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Labour Party Conference ’19 The unions, alongside the Labour Party, will help rebuild Britain after nine years of Tory austerity

MICK WHELAN, leader of train drivers’ union Aslef and chair of Labour Unions, reflects on the importance of the labour movement to the Labour Party

I HAVE been a member of the Labour Party, and an active trade union member, all my working life. 

For me, as for many people, including all those of us who read the Morning Star every day, they go together.

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 activists — at the start of the last century.

It was the trade unions — the voice of the organised working class — which formed the Labour Representation Committee at a meeting in Farringdon, central London, just a few hundred yards from where Aslef’s head office is today. 

There’s a plaque on the wall to commemorate the event which gives me pleasure whenever I walk past.

That was back in 1900. The 29 LRC members of Parliament returned to Westminster at the 1906 general election elected Keir Hardie, MP for Merthyr Tydfil, as leader, and adopted the name of the Labour Party.

From time to time, over the last 119 years, there have been calls — usually, though not exclusively, from the right — to break the link between the Labour Party and the labour movement. 

But to remove the collective voice of organised labour from the Labour Party would be to destroy its foundations. Quite literally. And for what purpose? 

The only people who want that — and they are not all in the Conservative Party — are not on the side of the angels. 

They want to marginalise, if not destroy, the trade unions, and they want to diminish, if not destroy, the Labour Party.

Because they are frightened of the power of the organised working class — as Shelley wrote, after Peterloo, “Ye are many, they are few” — and protecting the vested interests of the few.

This is a critical time for the Labour Party and the labour movement. An election is imminent — I expect it to be called for mid- or late-November — and a Labour government, committed to socialist values, with a manifesto pledged to deliver the ideas for which we in the labour movement have fought so long, could be in power before Christmas.

Then the trade unions, alongside the Labour Party, will help rebuild Britain after nine years of Tory austerity, first in the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition, under David Cameron and Nick Clegg, and then under Theresa May and Boris Johnson.

There were times, during the New Labour years, when my union — in fact, all unions — were treated by Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson as if we were distant relatives rather than close family, the embarrassing uncle at the Christmas party. 

It wasn’t just that Tony and Peter and the New Labour apparatchiks in Progress were embarrassed by the union link — which is a bit rich considering the history of a party born out of the labour movement — they were embarrassed by our values as well.

But Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell are proud and passionate trade unionists who understand the history — and the values — of the labour movement. 

I remember Jeremy making his first major speech as Labour Party leader, at the Trades Union Congress in Brighton in 2015, when he spoke about his work as a union activist, saying he was delighted to address congress. 

Something, he added dryly, he thought every Labour leader should do.

He talked about the role of unions in the history of the party, promised to restore the values of the unions to the heart of the party and made a commitment to repeal the Trade Union Bill then going through Parliament. 

He rejected suggestions that “trade union solidarity” was “a thing of the past” and unequivocally stated his belief that trade unions are a force for good in Britain, with an influence not just in the workplace but throughout society. 

Jeremy was right then. And he was right earlier this month when, back in Brighton for the TUC, he pledged to put power “in the hands of the workers” by implementing the biggest expansion of employment rights in British history. 

He promised radical action to transform our lives by driving up wages, improving job security, and giving employees more say in how their companies are run.

A Labour government will set up a ministry for employment rights with a remit to improve pay and conditions for workers across Britain. 

It will appoint a secretary of state for employment rights and a workers’ protection agency to enforce standards in the workplace. 

And, reiterating the party’s pledge to repeal the Trade Union Act 2016, Jeremy said unions will get the right, again, to organise in workplaces, and reps will be protected against being sacked for union activities.

The Labour-union link has been a historic — and successful — relationship for more than a century. 

Trade unions formed the party to give working people a voice in Parliament as well as the workplace. 

I am proud to be a member of the Labour Party and proud to be an active trade unionist. 

I am loyal to both traditions — to our labour movement — and passionately believe this link will enable the party to get into government at the general election.

Mick Whelan has spent 35 years on the railway, and 35 years as an active trade unionist. He was elected general secretary of Aslef in 2011; became chair of the Trade Union & Labour Party Liaison Organisation, now Labour Unions, in 2016; and, in 2017, was elected to the Labour Party NEC.


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