Should the trade unions disaffiliate from Labour?

06 March 2022

UNITE GENERAL Secretary Sharon Graham’s response to the strike-breaking actions of Coventry’s Labour council, which has been hiring scab labour to break the bin workers’ strike, has once again raised the question of whether to continue union’s funding of, and continued affiliation to, the Labour Party.
Graham has said:

‘Let me be very clear – the remaining financial support of the Labour Party is now under review.
Your behaviour and mistreatment of our members will not be accepted. It’s time to act like Labour, the party for workers.’

This is the latest stage in an ongoing battle resulting from Keir Starmer’s capture of the Labour leadership. He has attempted to claw back the post-2015 gains made by the left. In a bid to re-establish Labour’s establishment credentials. Starmer has launched a witch-hunt against the left and abandoned almost all Corbyn’s left policies, such as the nationalisation of utilities, recommitted the party to the privatisation of the NHS, and is currently attempting to brand Labour as the party of ‘law and order’. Now he is trying to outbid Johnson when it comes to Nato’s war drive over Ukraine.

Since the Labour leadership seems determined to return to the years of Blair and Brown, it is therefore reasonable to ask whether, if the Labour Party does not support workers, why should the trade unions support Labour?

Working class links

While the Labour Party has always been a pro-capitalist party, its organic relationship with the trade unions has always been significant. Its base, through the unions, is primarily working-class, while its programme and leadership are explicitly pro-capitalist. They signify that it is in Lenin’s words a bourgeois workers party. This is most glaringly true in the behaviour of the huge majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party even, or rather especially, under Corbyn.

But a crucial contribution to this capitalist side of its character is the role of the trade union bureaucracy – the leaders and full-time apparatus of the unions. This is a conservative layer inside the working-class movement that sees its role as mediating between the interests of workers and bosses within the framework of capitalism, not fighting for capitalism’s abolition. Yet the trade unions are mass working-class organisation through which our class seeks to defend and advance its interests. The Labour Party is the political expression of this contradiction. It aims to manage capitalism, winning limited concessions for the benefit of workers, but in practice it attempts to defuse any workers’ radicalism and preserve capitalist interests.

The trade union bureaucracy sees the Parliamentary Labour Party as its partner in parliament and in government. It hopes to influence its policies for the benefit of unions, but also sees its own role to dampen any militancy in the trade union movement so as not to embarrass the Labour Party or risk its chances in an election, or risk their own privileged role as intermediaries between workers and employers.

Occasionally there will be an antagonism between these two wings of the Labour movement, when left union leaders, such as Graham, see the Labour leadership going against the interests of the unions, as is occurring in Coventry; or when right-wing Labour politicians see the link with trade unions as undermining their chances of winning support from capitalists and the middle-classes. This split amongst the servants of capital opens the way for trade union activists and socialists to push for fundamental changes in our political and union organisations.

Both the majority of the conservative trade union bureaucracy and the Parliamentary Labour Party would like to see a continuation of the status quo, where the unions continue to write a blank cheque for Labour, whatever it does. Moves by more militant sections of the trade union movement to demand actual political influence in exchange for members’ money are therefore welcome.


However, severing the link completely should not be done lightly. It is also the long-term aim of the hard right of the Labour Party to break this link. There remains a hardline liberal wing of the party, such as the Blairites, who wish to sever the link altogether, and transform the Labour Party into something like the US Democrats, with trade unions as just one ‘interest group’ among many in ‘progressive’, i.e. liberal and openly capitalist coalition. Their problem, as was the case under Blair himself, is that Britain’s capitalists, for all the mayhem over Brexit, do not need another capitalist party of government and will not stump up the money to replace the union’s donations.

Disaffiliating without setting up a new party that can act as the political expression of the working-class movement would, in fact, be a backwards step. We would end up with a political system where the unions are relegated to just another pressure group lobbying for influence with two bosses’ parties, rather than having a firm place within one of the major parties of state. We would go from the imperfect, pro-capitalist representation of the Labour Party, to no representation whatsoever.

A new workers party?

Sharon Graham and her supporters trumpet the slogan ‘back to the workplace’ and argue that the unions should focus on industrial activity over parliamentary politics. But if a retraction of support is not accompanied by an alternative political project, it should be opposed. For the working-class to shape society in its own interests it must have a political strategy as well as an industrial one. In fact, these two strategies need to be indissolubly linked, not artificially separated as is the case with the Labour Party.
It is also not enough for small collections of socialists to set up their own electoral groups or ‘parties’ in anticipation of the mass of the working-class spontaneously deciding to abandon the Labour Party and vote for them. Futile abortions like this litter our history since the Independent Labour Party’s walkout in 1932. Forming a mass party of the working class is a historic task, not a game to be played by propaganda groups of at most a few thousand activists.

As a first step, the left should support moves by trade union leaders to make funding conditional on the actions and policies of the Labour Party. Indeed, they should demand the calling of the Trade Union Labour Organisation and make it clear that as long as a Labour council is paying for scabs they will not be paying for Labour’s local election campaign in May.

So long as the Starmer leadership continues its rightwards course, funding should be stripped back to the bare minimum for affiliation, and any further support should only be granted to representatives and candidates who commit to fighting for striking workers and pro-working class policies like many of those contained in the 2017 manifesto and policies passed by Conference under Corbyn. Constituency TULOs should defy the shutdowns, suspensions, and clampdowns on discussion, ordered by regional officers and Southside.

To walk out now is to walk away from a fight – one which the unions with their huge funds are far from powerless to fight and even win. Getting rid of Starmer and Evans would be a huge blow for the right. But if the party bureaucrats and the overpaid councillors and MPs block any change then the unions involved should end their payments altogether and re-form a Labour Representation Committee open not only to unions, but to left constituency representatives and non-LP socialists aiming to found a real workers ‘party on a socialist and anticapitalist programme.

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