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LAST weekend I was honoured to be the guest speaker at the biannual meeting of Unite the Union’s United Left — the left network within the UK’s largest trade union.
Addressing that meeting gave me an opportunity to reflect on the key role that the United Left, and more widely the left across the trade union movement, has played in getting us to a socialist-led Labour Party and hopefully a socialist led government.
United Left played an absolutely central role in making Unite the Union a fighting, left-led trade union. Key to that was the development of Unite’s Political Programme which Unite general secretary Len McCluskey declared was “to reclaim the Labour Party for working class values.”
And the Political Programme has certainly played a key role in, in its own words, “winning Labour for working people” in recent years.
Before being elected as an MP, I worked with Unite the Union’s regional political officer in my own region to promote Unite’s Political Programme and to help organise for, and mobilise behind, its aims. I remember at the time that some scoffed and said that it was a waste of effort for a trade union to try to win the Labour Party back for working class representation and socialist politics. How wrong they were!
Through support from its shop stewards and activists and allies across the left and through the union’s excellent political education initiatives, this was central to the selection and subsequent election of working class and socialist parliamentary candidates — back when few would have even dreamed that somebody with Jeremy Corbyn’s politics would be elected as leader of the Labour Party.
Making no bones about it, without those organising efforts there wouldn’t have been sufficient left MPs to nominate Jeremy in the first leadership election. And without the action and support from Len McCluskey’s left leadership at times of the most acute and ferocious attacks on Jeremy from establishment forces, we wouldn’t be in the position in which we are now in — building on the historic electoral advance at the 2017 general election, with Jeremy leading a party of well over half a million members and a socialist-led Labour government a real possibility.
More widely, the example of the key role that Unite the Union has played in the advance for progressive and socialist politics in recent years is a reminder of the vital importance of the trade unions to our socialist project.
Of course, the trade unions founded the Labour Party and Labour’s first leader Keir Hardie was a trade unionist and socialist.
It was the trade unions that saved the Labour Party in the aftermath of Ramsay MacDonald’s betrayal, when he headed up a national government to continue the politics of austerity.
The Labour Party wouldn’t be the Labour Party without the trade unions. The trade union link makes the Labour Party unique among our sister socialist and social democratic parties in Europe.
But the importance of trade unions to our movement goes way beyond historical or sentimental reasons, just as it goes way beyond the financial backing trade unions give to Labour campaigns and their other efforts to get Labour into government.
An effective link with our trade unions locks the Labour Party in to the day-to-day realities of millions of working people and helps to remind the Labour Party that our business is class politics.
It’s no accident that the Liberal Democrats have such a hatred for trade unions — collectivism and the idea of an organised working class movement is an anathema to their ideology. Nor is it an accident that Tony Blair sought to weaken the union link in his bid to turn Labour into a British version of the US Democratic Party.
In the post-Iraq War years of the Blair government it was the unions that kept the flag flying in the party, especially following the election of the new generation of general secretaries — labelled the “awkward squad.” It was the unions that were raising and winning issues at party conference and who offered key support to the new wave of social movements such as Stop the War and the People’s Assembly Against Austerity when the Labour Party wasn’t offering strong enough leadership.
And we must not forget that it was through working with the trade unions that Labour produced some of the most popular policies in our history, for our 2017 general election manifesto.
Today, thankfully, we have energy and enthusiasm coming from all wings of our party. As I said at numerous fringe meetings at Labour’s annual conference, all wings of our party are vital and we need unity across left currents in the Parliamentary Labour Party, the wider membership of the Labour Party and the left within the trade unions.
We need a party that’s in contact with all of society — a true people’s party of the 99 per cent. Everyone has their role to play in that. Momentum and others can be constant bridges between the Labour Party and wider social movements to ensure that we are a party anchored in the progressive struggles of working people — be that anti-fracking activists or those mobilising against the far-right. Likewise trade unions allow us to be in direct contact with the wide-ranging concerns of organised working people. The formal union link ensures these concerns can directly influence the heart of our Party.
We cannot afford to make the error of falling into the establishment’s “divide and rule” trap. The only beneficiaries from false divisions within the left currents that span the coalition that is our movement are the right-wing forces of the establishment.
It’s no coincidence that that establishment holds a special place of hatred in its heart for both Jeremy Corbyn and Len McCluskey, just as it did for people like Tony Benn and Bob Crow in the past. The trade unions — and, crucially, the left current within the trade union movement — are key to securing a Labour government, led by Jeremy Corbyn, that serves the many.
Richard Burgon is shadow justice secretary. He writes this column fortnightly.
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