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Rebuild the unions

Rebuild the unions

The past two years in the Labour Party have been a roller-coaster ride of amazement following on from repeated exhilaration. Few of us who were on the left of the Party before the 'Corbyn surge' could have anticipated it. Fewer still dared hope for it. We have a socialist as leader of the Labour Party, backed up by left-wingers in senior front bench positions. People have joined the Party in their tens of thousands. A young generation, previously unfairly written off as apathetic, has been engaged politically. Whatever else we say about our present situation, it is right to celebrate these things.

From the perspective of a class-orientated socialist, however, there is something odd about Corbyn's ascendancy. Unlike past periods of left-wing strength in the British labour movement, it has not been accompanied by any upturn in trade union strength. Quite the opposite: union membership is at an all time low, as are industrial disputes. Nor has the flood of new members into the Labour Party been accompanied by any comparable uptake of union membership.

None of this should be surprising. The experience of the past few decades has been one of defeat after defeat for the trade union movement. The young people attracted to Corbyn's Labour have no memory of large scale successful trade union action. Particularly in the private sector it is unlikely that they will encounter unions in the workplace. Given this, unions are not a natural place for the radicalisation of the past two years to find expression.

It is not surprising, then, but it is a problem. The Corbyn leadership needs a strong base in the trade unions in order to sustain it and support its programme. This will become even more the case when, as we hope, Labour forms a government. More fundamentally still: a core socialist conviction is that working people have both the interests and the power to build a better world. Through our power, for example, to withdraw our labour we are uniquely able to secure better wages and conditions. A strong trade union movement is an essential companion to left-wing politics, and no amount of social movements, demonstrations, or on-line campaigns – good though these things are – is a substitute for it.

With this in mind I have a suggestion. Over the next few months all of us ought to make a real effort to promote union membership in our branches, CLPs, and groups such as Momentum. There are all sorts of ways this can be done: inviting speakers from local trade unions or trades councils, giving out literature, having one to one conversations and so on. Under 30s are a particular priority, since union membership is low in this age bracket. The TUC has a useful web resource which helps people to find and join an appropriate union: https://www.tuc.org.uk/join-union

The Labour Party was founded to represent working class people organised in trade unions. Let's make sure that it does that for another generation.

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