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Trade unions and the Labour Party must walk hand in hand

MICK WHELAN, general secretary of Aslef, the train drivers’ trade union, explains the background to the Labour-union link, and the importance of electing a Labour government on December 12

PEOPLE often ask me – especially during a general election campaign – why the Labour Party is so close to the trade union movement. Probably because most school history lessons are long on Kings and Queens of the Middle Ages and short on more recent social and industrial history. Although, when I say recent, I am talking about 120 years ago!

The answer to the question, though, is simple. It’s because the Labour Party was formed by the trade unions. I know my industrial and labour movement history and, even if I didn’t, I would be reminded because I pass a plaque to that fact every day.

Trade unions formed the Labour Representation Committee on February 27 1900 at a meeting in the Congregational Memorial Hall – it is often said that the Labour Party owes more to Methodism than Marxism! – in Farringdon, central London, a few hundred yards from the Aslef head office.
The Conservative Party represented the interests of the landed aristocracy; the Liberal Party the interests of the mill owners and industrialists who had made their money in the Victorian era; and the trade unions – struggling then, as now, for decent wages, terms and conditions for ordinary hard-working men and women – wanted, understandably, a political party to represent them.

Twenty-nine Labour Representation Committee candidates were returned as Members of Parliament to Westminster at the 1906 general election. They elected Keir Hardie, MP for Merthyr Tydfil, as their leader and adopted the name of the Labour Party.

Now I’ve been a member of the Labour Party, and an active trade unionist, all my working life. For me, as for many people, they walk hand in hand. Why? Because the Labour Party was built by the collective voice of the trade unions – and the work on the streets of Britain by hundreds of thousands of trade union members – throughout the 20th century.

The achievements in education, health care, and social provision of the great reforming Labour governments led by Clement Attlee from 1945-50 and 1950-51 were successes for trade unions and working people, too.

I am proud that my trade union, Aslef, is affiliated to the Labour Party. The decision by members to affiliate, and to enshrine it in our rule book, was taken because the party was founded by unions to give us a voice in Parliament to fight for the rights – including universal suffrage – of working men and women.

And we need the Labour Party now more than ever. The truth is that nobody gave us the salaries and conditions we enjoy today; it has taken many years of industrial negotiation and political struggle to get where we are. Trade unions fight for better wages and better terms and conditions at work, and also for education, housing, health, and social mobility. In short, for a better Britain for the many, not the few.

Because the Tory Party is the party of the bosses. And bosses – whether it’s a 19th century mill owner, or a 21st century start-up – crave the chance to hire and fire on a whim, as the fancy takes them. Your face may fit today, but perhaps not tomorrow? That’s why they love the gig economy, and zero-hours contracts. They hate trade unions and secure jobs and good wages that unions achieve for their members, and the sense of solidarity that unions inspire. The policy of many employers – and of the Conservative Party – is to divide and rule.

I want to see a Labour government under Jeremy Corbyn returned on December 12. Labour is offering voters a radical, but sensible, socialist platform on which any of the great Labour Party leaders of the past – such as Keir Hardie, Clement Attlee, and Harold Wilson – would have been happy to stand. A manifesto to save our National Health Service from being flogged off to his American friends, and to build a better Britain.

Jeremy understands that unions are a force for good in Britain with an influence not just in the workplace but throughout society. That’s why he has pledged to repeal the anti-union legislation brought in by Margaret Thatcher, John Major and David Cameron.

The right to strike – to withdraw your labour – is recognised, in civilised countries, as a fundamental human right. Because we are not slaves. Striking is always a last resort, and the result of management intransigence and reluctance to negotiate. I am not surprised, though, that Boris Johnson and his cronies want to make it harder for working people to get the pay, secure jobs, terms, and conditions that they deserve.
And that’s why I’m voting Labour later this month.
Mick has spent 35 years on the railway, and 35 years as an active trade unionist. He began in the rail industry as a guard, on British Rail’s Midland region, in 1984. He was, first, a member, and then a rep, for the NUR. When he became a train driver in 1988 he joined Aslef, the train drivers’ union, and was elected regional organiser for the Midland region in 2000 and then elected general secretary of Aslef in 2011. He became chair of the Trade Union & Labour Party Liaison Organisation, now known as LabourUnions, which co-ordinates the activities of the trade unions which affiliate to the Labour Party, in 2016; and, in September 2017, was elected to the national executive committee of the Labour Party.


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