In 1787, the Calton weavers went on strike for 12 weeks to fight starvation. Six of them were gunned down and killed in the ‘Calton weavers massacre’. Most historians consider this to be the key moment in the emergence of trade unionism in Scotland.
Trade unions existed for over a century before Keir Hardie began what became the Labour Party in 1888. So familiar has the Labour trade union link been in the time since that it is widely assumed that the trade unions and Labour emerged together; the industrial and political wing of the same overall project.
It will be a century next year since Hardie died, and it’s possible that in all of the past 99 years the Labour trade union link has never looked as brittle as it does today. Jim Murphy’s election as Scottish Labour leader against two candidates considered to be well to the left of him, including one candidate backed to the hilt by the vast majority of the trade unions, means the cracks in the Labour union link could now be at breaking point.
I meet Suki Sangha and Sarah Collins, trade unionists in Unite and Unison respectively, to discuss the future of the trade unions and Scottish Labour in light of Murphy’s victory.
“The division in the Labour union link really became deeply embedded in Tony Blair’s New Labour years.” Sangha, Unite activist and on the STUC General Council, tells me.
Blair’s victory as Labour leader in 1994 does look like a key moment. Blair attempted to distance himself from the trade unions more than any leader before him during his 13 years in charge of the party. He got rid of clause 4 from the party’s constitution, which committed the party to a socialist objective, he refused to support reform of Thatcher’s anti-union laws, which were introduced in the wake of the 1984/85 miners’ strike, and “he turned the whole trade union movement against him”, Sangha says, with the Iraq war in 2003.
However, the leadership of the big unions – Unite, Unison and GMB – still saw Labour as the primary vehicle for political representation when faced with the alternative of a Tory government at Westminster.
“That fear of Tory rule is what has held the link between the unions and Labour together,” Sarah Collins, Unison East Ayrshire branch secretary and former chair of the STUC Youth Committee, says.
“The argument for Labour has been defined not by what it is, but by what it’s not,” Sarah adds. “‘Not as bad as the Tories, that’s what you always hear. In Scotland certainly, that’s obviously not good enough anymore.”
“The argument for Labour has been defined not by what it is, but by what it’s not,”
Politics in Scotland has changed at a rapid pace. Over 100,000 people have joined political parties since the referendum just four months ago, but despite Labour being on the winning side in the referendum, they appear to be the biggest losers from the political avalanche.
The SNP’s membership has sky-rocketed to over 90,000, more than quadrupling since referendum day. In one recent Ipsos-Mori poll, the SNP were heading for a majority in Scotland in the general election next year with Labour heading for their worst Scottish result in over a century, on target to win just three MP’s. If the result comes anywhere close to fruition, it will be by far Labour’s worst day ever in an election in Scotland.
To rub salt into the wound, Nicola Sturgeon boasted in her inauguration speech at SNP conference that the SNP Trade Union Group now has more members than the whole of Scottish Labour. For a party that was for so long known as the political wing of the trade unions, how has this happened?
“Labour have become the enemy for much of the working class in Scotland,” Collins says. “The way they approached the referendum campaign, the politics of fear and standing side by side with the Tories, it was revolting, and a lot of people felt that way. For trade unionists in Scotland, after everything that’s happened, what good reason have they got to support Labour now?”
A lot has happened between the unions and Labour over recent years. The union vote ensured current leader Ed Miliband took over from Gordon Brown but it failed to stop an even greater distance emerging between the trade unions and Labour.
In the wake of the Falkirk MP candidate selection fiasco in 2013, when Unite was accused by the Labour party of rigging the process – an accusation the union was later cleared of in a party review, but was never given an apology for – Miliband decided to reform the relationship between Labour and the unions, introducing the recommendations of the Collins Review at a special party conference.
The review changed how trade unions funded the party in two main ways: all trade unionists now have to ‘opt-in’ to the political fund when they sign up for trade union membership, meaning the collective trade union support of Labour as a principle of membership is now over. Secondly, the trade-union block vote in internal party conferences will no longer be applicable, meaning trade unionists will have to vote as Labour members rather than through the trade unions.
For outsiders, this may appear as merely technical issues, but the reform of the Labour-union link effectively makes all ties between Labour and the trade unions contingent on political will, rather than integrated into its constitutional make-up. Labour relies on over 90 per cent of funding from the trade union political fund and trade union donations, therefore the potential for funding to be cut off is daunting.
“A win for Jim Murphy shows the total destruction of the Labour tradition in parliament.”
Neither Sangha nor Collins are members of Labour, and they say most young trade unionists now are not members either. In spite of that, they argued that trade unionists who still held a vote in the Scottish Labour leadership contest should vote for Neil Findlay, the trade union-supported candidate.
Collins says: “We would much rather a Scottish Labour party led by a trade unionist than by an arch-Blairite. A win for Jim Murphy shows the total destruction of the Labour tradition in parliament. It will push Holyrood to the right.”
Murphy has run foul of the trade unions in the past. In the Falkirk selection fiasco, Murphy was one of the few MPs willing to publicly speak out against Unite, saying on BBC News that “one trade union in particular has overstepped the mark”.
He added: “It’s clear that Unite don’t run the Labour party; Ed Miliband does. And we should never confuse those two things.”
Murphy was quick to reject a shift to the left, saying that his Scottish Labour would be for the “prosperous as well as the poor”.
‘Political death sentence’
Len McCluskey, Unite general secretary, has not held back in his opposition to Murphy. He previously described a potential Jim Murphy win as a “political death sentence” for Labour, adding that there’s “absolutely no future” for a Labour party “to the right of the SNP in Scotland”.
Collins and Sangha agree that Scottish Labour is now positioned to the right of the governing party in Scotland, and Sangha can’t see “how the trade unions can plausibly continue to fund them on that basis”.
Collins adds that she doesn’t think there will be any change in trade union policy on political representation in Scotland before the 2015 Westminster election, but believes that “there’s no way the trade unions in Scotland can go into the 2016 Scottish election backing Jim Murphy for first minister.”
She continues: “With as many people in the SNP Trade Union Group as in the whole of Scottish Labour, it’s simply become undemocratic to continue backing Labour. If the trade unions are to put political support behind any party in the future we have to be sure that it actually represents trade union and socialist values.”
Collins and Sangha also sense that this view is gaining wider traction as the trade unions and Scottish Labour increasingly butt heads. The STUC has found itself increasingly at odds with Labour in Scotland over the course of the past two years. It refused to back the Better Together campaign and took a neutral stance in the referendum debate.
On the days running up to the referendum, it led the public anger at the last-minute nature of the promises by the three main parties in ‘the vow’. On the Smith Commission, STUC proposals on devolving minimum wage, employment law and equalities were rejected. Grahame Smith, STUC General Secretary, said he was “underwhelmed” by the Smith Commission report.
John Docherty, SNP Trade Union Group Executive, says that the Murphy victory will “only deepen” divisions between the trade unions in Scotland and Labour.
“The huge growth in SNP trade union membership is a symptom of Labour leaving social-democratic politics behind in favour of right-wing Blairism,” he says.
Discontent with the Labour link appears to be increasingly mainstream among trade unionists.
Discontent with the Labour link appears to be increasingly mainstream among trade unionists. Sangha spoke at the end of the STUC march ‘for a better future’ in Glasgow attended by thousands of trade unionists across Scotland, and was applauded when she said that the trade union movement “must not be afraid to look at alternative political representation”. I ask her what she means by this.
“I mean a left party or coalition.” she says. “I support the Scottish Left Project which is trying to bring together the left in a new, bottom-up way, like Podemos in Spain, which emerged out of the anti-austerity movement and has gone from nowhere to topping the polls. They are radical and represent the movement on the streets and in the workplace. That’s the sort of thing the trade unions need to start looking at.”
“There are other options out there now,” Collins – a signatory to the Scottish Left Project – adds. “Obviously thousands of trade unionists are now in the SNP, there’s been a big increase in membership of the Greens in Scotland too. People aren’t going to sit around waiting for Scottish Labour to move left any more, that ship has long since sailed.”
Keir Hardie, once a trade union organiser, had a vision of bringing socialist groups and trade unions together into a unified party of the Labour movement. The old line that ‘Keir Hardie would be spinning in his grave’ has been used many times by trade unionists disgruntled with the modern Labour party. As we near a century since Hardie was laid to rest, there’s a sense that in Scotland, where Hardie founded the Labour party, there could be the stirrings of its eventual replacement.
Picture: Labour Party Conference 2014, courtesy of Anthony Mckeown