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Labour, the unions and the breaking of the British working class

Old Labour: Those on stage rattle your jewellery, the rest of you wave your flat caps. PA/PA Archive/Press Association Images

Foundation essay: This essay on the Labour Party and its relationship with the working class and the trade union movement in Britain is part of a series of articles marking the launch of The Conversation in the UK. Our foundation essays are longer than our usual comment and analysis articles and take a wider look at key issues affecting society.

Last week was a testing one for Ed Miliband and the Labour Party - and perhaps an era-defining one. The Labour leader’s decision to address the issue of a cap on welfare spending was risky. Can he articulate a vision that would portray Labour as fiscally responsible while remaining a party that holds the interests of the working class at its core? The jury remains out.

That Labour’s relationship with the British working class has changed fundamentally over the past three decades is not in dispute. Demographic shifts have caused a drift away from union membership and towards home ownership and other measures of aspirational upward mobility.

Yet a recent report from the think tank British Future found 57% of the public consider themselves working class compared to only 36% who identify as middle class. The question for Miliband and his advisers is how to shape the Labour Party, both in image and platform, to renew its relationship with both of these groups - but particularly the working class.

Era of the ragged-trousered philanthropists

In his seminal work, The Making of the English Working Class, EP Thompson adopts a deterministic stance and argues, “the class experience is largely determined by the productive relations into which men are born - or enter involuntarily”.

EP Thompson’s book defined an era for the labour movement.

There have been few social changes in Britain to match the desire for individual betterment and the growing self-perceptions of middle class, with all the materialistic trappings that accompany it. In his critique of the English working class, Frederick Engels argued, “the workers must strive to escape from this brutalising condition and secure for themselves a better, more human position”.

It could also be argued that the workers’ success in self-determination, betterment and rampant individualism has cost collective labour dearly; “I’m all right Jack” has a very different ring to it today than it had in the 1950s film about the collective power of the unions.

One might ask: Have we witnessed the “breaking” of the English working class? If so, then this might be in some part attributed to Margaret Thatcher, who when asked about her greatest achievement replied “Tony Blair and New Labour”.

It was Thatcher who managed to entice upper working class swing voters, known as C2s (defined by the National Readership Survey classifications as “skilled manual workers”), to desert Labour in 1983. Their support was short-lived and they swung back to Labour en masse in 1997; in 2010 they were back with the Tories. Recent figures indicate Labour leading the race for the C2s by 7 to 9 percentage points.

How the C2 social class voted 1974-2010

Beer and sandwiches out, bubbly and canapés in

Len McCluskey of Unite, a self-confessed critic of Tony Blair and New Labour, has the clear objective of returning the Labour Party to the working classes, but could it be that McCluskey is too late? Those hankering after the nostalgia of a class war, labour versus capital, and bemoaning their lot over a glass of Double-Diamond may have been outnumbered by the modern-day champagne socialists of the Party, who adopt the left-wing rhetoric but certainly don’t live it.

Lord Mandelson’s caution to Ed Miliband about the danger of getting too close to the unions should be seen as further evidence of the desire to create a division between the Labour Party and the labour movement. It should come as no surprise that Unite has been accused of attempting to manipulate the selection of a Labour candidate in Falkirk to enable the union to wield more power from within the party. The mood within the trade union movement in the past two years or so has been one of frustration and disappointment at being ignored by Downing Street and left in the political wilderness. The only way they feel able to change this is through the back door.

Any champers in the fridge Tony? Arriving at Downing St, May 1997. Adam Butler/PA Archive

The frustration of the trade unions can be traced back to the election of Tony Blair and New Labour in 1997 and the adoption of Third Way politics - whatever that meant. When Cherie Booth and Tony Blair appeared at the front door of 10 Downing Street on the morning after Labour swept to power, the unions were euphoric, full of hope and expectation. Eighteen years of Tory power characterised by an aggressive programme of privatisation, contracting out of public services, radical reform of employment law and the taming of the trade unions had been swept away.

However, for the union barons it was to be a short-lived period of unbridled optimism of a return to beer and sandwiches at Number 10 and involvement in national policy making. Alas, instead it was Sauvignon Blanc and canapés, but for the leaders of business rather than the leaders of unions.

The election of New Labour heralded a departure from the left-wing politics of 1970s Labour and the rejection of the true socialist ideology. Nothing characterised this more than the removal of Clause IV from the Labour Party Constitution:

To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.

Shifting union power structure

After 1997, frequent visits by union leaders to No 10 Downing Street were now consigned to history as New Labour appeared to distance itself from the labour movement in an attempt to re-badge itself and to remain electable, as it proved to be in the two subsequent elections.

The expectation that the Thatcherite anti-union legislation would be repealed at the first opportunity was not realised. The Tories had done Labour’s dirty work for them and Tony Blair had no plans to look this particular gift horse in the mouth. There was to be no return to compulsory union membership under the “closed shop” arrangements and no removal of the requirement for secret postal ballots before industrial action – this had delivered true democracy to union members and there was no way they would hand it back.

Admittedly, statutory trade union recognition was introduced under the Employment Relations Act 1999, but this did not provide the salvation to the dwindling union membership the Trades Union Congress or other unions was expecting. This begs the question; does Labour still consider itself as the party of the working classes?

The problems of the union movement are not restricted to its somewhat strained and disappointing relationship with the Parliamentary Labour Party. Union membership has been in decline since the halcyon days of 1979, when aggregate membership stood at 13.3 million, a far cry from the 7.3 million in 2012. In the late 1990s the Trades Union Congress had the objective of increasing aggregate union membership by one million over five years; some 15 years later there has hardly been any change.

United we stand: Len McCluskey wields huge power as leader of a super-union. Lewis Whyld/PA Wire

What has changed is the unions’ response to decline and their ability to merge to form super-unions such as Unite, with 1.5 million or 20% of all union members, and their apparent ability to bring together unions which 20 or 30 years ago detested each other. With this success in uniting disparate unions comes the ability to dangle a single, mouth-watering pay cheque in excess of £7m in front of the Labour Party.

However, threats of taking the money elsewhere may prove to be empty rhetoric. Giving it to the Tories or UKIP is unimaginable; shifting support to the Liberal Democrats is highly unlikely given the enthusiasm with which Vince Cable has embraced the recommendations of the Beecroft Report and the further whittling away of individual and collective employment rights. Unite may well find itself with a healthy political fund, no one to spend it on, and unable to influence government policy.

Labour in search of credible leader

I’m prepared to stick my neck out and predict that if Labour wins the May 2015 general election, Ed Miliband will not be party leader; he has yet to demonstrate to the public the gravitas required by the office. Before long the Labour Party grandees will soon search for a credible, statesman-like leader whom they believe capable of delivering a victory in the polls.

Although backed for party leader by the unions as a safer bet than his brother David, Miliband has failed to deliver the left-wing politics they expected. Furthermore, he has had the temerity to accuse the left-wing union leaders of adopting a political stance that cost the party several general elections during the 1980s, for which he has received a stern rebuke from McCluskey.

Of the 42 Labour candidates already selected to fight the 2015 election, 23 have links with the unions and a quarter are sponsored by Unite, so perhaps McCluskey’s ambition to return Labour to labour is not so unrealistic after all.

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