Ten times the Labour party stood behind striking workers in Britain

Actually, there aren’t any. Sorry.

The story is that Labour is the only major socialist party in the world that emerged directly from organised labour—every other important party—from the DSA to the SPD to the PS and the JSP—was the product of an actual revolution or of a popular socialist movement. Labour founders Keir Hardie and Arthur Henderson had both been union leaders and many early Labour parliamentarians were well-known workplace leaders or campaigners for workers’ rights.

(note labour and Labour are used throughout, for obvious reasons).

RMT members holding banners and placards on a picket line in 2022 - photo from the RMT
RMT members on a picket line in 2022 – photo from the RMT

So there’s a logic to the statement that Labour is ‘the party of organised labour’ or ‘the Parliamentary wing of the trade union movement’. And to the reminders that it’s the unions who still largely fund the party. And to the shock and upset amongst supporters when Labour’s parliamentary leadership fails to support union action or even opposes it.

His Majesty’s loyal opposition

It turns out, though, that the will of those early Labour leaders – and of their comrades at the top of the union movement for that matter – was not to win a victory for workers, to challenge or overthrow the parties of power at the time, to replace or diminish the landowner and business elites, or even to offer a pro-worker counterweight in the Commons. The will of those leaders—as of the current generation—was always to gain access, to join the club, to get their bums on the green benches and to form a polite left-hand hump to the Crown-Parliamentary camel, supplanting the previous occupants of the less-favoured benches and becoming ‘His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition’.

This sounds cynical. I don’t mean for a moment to discount the contribution of those pioneer socialists to the pushing back of the multi-century stasis of Tory (and Whig) domination, the epochal introduction into an ancient elite legislature of working people. And, of course, individual Labour members have provided the backbone to countless labour disputes over the years—but it is vital to be clear-eyed about this. Labour in Parliament, from its very beginnings, was not a workers’ party. In the present day it’s a progressive party, a party of the Parliamentary centre-left, but it is not a workers’ party.

So there’s nothing new or surprising in the Labour party distancing itself from the interests of working people—do you remember the grim spectacle of Neil Kinnock making a flying visit to a miners’ strike picket, right at the end of the strike and at 5 a.m. so as to miss the reporters? (See if you can find a photo. There are none). During the long strike Kinnock the miner’s son called for a national ballot and didn’t once ask workers to respect NUM picket lines. In fairness, the strike was perhaps the greatest challenge that a modernising Labour leader could possibly face—and we know that Kinnock was conflicted and unhappy about the position he had to take. It became the most iconic—and relevant—statement of Labour’s labour ambivalence of the post-Thatcher era.

Going back further, almost to the origins of the party, during the First World War, Labour and the unions agreed an ‘industrial truce‘ in the national interest (Labour ministers joined the coalition government). After the war, Labour continued to oppose all instances of labour militancy and, in the build-up to the 1926 general strike, as the climate worsened and employers tried to force through wage cuts, the Labour leadership mediated ineffectively. When the strike came, though, they opposed it.

Leave it to the Rotary Club

When the Jarrow crusaders marched to London ten years later they had to depend on a strange alliance of Quakers, rogue trade unionists and the Rotary Club for food and support along the way—the Labour party didn’t turn up (local MP Ellen Wilkinson was a charismatic exception). 20th Century history is studded with examples like this. Even earlier, when Churchill moored a battleship in the Mersey to bring a little jeopardy to the 1911 Liverpool dockers’ strike, the Labour party, already a force in Parliament, was nowhere to be seen.

In the rough years between the wars there was an explosion of labour activism and confidence—in the face of the great depression, active government repression, blacklisting and a hostile judiciary. Wal Hannington’s National Unemployed Workers Movement moved mountains—organising big marches and actions all over the country. Its leadership was convicted under ancient mutiny laws and imprisoned—right at the sharp end of the workers’ struggle—but for Labour it was a bit too Communist. The party stood back. Likewise, the local councils who defied ancient, repressive laws to hold down the rates and to protect the poor did so without Labour support. In Poplar dozens of councillors—mostly Labour of course, including future leader George Lansbury—were imprisoned for their defiance. The Parliamentary Party leadership opposed their action (in the nineties, you won’t be surprised to learn, Neil Kinnock scolded Labour councillors prosecuted and surcharged for not paying the poll tax).

You’re on your own, ladies

Even when in government the party failed to support strikers. The Grunwick workers were defeated and humiliated while the party withheld support, although in scenes familiar to us now, individual MPs, including cabinet ministers, showed up at the picket line (the record shows that Shirley Williams et al waited until the strike was 40 weeks old and essentially already crushed to offer their solidarity, though). The underpaid women at Ford’s Dagenham plant were left high and dry by a serving Labour government, winning only partial parity with the half-hearted support of then Secretary of State Barbara Castle.

Castle’s own contribution to labour relations was to lay the foundations for 1974 legislation that withdrew important rights. It was this law that first introduced the requirement for strike ballots – and when the Tories introduced their own anti-union legislation in 1992 it essentially just consolidated Labour’s (the title of the act artfully just adds the word ‘consolidation’ to the name of Labour’s 1974 law). When Blair came to power, of course, he moderated but did not remove the Thatcher ‘reforms’ and actually introduced new limits on legitimate action to meet the requirements of his new backers in business and media.

One of the biggest strikes of the entire period, taking place right at the heart of the state—in its very guts you might say—the now mostly-forgotten 1971 postal workers’ strike, lasted for seven weeks, had overwhelming support from Post Office workers (including a young Alan Johnson) and the wider movement and became a template for Tory government opposition to industrial action—they made trial stabs at dissolving Royal Mail’s monopoly in an effort to circumvent the strike’s enormous impact. In the end there was an agreement—but no one was happy. Labour opposed the strike.

The one big win

The extraordinary sequence of slow-downs and strikes that brought about the three-day week and the infamous powercuts in the early seventies is still the only industrial action that has ever brought down a UK government. Heath’s battle with miners and power workers was surely the high-water mark for labour activism in Britain—bringing together party and movement in a way not seen before or since. It was a highly-effective action, using modern communications to coordinate the strikes and winning significant public support for the cause. The workers won and so did Labour. The Parliamentary Labour Party, while in opposition under Harold Wilson, actually supported the pay claims of the miners (often in House of Commons debates) and, once in office, agreed two 35% pay rises for the miners in the space of two years. But did Labour support the strikes that brought about their 1974 election victory? What do you think?

The series of strikes we now know as the Winter of Discontent was triggered by a Labour government’s imposition of wage controla 5% cap on pay increases. The subsequent industrial action took the form of a battle between state and workers. Fascinating, of course, that the present round of disputes is, at least in principle, more diffuse, pitting workers against dozens of individual employers—many of which did not even exist in the last era of union militancy—but that, even in the absence of a government-imposed wage cap, the state is still profoundly present.

The next generation

In the era of apps and zero-hour contracts, the strikes, walkouts and protests by gig workers, outsourced workforces and workers resisting ‘fire and rehire’ policies would seem to offer a useful opportunity for Labour to remake its association with a new generation of workers and with an updated labour activism for the social media era—with vivid new causes that have revived support for workers in Britain, especially amongst the young. No chance.

I’m not a historian (no shit, Steve) but it’s been an instructive exercise this, searching for Labour support for striking workers over the years of its existence. For me a fascinating and quite urgent reminder that Labour’s role across the modern period has been much more about achieving and sustaining a position in the Westminster constitutional fabric—holding on to what still feels like a wobbly foothold in the institutions at all cost—than about actually transferring power to working people, or even improving their conditions of work or their pay. The choice was pretty simple: take a polite role in the ancient theatre of the Parliamentary system or work for emancipation, popular sovereignty and worker control. You know the rest.

(Can you think of a time that Labour officially supported an industrial action, in or out of office, in the party’s entire history? Leave a comment).

And my scan of the party’s history suggests that it would really be wrong to expect more from the current leadership while in opposition or in government. For Starmer to even acknowledge what looks to many like an important shift in the terms of the national argument in favour of working people and organised labour would be not only to risk a monstering from the Tory press but would also defy literally the entire institutional history of his party. He leads a centrist party that must, almost as a condition of its existence, retain an even and unsupportive distance from its own organised labour wing.

So it seems obvious that Starmer, Reeves et al will not have any difficulty finding good, sensible, tactically-savvy reasons for withholding support from organised labour once they’re in power too. The difficult truth for the leadership of a progressive party in Britain is that there is literally no circumstance in which it is tactically correct to support a strike.

Let’s face it, if the Tolpuddle Martyrs were to come back to life and join the party tomorrow morning, Starmer would have issued a statement, suspended their memberships, conducted a disciplinary and kicked them out by lunchtime.

I don’t want a right to see my MP’s expenses

UPDATE April 2022: I wrote this in January 2009, right at the beginning of the expenses scandal and several months before the Telegraph began the week-by-week disclosure of hideous abuse of the system after hideous abuse of the system – duck houses and moats and multiple flipped second homes and families on the payroll etc. But still, the naivety!

I don’t agree with my MP about much, but I want to treat him as an adult. I’d like to extend to him approximately the level of trust I extend to my work colleagues and friends. I don’t want to probe and inspect him. I don’t want him to live in a climate of small-minded, invasive overscrutiny.

I expect there’s a reasonable chance he’ll turn out to be a bit cheeky with his lunch bills or even that he’s a giant scumbag and charges various indolent family members to the public purse, so I’d like there to be better rules about what it’s OK to charge back and what he has to pay for himself (the current rules are shoddy and inconsistent) and tougher automatic sanctions for rule-breaking.

But exposing MPs (and other public servants) to this kind of increasingly corrosive scrutiny is almost certainly a bad thing. Everyone knows that trust breeds trust – and that the inverse is true too. There’s no evidence that MPs are more or less bent than the population.

This doesn’t mean we should stick to the shady old secret model, though. We should be inventive and not just grumpy. MPs could be provided with simple tools to voluntarily publish itemised expenses, in a standardised, comparable format. Parliament.uk could host expenses pages and the media, I’m sure, would enjoy highlighting the most honest or interesting or apparently cooked up.

That’s the kind of initiative that could produce a snowball effect. We might find that publishing your expenses becomes the kind of public mark of honesty and transparency that MPs will embrace. Some will definitely go for it. Trusting our legislators might actually make things better.

Tait on Puttnam’s rebellion

Richard Tait in FT Creative Business on the likely parliamentary clash over media ownership rules and the so called ‘Murdoch Clause’. Written before Lord Puttnam announced his intention to oppose “in every respect” the relaxation of the rules designed to permit Sky to buy Five (link to Tait’s article requires FT.com subscription or a free trial).