This weeks long read.
Two flames burning in the human heart: Now we must take those flames and rebuild within the unions
Jeremy Corbyn: The Flame of hope.
It was through the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, that the chasm of an unfair society looked like it could be bridged. For many, Jeremy Corbyn embodied that flame of hope Tony Benn so often spoke of. Corbyn struck the right chords with the masses, washed and unwashed. The slogan for the “many, not the few” actually felt like it meant something, Corbyn was an oasis in a very dry desert.
The election to the Labour leadership of Jeremy Corbyn in 2015 opened many doors for the Left, Union leaders once again had the ear of the political wing of the Labour movement. For a brief moment, there was hope, the hope of a new beginning and a vision of fairness, equality and liberty.
A new movement had formed around the Labour leader, Corbyn was everything Blair turned out not to be. This movement overtook the Labour Party membership. Unfortunately, the mainly right-wing Blairite parliamentary Labour party was determined to uphold the status quo, they became the true enemy within, their efforts were to maintain the establishment and not to bring about the emancipation of the workers.
Labour Party’s very own MPs battled and connived for four long years to remove hope from the people.
After an initial attempt at a political coup in 2016 that then turned into one long civil war, the Centrist PLP finally got what it wanted. On Thursday 12 December 2019, election day. Lord Peter Mandelson and Sir Keir Starmer’s plan bore fruit.
They had manoeuvred the Labour party into a vote-losing second referendum position, giving Boris Johnson a manifesto compiling of little more than three words to win a majority and bring down Corbyn, “Get Brexit Done!”
The overwhelming victory for the Tories left Corbyn little choice but to stand down. Of course, immediately after the election defeat Mandelson’s Peoples vote movement disappeared, and “Mr Remain” Sir Keir Starmer the architect of Labour‘s vote-losing second referendum policy, now became the new Labour Party leader, ironically his first diktat came with three little words, “Get Brexit done!”
The truth was both Mandelson and Starmer had got their job done! Corbyn was removed, Starmer became leader and the establishment was rendered safe once more.
The cost to the LeFT far exceeded the devastating general election result. The true cost for many was the loss of a manifesto of hope, one that promised an alternative to this continued disaster of neoliberalism. Corbyn would no longer be the Party leader to carry that flame so well for millions of people.
Sir Keir Starmer’s job was almost complete, through the weaponising of antisemitism he removed Jeremy Corbyn from the Parliamentary Labour Party, Corbyn was effectively exiled and tied down in legal battles just to remain a Labour MP, muted in much of what he can say.
We are where we are…
The result of the 2019 general election dulled the flame of hope for many leaving the political wing of the Labour movement diminished, Starmer has no intention of backing any strike action organised by the Unions, his blind faith in the center has made the Labour Party impotent, offering little to nothing in the way of opposition leaving it rudderless and listing to the right.
Where we are is a place with no political leadership ready to carry the flame for the workers, fortunately, we have the Unions, over the last few years we have seen a restoration of militant union general secretaries willing to fight for the rights of workers and not just sucker up to management.
This has all been in the making for a generation but it doesn’t mean we are powerless against the Tory’s relentless attacks on the workers.
The decline in working-class politicians shifted Labour towards right-wing policy
Since Blair and his so-called ‘New Labour’ cuckooed the Labour Party we have seen the Parliamentary Labour Party become less representative.
Research, published in Comparative Political Studies, examined the policy preferences of working-class and career politicians within the Labour Party both pre and during Tony Blair’s leadership of the Labour Party.
The study shows that working-class MPs were substantially more in favour of traditional welfare policies than their careerist colleagues. During the Blair era, there was a considerable drop in working-class politicians. At the same time, there was a shift towards more centrist policies around reforming welfare.
The report finds that career MPs, categorised as politicians that come from a background in politics or a closely related profession, are more likely to adopt policies for strategic political reasons to win over swing voters and win elections. In contrast, working-class MPs, categorised as politicians that have a background in manual and unskilled labour, are more likely to support policies that benefit working-class communities
Study author Dr Tom O’Grady, Lecturer in Quantitative Political Science, (UCL Political Science), said: “Political parties across the developed world, particularly European Social Democratic parties, once consisted of politicians drawn from a broad range of classes and occupations, including manual trades. Today, many political parties are dominated by middle-class professional politicians with little experience outside of politics itself. Working-class people find it increasingly difficult to enter politics.
“Before Tony Blair came to power there was only a modest difference in working-class and careerists positions on welfare reform. But our research finds that during his premiership – the influence of working-class MPs dropped while there was a rise in the influence of careerist politicians.
“The former had a stronger ideological attachment to welfare provision because it benefits working-class voters, whereas the latter’s greater concerns for electoral success and career advancement meant they were more likely to support welfare reforms. The findings suggest that the large shift from working-class MPs to career politicians in the British Labour Party considerably weakened the representation of working-class voters’ interests. Put bluntly, careerist MPs are much more likely to blow with the political winds.”
When the Labour Party first achieved electoral success in the 1920s, more than 70% of its MPs were drawn from working-class backgrounds. This has declined drastically from the mid- 80s and today just 6% of Labour MPs are working-class.
Working-class have been replaced one for one with careerists, a rare phenomenon up until the 80s when career MPs made up just a 10th of the party. Careerists are now the largest occupational group, outnumbering MPs from public and voluntary sector, private and financial sectors and professional backgrounds, such as lawyers, doctors, journalists, engineers and academics, whose representation has remained consistent over the past 30 years.
The dramatic reduction in working-class MPs is partly a result of political recruitment; the decline of traditional trade unions and access routes into politics for working-class individuals. In addition, the profession now requires a greater resource of time, effort and money.
Now we must take those flames and rebuild within the unions
The snakes of the PLP have pushed the workers back to square one, however, it is from that position the Labour movement became the biggest threat to the status quo since the french revolution. It is from that position the workers have true strength, it is from that position the unions can mobilise millions into action to bring the whole rotten system to a stop with a clarion call, “we demand more!”
The Labour movement led by the unions is acting now, irrespective of its political wing and Starmer. It understands that while ever the dinosaurs of Blairism and the Red Tories remain it will always be at war with itself. its actions are PLP who have in the main become little more than agents of the oligarchy. Its real strength now lies within its unions.
The Labour movement needs to go back to its roots to reconnect with the working class.
Anyone who thinks the people are now powerless in the face of such a Tory majority should understand the Labour movement is much more than the political wing and representation at Westminster. The Labour movement’s very foundations come from the strength of the union movement. The unions have been the bastion of both our worker’s rights and working-class struggle the unions should now be the fortress in which the working class resides giving protection from any Tory excess while they dominate parliament.
Our unions and communities are our best hope.
Unity can only be obtained when we the people come together in a common objective and that must be to bring about a fairer society. The Left need to get back to basics, to build a real grassroots movement. We should organise through our unions and community to ensure this Tory government has real opposition, in this, we should look across the channel to our french comrades who will not be cowed by neoliberal policy and threats to their livelihoods. If the establishment and the Centrist will not allow socialism to flourish, if they insist on monopoly capitalism and greed then we must take up that second flame Tony Benn so elegantly mentioned, ‘the flame of anger against injustice’.
Our streanght is the realisation, we the people have power and that comes through both our communities and the unions.
The People: The Flame of anger against injustice
From the beginning of time, there have been two flames burning in the human heart.
“It sounds very innocent,” said Tony Benn, shortly before he died in 2014, “But if you have given people confidence that they can do something, that is a real achievement. I look back and think: ‘Have I always explained things to people truthfully? Have I always said what I meant and meant what I said?’ And as a result of that, have I encouraged people to have confidence in themselves? All I would want on my gravestone would be: ‘Here Lies Tony Benn: He Encouraged Us.’”
He summed up his political career with these words:
From the beginning of time, there have been two flames burning in the human heart. The flame of anger against injustice, and the flame of hope you can build a better world. And my job is to go round fanning both flames.
A little bit of history often helps.
Skilled workers in Britain began organising themselves into trade unions in the 17th century (preceded by guilds. During the 18th century, when the industrial revolution prompted a wave of new trade disputes, the government introduced measures to prevent collective action on the part of workers.
The Combination Acts, passed in 1799 and 1800, during the Napoleonic wars, made any sort of strike action illegal – and workmen could receive up to three months’ imprisonment or two months’ hard labour if they broke these new laws.
Despite the Combination Acts, workers continued to press for better pay and working conditions during the early part of the 19th century, and trade unions grew rapidly. Finally, after violent Luddite protests in 1811 and 1812, Parliament repealed the Combination Acts in 1824 and 1825. Trade unions could now no longer be ignored as a political force, though employers remained reluctant to treat workers’ representatives as their equals.
The Tolpuddle Martyrs
In March 1834, with the connivance of the Whigs, six agricultural labourers who had formed a trade union in the Dorsetshire village of Tolpuddle were arrested on trumped-up charges and transported to Australia. The unfair treatment of the ‘Tolpuddle Martyrs’, as they became known, triggered brief public protests throughout Britain. But the harsh sentences discouraged other workers from joining trade unions, and many of the nationwide organisations, including the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, collapsed.
Rapid trade union growth
Although trade union membership continued to grow during the next two decades, up to around 1850 they tended to be overshadowed by political movements such as Chartism. But in the improved economic conditions of the 1850s and 1860s, the foundations of a powerful trade union movement were established and membership rose from approximately 100,000 in the early 1850s to around a million by 1874.
The trade union and socialist movements learnt that the route for social change had to extend into the political field. The Reform Acts were a series of British legislative measures (1832, 1867–68, 1885) that broadened the voting franchise for Parliament and reduced disparities among constituencies.
It became clear that a new political party to represent the interests and needs of the urban proletariat, a demographic which had increased in number and had recently been given franchise needed representation that extended beyond the workplace.
A new party for a new century.
The Labour Party was born at the turn of the 20th century out of the frustration of working-class people at their inability to field parliamentary candidates through the Liberal Party, which at that time was the dominant social-reform party in Britain.
Its formation was the result of many years of struggle by working-class people, trade unionists and socialists, united by the goal of working-class voices to have representation, a voice in Parliament. The Labour Party was formed and funded by the trade union movement to bring real social change for the working class.
It was this aim that united Keir Hardie and the colleagues who gathered for the famous inaugural meeting of the Labour Representation Committee at London’s Memorial Hall in February 1900. Ignored by the Tories and disillusioned with the Liberals, they gathered together to push for change.
Having grown out of the trade union movement and socialist parties of the 19th century. In 1900 the Trades Union Congress (the national federation of British trade unions) cooperated with the Independent Labour Party (founded in 1893) to establish a Labour Representation Committee. The first election campaign in 1906 saw 26 MPs elected to Parliament, together they chose the name Labour as the official Party name.
This was the beginning of the working class political representation
That early growth continued, with more MPs elected in the years to follow, leaving Labour well placed to challenge for power by the time of the 1924 election. It was this election which saw the first Labour government in our country’s history with Ramsey MacDonald the Party’s first Prime Minister.
1945 – 1959: A united front
By the end of World War II, the British public were crying out for change. Labour would lead that change.
When Labour swept to power in 1945, the party and the unions that funded it were considered two sides of the same coin. The trade union activist turned government minister Aneurin ‘Nye’ Bevan was still delivering stirring socialist speeches at the Labour Party conference in 1959, urging the movement not to abandon their socialist principles in the teeth of successive Conservative election victories.
Our manifesto ‘Let us Face the Future’ laid out a bold vision, pledging to destroy the five ‘evil giants’: want, squalor, disease, ignorance and unemployment. It was a message which captured the imagination of the country and took Clement Attlee into Number 10 on the back of a landslide, winning 393 seats.
Attlee’s Labour government wasted little time enacting visionary change, introducing social security, bringing key industries back into public ownership and introducing a major programme of house building, providing safe and secure homes.
But it was the Attlee government’s introduction of the National Health Service which will rightly go down as Labour’s greatest achievement. Spearheaded by the Health Secretary, Nye Bevan, the creation of the NHS has transformed our country, removing the anxiety of illness from millions of families. To this day the NHS is a national treasure and Labour will always protect it.
1970 to 1974: Union superstars
Labour lost the general election of 1970 and the Conservatives quickly introduced the Industrial Relations Act to curb the powers of the unions.
By 1974 however, Labour were back in power and the trade union movement had become a hugely visible part of British public life. Union leaders became household names, even appearing on primetime TV chat shows to ruminate with stars of stage and screen on the state of the world.
Trade union activist Jimmy Reid quotes The Mask Of Anarchy by Shelley while debating the nature of freedom on Parkinson
1984 to 1985: The miners’ strike
As Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government bedded into power in the 1980s, trade union membership grew and their actions hit the headlines.
In 1980, British trade unions had 12.2 million members, while the government had a Prime Minister determined to curb their influence over British industry. The miners’ strike of 1984-85 came to be seen as an ideological battle between the trade unions and the Conservatives, but it also proved a defining moment in their relationship with the Labour Party. Leader Neil Kinnock was critical of Arthur Scargill’s failure to ballot members for strike action, and both saw their influence wane.
The miners’ strike brought violent battles to the TV screens and saw tensions develop within the trade union movement
1985 Kinnock gets tough on ‘the grotesque chaos’
The aftermath of the miners’ strike saw further fractures develop within the wider labour movement.
Never was the dispute so public as at the Labour Party conference of 1985 in Bournemouth. Leader Neil Kinnock, installed in the wake of a disastrous general election defeat in 1983, took on the left wing of the party’s membership in an impassioned speech that was met with competing choruses of cheers and boos.
“Outdated, misplaced, irrelevant” – Neil Kinnock pulled no punches with his ‘hard left’ hecklers at a boisterous Labour Party conference in 1985
1992 to 1994: Blair Cuckoos the nest.
After a fourth consecutive Conservative victory at the 1992 general election, this ‘New Labour Party’ sought a new direction if not leaving both its working class and union roots behind pushing them to the outer rims of the family photos like some shameful relation an embarrassment and reminder to the Party’s working class beginnings.
’New Labour’ was created in 1994, but the ideals underpinning the party’s overhaul were evident as far back as 1983. Even on his first day as an MP, over a decade before he became party leader, Tony Blair was adamant that Labour needed to create a “more dynamic, more modern” image. He was also clear that he saw the traditional distinction between right and left as increasingly irrelevant: “What I do think is, that it’s a matter of style.”
1995 New Labour weaken old ties. As part of their plan to improve electoral performance, the Labour Party pursued a new direction, one which diluted union power.
In 1997 the election of New Labour heralded a departure from the left-wing politics of 1970s Labour and the rejection of the true socialist ideology. Nothing characterised this more than the removal of Clause IV from the Labour Party Constitution:
Tony Blair continued the plans of his predecessor, John Smith, to amend Clause 4 of the party’s constitution. Adopted in 1918, Clause 4, confirmed the party’s commitment to nationalisation. Blair succeeded in amending the constitution, despite some vocal union opposition. It marked a shift away from the brand of socialism advocated by the trade unions and a move towards the political centre.
This move also paved the way for EU integration, Clause 4, flying in the face of EU articles on competition and monopolies.
Shifting union power structure. After 1997, frequent visits by union leaders to No 10 Downing Street were now consigned to history as New Labour appeared to distance itself from the Labour movement in an attempt to re-badge as the party for all, covering the middle ground pushing the Left to the extremes of the broadchurch until the public could tell no difference between New Labour and the Tory Party.