Labour and the unions: forging stronger links?
The Labour Party was formed to represent the interests of working people and trade unions in Parliament when it was founded as a Parliamentary pressure group (the Labour Representation Committee) in 1900 — and the majority of the UK’s 5.6 million trade unionists still belong to one of the 12 Labour-affiliated trade unions.
And since Jeremy Corbyn became party leader two years ago, a number of non-affiliated unions have been considering the nature of their relationship with Labour.
The FBU has returned to the Labour Party fold and re-affiliated to the party more than a decade after disaffiliating in 2004. The break with Labour came as the result of a bitter dispute over pay and conditions with the then Labour government led by Tony Blair. Corbyn, together with shadow chancellor John McDonnell, was co-founder of the union’s parliamentary group following the disaffiliation.
At a special conference in November 2015, FBU delegates voted for the union to support a Labour Party “reinvigorated after the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader”. It was one of the first unions to declare support for Corbyn’s leadership campaign and its executive council voted to recommend re-affiliation after his “landslide election victory” in September that year.
“Firefighters recognise that the Labour party has changed for the better since the election of Jeremy Corbyn, who has given our members and supporters hope that we can shift the political debate in favour of working people,” explained FBU general secretary Matt Wrack. “We have a Labour Party leader and shadow chancellor who are vehemently opposed to austerity, who are ready to fight for a fair alternative that doesn’t attack the living standards, livelihoods and the hard-won rights of working people.”
According to FBU national officer Dave Green, internal debate about re-affiliation was fairly straightforward. “There was already a historical link with Labour for decades prior to 2004,” he said.
“There was some internal resistance to affiliation stemming from how the Blair government treated firefighters during the pay dispute and, among non-Labour members, recognition that while they support Corbyn and what he stands for, there are still factions within the party that would like to return to a Blairite, right-wing agenda.”
But, he argued: “Whatever your views about politics and your individual politics, it is absolutely clear that nationally Labour is the only party that will defend public services and therefore the fire service.” He said that this was not the case with any other party, “including the Lib Dems, who may offer warm words but are culpable in terms of what happened to the fire service under the 2010-2015 coalition government”.
- This story was first published by Labour Research Department and appears here with permission. Part two, tomorrow, looks at how Labour reacted to the loss of BECTU as an affiliate after its merger with Prospect.