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HAROLD WILSON, who won four general elections, making him, electorally, a more successful Labour leader than either Clement Attlee or Tony Blair, famously argued: “The Labour Party is a moral crusade or it is nothing.”
And he was right. The Labour Party, our party, lost its way when it forgot that basic truth, when the party became obsessed with worrying about the latest piece of loaded “research” from a free-market think tank or CBI-sponsored focus group rather than representing the aims and aspirations of the vast majority of ordinary hard-working men and women in this country.
During the dark days of the New Labour years my trade union — in fact, all trade unions — were treated by Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson as if we were distant relatives rather than close family — an embarrassing uncle who has to be invited to the Christmas party — and it was, sometimes, hard to keep the faith. But we did.
Because we knew the Tories, and the Lib Dems, would be worse.
It wasn’t just that Blair and Mandelson and the New Labour apparatchiks were embarrassed by the Labour Party’s link with the trade unions — which is a bit rich considering the history of a political party born, as it was, out of the labour movement, to be the voice in Parliament of working men and women in Britain’s trade unions — they were embarrassed by our values as well.
That’s why it was so refreshing, at the 150th Trades Union Congress in Manchester earlier this month, to hear shadow chancellor John McDonnell spell out the Labour Party’s attitude to the labour movement now.
McDonnell got a rousing reception when he told us: “Jeremy and I are determined that never again will the link between the Labour Party and the trade unions be considered anachronistic. We are one movement — the labour and trade union movement!”
Jeremy Corbyn and McDonnell and the talented team they have assembled around them on the opposition front bench are proud — not embarrassed or ashamed, as the Blairites were — to talk about the labour movement and socialist values and public ownership.
They don’t want to manage the market better than the Conservative Party, which was, essentially, the offer New Labour made in 1997 to an electorate tired of hapless Tories caught with their fingers in the till. They want to transform the society in which we live.
They want to build a better Britain — for the many, not the few — and create a fairer, more modern country, with a more productive economy that delivers for all the people and is fit for the 21st century.
Morgan Phillips, a colliery worker from Aberdare in the Rhondda, who, as general secretary of the Labour Party, played a key role in the general election victories of 1945 and 1950, once said that our party “owes more to Methodism than Marxism.”
He might be right, but McDonnell has never been shy about talking of his admiration for the ideas advanced in Das Kapital.
“The Labour Party is a socialist party, and proud of it.” That was what it said in the election manifesto in 1945. And a country tired, not just of the depravations of war, but of the way the Tories and Conservative-led national governments had run, and ruined, our country in the 1920s and ’30s, voted overwhelmingly for that transformational socialist platform.
Labour won 393 out of 640 seats in the House of Commons (the Tories got just 210) with 47.7 per cent of the vote. Labour had a staggering majority of 145 over all other parties.
Attlee was determined to seize the economic levers of power in this country by bringing Britain’s strategic heavy industries and our key public utilities into the public sector.
Partly, this was because the private sector had failed. Partly, because the Labour government led by Attlee and which included people such as Stafford Cripps, Nye Bevan, Hugh Dalton, Ernest Bevin, as well as a very young Harold Wilson at the Board of Trade, had to rebuild a shattered country after the second world war.
And partly, it was because they wanted to remake Britain as a better, fairer, country which worked for the many, not just a few.
I have been a trade union activist and Labour Party member all my working adult life.
As a trade union general secretary, chair of Tulo, which co-ordinates the activities of all the unions which affiliate to the Labour Party, and member of Labour’s NEC, I am thrilled to have a leader and party which wants to work with the labour movement.
A Labour leader and Labour Party which will go to the country at the next general election with an exciting, popular, socialist platform. It’s nice to have our party back because, as Harold Wilson said, the Labour Party is a moral crusade or it is nothing.
Mick Whelan has spent 34 years on the railway and 34 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 in 2016 and was elected to Labour’s national executive committee in September 2017.
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