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Crunch time for the Bakers’ Union – and Keir Starmer

BFAWU members are on the cusp of voting whether to continue their century-long relationship with Labour. The union’s president IAN HODSON says, come what may, they won’t be backing down on the working-class right to have a political voice

SEPTEMBER 28 will see our delegates recalled to an online conference to debate our relationship with the Labour Party 

This is a relationship that spans three centuries, with the first recorded meeting being with Labour’s first elected MP, Keir Hardie, in 1893, following a demonstration of journeymen and Jewish bakers in London. 

But it seems that in the Sir Keir Starmer party of 2021 there is no place for working-class organisations like the BFAWU. He and those around him prefer to suggest that we are entryists.

Somehow being part of Labour’s 121-year history is irrelevant in the party’s push for acceptance as “a safe pair of hands” by the capitalist class. 

The corporations and wealthy individuals are the people being urged to play the biggest role under the latest Keir’s stewardship — in complete contrast with Keir Hardie’s aim of creating a party that represents the labouring classes.

As BFAWU president, I was targeted for carrying out the directions of our union in supporting justice for those suspended from the party. 

Calling for the right to know why you have been suspended and entitlement to fair hearing process is now seemingly unacceptable to the current right-wing faction that surrounds the Labour leadership. 

What people would expect as basic rights are now alien to the party that once stood for equality and justice. 

Now, regardless of fact, regardless of evidence, Labour will expel anyone who won’t support the shift from the party being the voice of the workers to being the representatives of the status quo. 

But the status quo is not why our union helped found the Labour Party. 

In opening the debate in the union, our then general secretary, John Jenkins, opened with the following comments: “When the old Chartists, as they have been styled, were battling for political and fiscal liberty in the early part of the last century, they little thought that Labour would have the same difficulties to overcome in a different way at the beginning of the 20th century.

“Their ideas were, if we can only gain five points of their charter, vote by ballot, universal suffrage, payment of members [of Parliament], abolition of property qualification and annual parliaments, the country would never look back in the way of progress and when the Corn Laws were repealed in 1846 salvation was assured for workers.”

I’m not sure what he’d make of the pay that parliamentarians get today — and the expenses that go alongside them — and how distant that has made them from the reality of the lives that they rule over. I don’t believe that’s what either the Chartists or our general secretary had in mind. 

I believe the expectation was that the representatives of labour would raise all working people up, not just feather their own nests in their safe seats, immune from being held accountable by the membership — and screaming like banshees when it was suggested. 

Labour MPs are part of the labour movement — and they should be representing the interests of the working class, not their own personal positions or those that have been paid for. 

Jenkins then went on to highlight how the Industrial Revolution changed the relationship between capital and labour and how the wealth of the country at the time had massively grown.

He then raised the fact that his gracious majesty King Edward VII was arranging to give a dinner for 500,000 very poor people. Let us think about that — at the turn of the century, half a million people needed to be fed in London, which was then the wealthiest city in the wealthiest country in the world. 

It is unfortunately true today that, despite 121 years of the Labour Party’s existence, we as a union are working with others to get Westminster to enshrine the Right to Food into law. 

Jenkins would have been devastated to see that all these years later, even after thumping Labour majorities, poverty remains deep in our communities and that we need footballers to stand up as politicians neglect to ensure provision for schoolchildren. 

Politics has failed us, and no matter what diversion tactics they use — blaming migrants, benefit claimants, or any other marginalised sector of our communities — the fact is that it’s politicians and the business class who are responsible for the hardship we suffer in our society.

Having failed to win an election since 2005, you would think the Labour Party would want to build a political organisation that is inclusive, that looks outwards not inwards. 

But with Labour conference now about to start, there is a power grab. The spin is that Starmer’s push to scrap the “one member, one vote” approach to party leadership elections will provide more power for trade unions to influence the party — but that is not the intention at all. 

The divisive decision to attempt to return to the electoral colleges is about giving MPs more power — the same MPs, in many cases, who have worked against the party time and again, who were responsible for voting for the Iraq war, who failed to oppose the welfare Bill, who abstained on the triple lock for pensioners, and who endorsed the Covid calamity that has led to thousands of deaths, and — let’s not forget — who backed the Brexit deal without seeing the contents. 

This decision is to ensure that they have the power to choose their man, or maybe at some point a woman. 

Let’s be absolutely clear — the idea that denying members the right to have a say is a massive red flag to anyone who believes in democracy. 

As unions, we stand on platforms for democracy, so to support such a move would go against everything the trade union movement believes in. 

No right-minded trade unionist should fall into the trap being set to divide unions and Labour Party members, and there should be an absolutely united position by Labour’s trade union affiliates to say No to this divisive power-play by a factional leadership. 

There are extraordinary similarities between the situation that faces the working class now and that in 1902, when a faction-ridden Liberal leadership assumed working-class voters had nowhere else to go — we all know what happened when the labour movement moved away from supporting the Liberal Party. 

It’s a real warning from history. If Labour is to exist in the future as the representative of the labouring classes, it’s either got to connect with unions and communities, build a movement that encourages people to become involved, and offer real change to improve people’s lives — or it can continue its current trajectory of denying its membership a voice and a vote, demonising its own supporters in pursuit of soft Tory voters and trying to beg for crumbs off the rich man’s table. Promises to continue with the status quo will lead to failure to win for another decade.

But I want to make it absolutely clear — whatever decision is taken by our delegates at our recalled conference, we won’t be leaving the fight for the right of our class to have a political voice. We won’t be silent on political issues. We will continue to develop our political aims, both in and out of the workplace. 

In recent years our members have stood up and been prepared to challenge the big issues of the day. 

We saw our members strike against the use of zero-hours contracts which led to our campaign for their abolition. 

We will continue to build across unorganised sectors that saw us take direct action and strikes in places like McDonald’s and Wetherspoon to end youth rates and for £15 an hour. We won’t back down on our demand to raise wages for all workers. 

Our movement isn’t reliant on a political party to win — history is testament to that. The reality is it’s people who make change. It’s politicians who lack real ambition and are holding us back.

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