Last summer I attended a political meeting of the CWU (Communication Workers Union) Youth Forum – a good opportunity to meet young members and shop stewards from around the country and hear their concerns. It was not an easy event – the frustration with the Labour Party was palpable. From the unwillingness of the Government to repeal restrictive trade union legislation to the war in Iraq, they did not hesitate in expressing their grievances….and this was before the publication of the Government’s plans for the Royal Mail.
The general feeling was that the Party did not represent them – that it had stopped listening to them. I listened to what they had to say, then carefully asked which of them had spoken or written to their local Labour MP about their concerns.
There was an uneasy silence.
The reality was that most of them had little engagement with the Labour Party. They didn’t understand the internal structures of the Party. Whilst they understood that the trade union movement had created the Labour Party to be its political voice, they had no idea of how to make the Labour Party hear their voice. So I explained that whilst there are formal processes, these they should not prevent them from making their concerns clear to our elected politicians. Nor should they obscure the true value of the party – union relationship.
The truth is that the Labour Party is the party of the labour movement. It was created to represent the common values of trade unions and socialists who were seeking to create a better world for working people and their dependents. That goal remains enshrined within the Party constitution to this day.
The link between the Labour Party and its affiliated trade unions is more than the crude financial transactional relationship that our enemies have sought to portray. If it were, our long periods in opposition would have made such a relationship unviable and indefensible. During the wilderness years of the 1980′s the trade union movement gained little from the Labour Party. Instead the unions suffered badly at the hands of the Conservative Party for supporting their political enemies. But not once did the trade union support for the Labour Party falter – because the link is about our shared values.
It is the realisation that the trade union movement cannot change the world in the workplace alone. Nor can the political left challenge the wealth and power of the Conservative Party without the financial and organisational strength of the trade union movement. The great social progress of the 20th Century was not some happy accident – it arose from the combination of industrial and political strength in the form of the labour movement. This is the value of the link – our sum total is greater than our component parts.
I think that those young activists knew this already – it is intuitive to both Trade Union and Labour Party members. The crucial missing element is that, like so many others within the trade union movement, they were not talking to the very people that their union had worked so hard to elect. Although we need party structures in order to conduct formal business, these should not be a barrier that prevents Labour from hearing the concerns of local trade unionists. But in order for Labour to hear, we must speak.
But this alone will not be enough – the Labour Party must not only listen but also heed the concerns of its brethren in the trade union movement. To dismiss those voices as ‘vested interests’, or to make contact only when the coffers need topping up, is to dismiss our shared values and forget our common goals.
History is clear on what happens when we do. We need to continue to work together.