socialist ideas. Unions clearly understood that whilst the main focus of activities was and will always be within the workplace, laws that affect working people are made by politicians. Consequently, many unions, including our very own, decided to give their members a political voice, funded through a voluntary levy. This has allowed our union to affiliate to the Labour Party to ensure that your voice is represented within Parliament. Over the years this long- standing relationship has not always been an easy one, even though it has delivered great advances for working people such as the NHS, health and safety legislation, workers’ rights, the minimum wage, paid holidays, anti- discrimination laws and much more.

Ed Milliband has now said that he wishes to make our relationship with Labour fit for the 21st century. I think that we should broadly welcome his initiative as the status-quo is clearly not working. For example, in 2004, our union successfully persuaded the Labour Party Conference to pass a motion in favour of public ownership of our railways. Regretfully, this policy did not appear in either 2005 or 2010 Labour Party manifestos. I believe that a review of our relationship with the Party offers an opportunity to strengthen the link and to better allow trade unions to positively pursue their members’ collective aspirations within the Party.

The sad reality is that only around 1 per cent of the British population are members of a political party. This contrasts very unfavourably with the rest of Western Europe where the active participation of ordinary people in politics is far higher. You know, I would love to see our Labour Party transformed into a mass organisation of working people. I will therefore welcome and support changes that help make this possible. However, the simple fact is that this won’t be achieved unless Labour has policies which meet your aspirations – a commitment to public ownership of our railways would be a great start!

I also understand that many of you, whilst recognising the importance of our union having a political voice, will not want to become members of the Labour Party. That is why our campaigns are focussed on the issues that affect you – so that everyone can get involved irrespective of party affiliation. In fact, our political strategy also seeks to involve passengers in our campaign for public ownership and affordable fares. Perhaps, most importantly, the role of a trade union is to represent your collective wishes as determined by you, be that within your workplace, your branch or at our conference. As much as I would welcome Labour becoming a mass party of working people, this can’t be done at the expense of your collective voice.

Let’s face it, the Labour Party can’t operate effectively if it simply becomes a party of individuals. Its raison d’e?tre is to provide a political voice for organised workers. There can’t be a Labour Party without a Labour Movement and there is no Labour Movement without trade unions. In short, any attempt to end the collective representation of your aspirations will by default lead to the creation of a ‘new party’ that could not honestly be called a ‘labour party’. That is why we will continue working extremely hard to ensure that your?collective voice prevails.


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