We are one movement, and the Labour leadership forgets that at its peril

Mick Whelan

On a couple of bitterly cold winter days back in 1900 – Monday 26th and Tuesday 27th February – a group of men in heavy woollen suits, coats and scarves met at the congregational memorial hall on Farringdon Street, just around the corner from what is now ASLEF’s head office, to set up the Labour Representation Committee (LRC). The 129 delegates present represented a broad range of working-class and left-wing opinion – from trade union activists to the Independent Labour Party, the Social Democratic Federation and the Fabian Society.

They were all disenchanted with the Liberal Party and approved a plan, proposed by Keir Hardie, to get ordinary people into parliament to “promote legislation in the direct interests of labour” – meaning working-class men and women impatient for better pay and working conditions, proper holidays, decent pensions and unemployment benefit.

The LRC – formed at the end of the Victorian era, when millions of men and women worked in mills and mines and factories and shipyards in the South Wales valleys, the towns along the River Clyde and great industrial swathes of Lancashire, Yorkshire and County Durham – won two seats at the general election of 1900, 29 in 1906 (when its MPs changed its name to the Labour Party) and 18 years later, in 1924, formed its first government under Ramsay MacDonald, the illegitimate son on a farm labourer and a housemaid.

In 1945, under Clement Attlee, Labour won a landslide, with 393 of 640 seats in the Commons, establishing the NHS and welfare state and nationalising mines and steelworks, utilities such as gas, water and electricity and, of course, our railways. Harold Wilson famously claimed that “the Labour Party is a moral crusade or it is nothing” and won elections in 1964, 1966 and (two) in 1974. And, in 1997, under Tony Blair the party won 418 of 659 seats in parliament and went on to hold power for 13 years.

My trade union – in fact, all trade unions – were treated by Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson, during the dark days of the New Labour years, as if we were distant relatives rather than close family; an embarrassing uncle who has to be invited to the Christmas party. And it was sometimes hard to keep the faith. We did. Because we knew the Tories and the Lib Dems would be worse than a right-wing Labour government.

But I find it utterly extraordinary that, earlier this week, the leader of the Labour Party, a political party forged in the white heat of the trade union movement, should sack a shadow transport minister for standing on a picket line at Euston station in support of working people who are doing nothing more than trying to protect their jobs, their pensions and their terms and conditions – and have had the temerity to ask for an increase in salary to keep pace with the rise in the cost of living in this country. If Labour does not believe in those things – in all of those things – then what does Labour stand for?

Sam Tarry, I should add, is a very good MP and was a very hard-working shadow minister who did the right thing in showing solidarity with working people. He has been treated, I think, very shabbily by Keir Starmer.

I am chair of Labour Unions, which used to be called TULO (the Trade Union & Labour Party Liaison Organisation), that represents all the unions – including Unite, Unison, and the GMB – affiliated to the party. That includes ASLEF, of course, which has been affiliated to Labour since the party was founded. After a long and spirited debate at our annual conference in May, delegates voted 74-9 (with one abstention) against a motion to disaffiliate.

I said at the time: “ASLEF is a democratic organisation and our members have voted to continue to affiliate. That is the decision of the delegates here in Bournemouth, and that is what we will do. It is clear, though, that there is a measure of disquiet with the direction of travel of the party and I hope that the Labour leadership will listen to what the speakers said. The public pledge by Lou Haigh, the Shadow Transport Secretary, to bring our railways back into public ownership is the message our members – and the travelling public – wanted to hear.”

The decision to sack Sam Tarry was not only wrong, it was stupid. Bad politics. And poor leadership. And it is one that the Labour leader – and those around him – will, I believe, live to regret. Because I believe we are one movement, the Labour Party and the labour movement, and we forget that at our peril.

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