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Editorial: The bakers’ disaffiliation from Labour – a wake-up call to the whole movement

THE decision by the bakers’ union to disaffiliate from Labour ends a historic relationship older than the party itself.

President Ian Hodson notes that Keir Starmer should “hang his head in shame” at having provoked the end of ties that stretch across three centuries.

With motions opposed by the leader’s office passing every day, the resignation of his shadow employment rights minister exposing his role in blocking support for raising the minimum wage and statutory sick pay and now the disaffiliation of a union that helped to found the party, conference 2021 is looking less like a car crash for Starmer than a multi-vehicle pile-up.

Labour apparently made numerous promises to the bakers that it would take steps to resolve the crisis provoked by its threat to “auto-exclude” their president. Its failure to deliver on these promises in time to prevent today’s momentous decision indicates incompetence or duplicity; with Starmer’s team it is difficult to know which.

The reasons the union gives for disaffiliation touch on two key features of Keir Starmer’s leadership.

The first is the targeting of Hodson in the first place. 

The decision to ban membership of four left organisations this summer reflects the extreme intolerance and authoritarianism that characterise Labour’s “new management.” 

Transparently a bid to hound out socialists, the party machine’s behaviour since — excluding members for having had dealings with these groups before they were banned, demanding that members prove a negative by providing evidence that they did not support these organisations — are a travesty of justice which demonstrates the contempt in which Labour officialdom holds Labour members.

In picking on Hodson, Labour threw a gauntlet to the bakers. As general secretary Sarah Woolley says, BFAWU members saw the attack on their president as an attack on them. “When you pick on one of us you pick on all of us,” the union statement reads; “that’s what solidarity means.” 

The BFAWU here is grappling with a fundamental question for the whole left: how do we respond to the smearing and persecution of thousands of committed socialists and trade unionists by the current Labour leadership? How do we stand with them?

The second is the question on so many trade unionists’ lips: what is the Labour Party doing for us? 

Why is it opposing pay rises for key workers who have kept the country running through an unprecedented crisis? Why is it opposing higher sick pay in a global pandemic — when union after union has reported members being terrified even to get tested for Covid because they can’t afford time off sick?

The two aspects are of course interlinked. Labour’s current leadership are, to quote Hodson, “in the bosses’ pocket.” And it is engaged in an all-consuming campaign to smash the radical left that gave hope of real change to so many in the party’s very recent past.

Its purges of a left that was easily routed at the last leadership election, like its desperation to change rules around reselecting MPs that posed no threat to any sitting MP, might smack of paranoia. 

But they reflect a Labour right that understands the left is popular and that its socialist programme commands wide public sympathy. No chance, however small, of a left resurgence can be allowed. We must never underestimate the ruthlessness  of the right — but its very extremism is testament to the potential it knows the left still has.

The bakers are a fighting union. Their McStrike campaigns have given them one of the highest profiles of any union among the young, and the delegates who have voted to disaffiliate are poorly paid workers, mostly from old “red wall” seats. 

If Labour loses people like these, its chances of electoral recovery shrink still further. All affiliated unions have good reason to make the bakers’ departure a wake-up call.

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