Ever since the Labour Representation Committee, the Independent Labour Party, the Social Democratic Federation and the Fabians, an alliance of trade union organisations and intellectuals seeking parliamentary representation to protect workers rights and interests, met at Farringdon Street in February, 1900, the trade union movement and the Labour Party have been intricately intertwined. At the turn of the 20th century there were 2 million trade union members. The weakness of these organisations had been their disunity; the success of the Labour party was to harness their strength into a single political party. During that meeting in late February, the 129 delegates agreed to establish “a distinct Labour group in Parliament” and, in 1906, the Labour Party was formed.
The relationship between trade unions and the Labour Party is rooted in the history and values of the labour movement. We are right to be passionately proud of our past and the heritage that trade unionism shares with the Labour Party. It was therefore deeply disappointing to read possibly one of the most ill-informed pieces ever to appear on LabourList. Poorly written, with seemingly little or no research undertaken, it was a loose collection or well-worn anti trade union rhetoric and reheated Blairism.
The era of the Labour Party defining itself against the trade unions is over. A great part of Blair’s project was to try and lobotomise the Labour Party: to purge it of its history, to abolish its past. That was what the audacious term “New Labour” meant. It succeeded in alienating millions of what would otherwise have been Labour voters. Indeed, analysis of the 5 million votes Labour lost between 1997 and 2010 shows that 41% of C2 voters, or the lower-middle class, to use “socialist-extremist” terminology, abandoned the party during the 13 years.
Ultimately, Wednesday is not about the Labour Party, Ed Miliband or infantile articles on LabourList. It’s about the 6 million trade union members who are fighting for their pensions. The average pension in local government is around just £4,000 per year and in the Civil Service it is £6,500. These are far from the oft-recited “gold plated” pensions that the Conservatives and their media allies relay. It is yet another example of where the government and the media have been allowed to lead the narrative. The Daily Express, for instance, thundered ‘No surrender to these greedy and selfish strikers’ – rather disgracefully linking the terminology of the Troubles in Northern Ireland to our public sector. The Daily Mail, for another example, has warned of no less than 14 summers or winters “of discontent” over the past decade.
On the issue of public sector pensions, Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister involved in the negotiations, is on record as saying that the current offer is “pretty bloody reasonable”. This highlights why the ‘we’re all in this together’ mantra is so derided; we’re not. Maude and his Cabinet colleagues can look forward to enjoying more than £43,000 a year in retirement at the taxpayers’ expense. Not that any one of the 18 Cabinet millionaires would necessarily need it.
Tomorrow George Osborne will deliver his austere autumn statement. Unemployment is at a 17-year high; the numbers of young people not in work, training or education has risen to more than a million. Five people pursue each vacancy. The OECD have just announced they expect Britain to slid back in to recession next year. In this climate of economic fear, trade unions can play a pivotal role in providing a source of security and acting as a potent vehicle for millions of ordinary Britons who fear for their future.
The right to withdraw your labour is one of the few remaining options available to working people. Because of the greed, corruption and negligence of bankers and the governments which turned a blind eye to it all, ordinary workers are seeing their financial future’s sacrificed. If the Labour Party can help, in any way, to provide a secure, prosperous future for the millions who will strike on Wednesday, then we must remember why those 129 people gathered on Farringdon Street over a century ago.