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International Socialism, Autumn 1961


Henry Collins

Politics and the unions


From International Socialism (1st series), No.6, Autumn 1961, p.30.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Trade Unions and the Labour Party since 1945
Martin Harrison
Allen and Unwin. 32s.

The political levy is paid to the Labour Party on behalf of over 6 million trade unionists. With individual membership of the Party at less than a million the unions have the power, in theory at least, to dominate the Party. More than a hundred unions affiliate, but the six largest control a majority of votes at the Labour Party Conference. ‘It is very nearly true to say,’ John Freeman complained in a speech at Brighton in 1953, ‘that the policy of the Labour Party at the moment can be determined by four men meeting in a private room’. How far is it true to describe the Party as an oligarchy controlled by a handful of bureaucrats wielding the block vote?

That the Party is oligarchically controlled is certain and emerges quite clearly from Martin Harrison’s study. Delegates to Labour Party Conference allow themselves considerable freedom in interpreting mandates from their own unions and occasionally defy them flatly. ‘What’s done’s done’, remarked one General Secretary whom Mr Harrison does not name, but whose identity may be guessed. ‘They can’t take the vote back now. All they can do is say they didn’t like it.’

It is not, however, the machinery of the block vote which makes the Labour Party undemocratic. There is very rarely a head-on clash between trade unions and constituency parties. Issues which divide the Party cut across both its constituent sections. It is exceptional to find the major unions voting on the same side. Nor are the constituency parties as left as is commonly supposed. This appears not only from their voting at Conference but even more from their selection of parliamentary candidates. Nor does the record, as displayed in detail by Mr Harrison, show the unions as being a major impediment to the adoption of progressive policies by the Labour Party. They can be managed, and their decisions can be wangled or fiddled, but only within limits. It is the absence of strong currents of left wing feeling among the working class which explains the persistence of right wing policies.

Indeed, the trade union basis provides a link between the Party and the working class which has proved embarrassing for Mr Gaitskell on more than one occasion. ‘Fundamentalism’, Mr Harrison’s term for what others would call more simply ‘Socialism’, has powerful adherents in the unions as well as in the Party. That is why Mr Gaitskell has failed, so far, to foist his ‘alternative direction’ on the movement. In a passage of characteristic honesty Mr Harrison explains that ‘few who read the series of Party policy statements in all their embarrassing ambivalence, designed less to mislead the public than to disguise the change of direction from the zealots, could doubt that the real brake was not the unions this time but the fundamentalists in both movements.’

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