Trade Unions: A link between Labour and people
The trade union movement has been vilified and persecuted throughout its existence, but Mrs Thatcher’s campaign more so than anything dealt a concussive blow to its strength and integrity. Her message of individualism fundamentally poisoned their public image beyond what could have been expected. Critics exclaim that trade unions ‘held the country to ransom’, that they’re counter-productive and stop honest people earning a living.
The most damaging effect of Thatcher’s successful coup was to start a corrosive trend that has seen the relationship between the Labour Party and the trade union movement gradually break down. Neil Kinnock initiated Labour’s move towards the mythical centre ground of politics which saw the working class, embodied by the union movement, alienated from the mainstream. This accelerated with the advent of Blair and his New Labour project with the uncompressing embrace of neo-liberalism. Now that Ed Miliband is moving to alter the rules between Labour and the unions again, the party has reached a critical juncture in its history. The Labour Party could further distance itself from its affiliation with trade unions, or begin to reverse that trend. Instead of pandering to the taunts of the Tories, Labour should remember its origins and the people that it stands for.
The problem is that the principle on which the trade union movement was founded has been confused and twisted. Unions grew out of the collective will of the working class, the refusal to be exploited and the belief that together they could strive towards better things. They have fought and fought again in the face of fierce opposition, for the ordinary working man and women. Despite some past misgivings the achievements of the union movement is self-evident and illustrates that they are a force for good and justice for the majority of Britons. The weekend, annual leave, eight hour day, minimum wage, maternity and paternity leave were all won by the efforts of the unions. But the neo-liberals don’t complain while they enjoy the rights won for them.
The Labour Party was established as a political force for the working class, an evolution of the movement established by workers in the factories, mills and mines. The link between the unions and Labour is absolutely vital as it allows a platform for those who would not otherwise have one; it gives a voice for those who would otherwise be silent and it ensures that Parliament is governed in the interests of the majority and not the privileged elite. If Ed Miliband limits the influence of unions not only does he put the Party in serious financial jeopardy, but he risks severing the thread that still holds them to the people. Without that they would drift towards the shores of Conservatism and neo-liberalism, leaving them in the pockets of a handful of wealthy donors and disregarding the millions of trade unionists that they are supported by. It is well documented that people feel alienated from the workings of Parliament, because Oxbridge educated men and women in suits do not resonate with the working class of Britain. The link between this political disillusionment and the decline of the unions is inextricable.
The Tories have set the political standard since 1979, as Attlee’s government had done in 1945, and it’s important that Labour reverse that. The battle of ideas needs to be won, the starting point being the embracing of trade union values. In this current period of recession, in which the living standards of the working class are falling disgracefully, the union movement is more crucial than ever. The comprehensive dismantling of workers’ rights, zero-hours contracts and the living wage are just a few areas that Labour should be working together with the unions for the benefit of the people of Britain.