The News of the World, last Sunday, included a short article stating that an ICM poll of some 4,000 trade union members showed that some 71% wanted a split from the Labour Party and were sick of their leaders pumping money into the party.
It is a view shared by many members, yet it is something our trade union leaders fail to address. When it was revealed last year that I was a Conservative Party candidate for a council by-election and that I was also an active shop steward in the GMB trade union, there was a failed attempt to get me removed as a steward, simply because of my politics. Labour’s failure strengthened my argument that members do not get involved in the union because of party politics.
Most members join unions today because they believe the union acts as a protective and advisory service, believing in the merits of collective organisation in the workplace. Members are angry that whilst there are still pretty grim terms of employment in some places, examples of poor representation by stewards, inadequate worker training in health and safety and the shadow of job losses looming large, our leaders still seem to have been preoccupied by devising policies on nuclear weapons, the war in Afghanistan, the future of the European Union and climate change.
At a recent meeting of shop stewards, a local union leader, who decided to tell us that we had to do our bit for Labour, was shocked when they were told in no uncertain terms, that members were not interested in the politics but in the issues in the workplace. Members feel that the union leaders spend excessive time and money expanding the sphere of their political influence when on many issues they still fail abysmally to represent workers on the shop-floor in battles over conditions and areas of dispute.
Whereas members expect the unions to promote, question and influence the issues that affect its remit, they don’t believe it has a mandate to speak on devolution, identity cards and solidarity with Cuba.
For many people, joining the union is made on the practical basis of the need for collective representation. The constant slagging off of the Tories, the demonising of Mrs Thatcher and her very necessary reforms of trade union democracy, as well as the slavish support for the Labour Party, is a massive turn off for many who would otherwise also join and be active.
Although I am bold in saying this, it is likely that the trade union movement would be fresher and more successful if it dumped its political baggage and encouraged people of all mainstream political persuasions to be trade unionists and develop and nurture a free-thinking and modern purpose of collective representation. The unions do members no justice by believing they should be setting all facets of the political agenda and doing so through the prism of the left, especially when there is still so much to do in providing people with adequate training in employment law rights and improving the economic lot of employees.
For those who ask us to remember that it was the unions that made Labour a reality out of struggle, they need to adjust to the fact that the Labour Party is a separate entity – it needs no duplication. All institutions need to refresh their mandate, reform and assess their relevance and that includes the unions.
A modern and dynamic trade union movement needs to be independently focused and break its political chains. It should encourage encompassing all mainstream political participation which could improve its intellectual arguments as well as getting it back to actually doing what it originally struggled for in the first place – to support the merits of organised labour, defend against exploitation in the workplace and ensure the training of its members mean that its workers actually get the protection they so richly deserve.