Reflections on a missed opportunity
On day 2 of Unite’s rules conference a number of amendments to rules were proposed that would have opened up Unite’s political fund to support candidates and parties outside of the Labour Party. If passed, this would have been a watershed moment for the British trade union movement and the working class. Unite is the biggest trade union in Britain and Ireland, fights for workers in almost every sector of the British economy and has proven itself to be the vanguard of the trade union movement, leading the front on industrial disputes with more highly developed tactics that have allowed the members to win over 80% of the close to 900 disputes in the past 20 months.
The trade union movement is tied to Labour by a thousand threads and disaffiliation for the biggest and strongest union may have led to the severing of many of these threads with a move towards political independence. But in 2023, it was not meant to be, because so many activists remain wedded to illusions in Labour, no socialist alternative having won their support and inspired their confidence.
Unite is a union led by reps and members. It was these reps delegated to the conference who voted to remain with Labour, one can assume many were influenced or reassured by the General Secretary, Sharon Graham’s statement in support of continued affiliation. We can be disappointed, but should not be surprised. Many workers remain wedded to the Labour Party, through history, culture, family and a single-minded hatred of Tories elevated to a point of principle. The Union leadership, which is made up of many with direct links or personal affiliations to the Labour Party, have certainly allowed reps and members to be critical of Labour but that discussion is within the framework that it remains in the best interests of the union to remain linked.
Now we can be sure that there are many careerists and opportunists who want to remain affiliated to the Labour Party for their personal betterment, but that’s not the entire story with this vote. Many contributions on the debate came from those who were expelled from Labour, who left Labour after Corbyn’s defenestration, there are also many who are simply ignorant of the realities of the Labour Party’s character. This is not surprising, all it means is there is still work to be done.
I was encouraged during the debate to see open and honest critique of the Labour Party, its policies and its politicians. Certainly no one speaking at the rostrum endeavoured to sing the praises of the party that undermined and threatened striking bin workers in Coventry or Birmingham. Nor was the debate stifled by the conference Chair, all those who wanted to be heard had their opportunity to speak.
In the days since this vote, there has been an outcry from twitter activists who are reputedly tearing up their union membership cards and cancelling their direct debits due to the result of the vote. This is akin to a child having a tantrum when their favourite singer gets voted off Britain’s got talent. Passive onlookers upset they didn’t get what they wanted without getting involved in the fight for themselves. Some of these individuals, though correct and sincere in their feelings towards Labour have spent years in the service of their Unions and the maintenance of the Labour link. Having now ‘seen the light’ they are like the born-again Christians, and egged on by sectarian phrasemongers think that it is enough to analyse a thing out of existence, to tweet it to death with empty condemnation and rhetoric. But the link between Unite and Labour, as that between Labour and imperialism is a real thing and ending it is serious work that must be patiently organised.
Socialism and working class liberation is not something you can purchase by paying your union membership dues, or Party subs. If you want it, you have to fight for it. You lose a battle, you dust yourself off and prepare for the next one.
Building socialism is not an easy task, it will not be achieved with simple votes every 4-5 years. It can not be achieved through industrial action alone, or electoral campaigns alone, or protests, or social media activity and certainly not by opting out of the struggle within workers organisations after any setback.