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I’VE been a member of the Labour Party, and an active trade unionist, all my working life. For me, as for many people, including most of us who read the Morning Star six days a week, 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 — at the start of the 20th century.
To remove the collective voice of organised labour from the Labour Party would be to destroy its foundations. Quite literally. And for what purpose? Other than to shift the party — which, under Jeremy Corbyn, is on the brink of power — to perpetual opposition.
The call to disengage the party from the unions will only sabotage all the good work that Jeremy has been doing since he was elected leader two-and-a-half years ago, and undermine our efforts to rid this country of a Conservative government that is damaging working men and women every day.
It’s ironic that the call for unions to disaffiliate — to break the bonds between the unions and party — came from a voice on the left. Ironic because there were times, in the New Labour years, when my trade union — and all trade unions — were treated by Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson as if we were distant relatives rather than close family friends — like an embarrassing uncle at the Christmas party — and it was, sometimes, hard to keep the faith.
But we did. Because we knew the Tories, and the Liberal Democrats, would be worse. And so they proved in coalition from 2010 to 2015. And so the Tory governments of David Cameron and Theresa May have proved since 2015.
It wasn’t just that Tony and Peter and the New Labour apparatchiks surrounding them were embarrassed by the trade union link, which is a bit rich considering the history of a Labour Party born, as it was, out of the labour movement. They were embarrassed by our values as well.
But Jeremy Corbyn is a proud and passionate trade unionist who understands the history — and the values — of the labour movement in this country. I clearly recall Jeremy making his first major speech as Labour Party leader, at the TUC in Brighton in 2015, when he gave delegates a brief CV of his work as a union activist and said he was delighted to address Congress. Something, he added drily, that he thought every Labour Party 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 an unqualified 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’s right. The Labour Party’s link with the trade union movement has been a historic — and successful — relationship for more than a century. Trade unions formed the party to give ordinary working people a voice in Parliament as well as the workplace. That link is as important now as it was then, and I’m determined to ensure that the concerns of trade unionists are heard as the party shapes policy, and to provide the party with a bridge to the communities it seeks to serve.
Anyone who knows anything about the history of the party and the labour movement in this country knows that we are one movement, and an attack on union affiliation is not just unhelpful but, frankly, bizarre.
Disaffiliation would be like shooting ourselves in the foot. It would also be hugely disrespectful to the thousands of Labour Party members who are also dedicated and active trade unionists.
I am proud to be a member of the Labour Party and I am proud to be an active trade unionist. I am loyal to both traditions — to our movement — and I passionately believe that this link will enable the party to get into government at the next general election. Let’s not put all that at risk now.
Mick Whelan is Aslef general secretary and a national executive member of the Labour Party.
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