Join the Socialist Party Join us today!

Printable version Printable version

Facebook   Twitter

Link to this page:

From The Socialist newspaper, 5 October 2016

Editorial of the Socialist, issue 919

Combative, vibrant unions should be central to the Corbyn movement

Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell joined the joint Junior doctors and teachers demonstration 26-4-16, photo Paul Mattsson

Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell joined the joint Junior doctors and teachers demonstration 26-4-16, photo Paul Mattsson   (Click to enlarge)

'If at first you don't succeed, try and try again.' Some Corbyn supporters seem to be taking this refrain to an extreme in their continual attempts to befriend the Blairite right wing of the Labour Party. The failure to learn the lessons of the multiple rejected attempts at olive branches and compromise from the Corbyn wing is full of dangers.

This debate about the correct approach for the Corbyn movement is manifesting itself within the trade union movement too. The Socialist Party has argued that the trade unions have a potentially key role to play in this process, and finding clarity on the way forward is therefore vital.

Jon Lansman, a leading figure in the pro-Corbyn group Momentum, gave an interview in the Guardian recently appealing for peace. He called for Corbyn's team, trade union leaders, and MPs opposing Corbyn to "work together so Labour can transform Britain."

In reality, the interview was a response to Len McCluskey, the leader of general union Unite. Len had correctly criticised Labour's deputy leader Tom Watson for his speech at the party's conference attacking the left and defending the record of New Labour. Reflecting the interests of the capitalist backers of New Labour, Watson said "capitalism is not the enemy" and warned that under Corbyn Labour had "ended up sounding like we are anti-business."

In contrast Len rejected any return to the so called 'third way' and pointed out that under the Tony Blair governments, "we lost one million manufacturing jobs, the gap between rich and poor continued, the seeds of inequality that we are seeing today were watered then."


He went on to say "if Tom wants to try to refresh his mandate it would be interesting to see what happens." Lansman, on the other hand, was keen to stress that no challenge should be made against Tom Watson, or indeed any of the right. He suggested that in return for not pursuing mandatory reselection or other challenges, the left might receive "reciprocation" from the Blairites - in the form of an end to the purges and exclusions of Corbyn supporters.

This at exactly the same time that Jackie Walker, vice-chair of Momentum, is suspended from the Labour Party for alleged anti-Semitism (and subsequently removed from her Momentum position). While the comments made by Walker - who is herself Jewish - were crass, they do not indicate anti-Semitism. And it is clear that this issue, as well as conflating opposition to the right-wing Israeli government with anti-Semitism, is being used as a cover for targeting prominent Corbyn supporters.

It is fantasy for Jon Lansman and others in Momentum to think anything they do will persuade Blairite MPs to fall into line behind Corbyn's anti-austerity leadership and allow his supporters to organise in defence of it. As we have pointed out numerous times, there are now essentially two parties in the Labour Party - a new party for the 99% around Jeremy Corbyn, and the establishment's same old New Labour. Only one side can win this civil war.


But not all trade union leaders see it in this way or are clear about being on Corbyn's side of this battle. The two sides of the Labour Party are mirrored by two sides in the trade union movement. Similarly to Tom Watson, Dave Prentis, leader of the Unison public sector union, called for Jeremy to cave in on allowing MPs to elect his shadow cabinet, and "slap down those who pursue divisive tactics such as changing the rules to enable mass deselections of MPs."

The GMB union backed Owen Smith in the leadership race. The main excuse the leadership has used to muddy the waters with GMB members is Corbyn's correct principled opposition to Trident nuclear weapons. Many defence workers are organised in the GMB and fear the effect of scrapping Trident on their jobs and the future of their communities. The only way to win these workers over is to be firm and clear on an alternative, socialist plan for creating skilled industrial jobs, including nationalisation of key industries under democratic workers' control and management. The GMB should take a stand against nuclear weapons on this basis of 'not one job lost'.

There are parallels between the battle in the movement today and the ones at the end of the 19th century that led to the formation of the Labour Party. Similarly to the conservatism of the right-wing union leaders about transforming Labour now, there was reluctance then - particularly from the bigger unions representing better off workers - to break with the Liberal Party and form one of their own. In fact, initially less than half of the TUC unions (generally the smaller, more militant ones) took this step and affiliated to the Labour Representation Committee at its first meeting in 1900.

Deliveroo workers' delegation reports management has rejected their demand for the London Living Wage, photo James Ivens, photo James Ivens

Deliveroo workers' delegation reports management has rejected their demand for the London Living Wage, photo James Ivens, photo James Ivens   (Click to enlarge)

Despite these divisions, the trade unions remain an important pillar for the Corbyn movement to secure. They are at root potentially powerful and decisive bodies for the 99% to organise against the bosses. They include 6.5 million workers. Their structures allow striking junior doctors, Durham teaching assistants, Deliveroo drivers - in other words, those at the sharp end of the austerity Jeremy Corbyn stands against - to speak with a collective voice.

It is this collective voice that should be given a weight proportionate to its size within a refounded, democratic, socialist Labour Party. It is clear how much the right wing fear such structures - the decades prior to Jeremy's initial victory had seen gradual reductions in the role of the trade unions in Labour. In 1993 local trade union delegates lost their vote in selecting parliamentary candidates while the unions only have around 20% of the votes in Labour's national policy-making forum.


The Blairites knew that - even if the dominant trend was trade union tops which were docile and accepting of their policies - a structural role for trade unions meant that the capacity existed for a major challenge to their rule when the trade unions were reinvigorated by mass movements in the future.

But as has clearly been shown by the decisions and actions taken by some trade union leaders in regard to the Corbyn movement - counter to the interests of their members - it is not enough to just say the unions should have a greater role. The right-wing leadership of shop workers' union Usdaw may claim that the 440,000-strong union had a say in the leadership election by backing Owen Smith. But in reality this decision involved only a phone-poll of its 16 executive committee members!

The Socialist Party always called for democratic checks of the trade unions' collective voice, known as the block vote, by the rank and file of the unions. Collective representation for the trade unions is only truly democratic if the unions themselves function democratically. So it also matters what kind of unions we have - we need dynamic, democratic, combative unions, to mirror and work with a working class party of the same character.

Unfortunately this isn't the case for most unions today. Most of the union leaderships moved to the right in tandem with the rightward shift in the Labour Party leadership over the last three decades - a process analysed extensively in previous Socialist Party articles. This contributed to top-down bureaucratic approaches that have led to a hollowing out of the unions at branch level and low participation in decision making. Some have even targeted activists for demanding the union show a lead in struggling for better pay and conditions.


Also, while they are still inherently strong organisations at their present size, the unions need to increase their reach. Slightly less than a quarter of all workers are in trade unions. But this is significantly less for young workers - 12% of those workers aged 20 to 24. Only 3.5% of 'accommodation and food service activities' workers are in a union. Unionisation in the private sector is 14%, compared to 56% in the public sector. This shows a failure by most of the trade union tops over decades to reach out to new layers of workers and to build in previously unorganised but growing industries.

RMT Tube London Underground strike picket line, photo Paul Mattsson

RMT Tube London Underground strike picket line, photo Paul Mattsson   (Click to enlarge)

Instead we need unions that lead struggle - and in doing so expand their size. Time and again it has been shown that when strikes take place, workers join unions because it is clear why it's worth it. Many of the unions that formed the Labour Party in the first place had only been recently formed themselves through the New Unionism movement. Then low paid, un-unionised workers moved into struggle for the first time, using working class methods of strikes, picket lines and solidarity. They formed new unions to organise through. They quickly felt the need for a party to fight politically for the demands they were striking and marching for.

Like then, the trade union movement must be transformed from top to bottom into one fit for the battles we face. We need conscious campaigns to recruit and organise migrant workers, young workers, and those in precarious and unorganised sectors. We need efforts to recruit and train reps in every workplace who organise regular workplace meetings discussing industrial and political issues and feed workers' views into the rest of the union.

This type of change could win the vibrant trade unions we all need to play a full and proper part alongside a socialist Labour Party in the fight against the Tories and against austerity.

Why not click here to join the Socialist Party, or click here to donate to the Socialist Party.

In The Socialist 5 October 2016:

What we think

Combative, vibrant unions should be central to the Corbyn movement

Socialist Party news and analysis

Tories out!

Come to Socialism 2016!

Sam Allardyce corruption shame: reclaim the game!

Asos workers fear taking toilet breaks, sacked for panic attacks

UK workers born in early 1980s half as wealthy as those born in 1970s

Millions have less than 100 savings

Them & Us

What we saw

Black History Month

Fighting racism today

Workplace news and analysis

RMT president Sean Hoyle speaks to the Socialist

Durham teaching assistants ballot for strike

Napo conference 2016: new mood of determination

London Met strike against job cuts and victimisation

Workplace news in brief

Socialist readers' comments and reviews

Corbyn's praise for Cardiff Labour is mistaken

Review: where you live can kill you

Review: international jazz protest storytelling

The Socialist inbox

Socialist Students

Socialist ideas - winning a new generation of students

Socialist Party reports and campaigns

Thousands march against Tory conference

Protests against children's centre closures in Bolton

Why I joined the Socialist Party

Fighting fund record smashed again!

Leeds: Solidarity demo with Irish abortion fight

London: Socialism Today milestone celebration

Worcester: Public meeting discusses Corbyn

International socialist news and analysis

Poland: Fighting back against anti-abortion law

Ireland: repeal the 8th Amendment!

Joint declaration by Izquierda Revolucionaria and the CWI


Home   |   The Socialist 5 October 2016   |   Join the Socialist Party

Subscribe   |   Donate   |   Audio  |   PDF  |   ebook

Related links:

Labour Party:

triangleWorkers' movement must launch a campaign for a general election

triangleBoris Johnson 'coronation' - demos say: boot him out!

triangleStop Boris - General election now

triangleSinister moves against Corbyn can be beaten by clear socialist policies

triangleWhat now for Brexit?


triangleClimate protests: which way forward after 20 September?

triangleUnions must fight to make bus drivers and passengers safe

triangleMoney doesn't make up for cuts - education unions must organise for funding and against Tory attacks

triangleHarland and Wolff occupation

The Socialist:

triangleSelling the Socialist

triangleSocialist newspaper sales round-up

triangleSalisbury welcomes Socialist campaigners


triangleHackney Socialist Party: Socialist change to end climate change

triangleBirmingham: Socialist Students winter conference


triangleBuilding a new left in PCS


triangleTrade union movement must put its stamp on swirling events


triangleStand firm against the pro-capitalist politicians

Trade unions:

triangleInterview with Sean Hoyle - left candidate in RMT general secretary election

Trade union:

triangleSouth Yorkshire FBU celebrates halt to cuts


triangleNo retreats: Corbyn must stand firm against Blairites

Young workers:

triangleHackney Socialist Party: Students and young workers and the struggle for socialism

Working class:

triangleAt 96 I'm more convinced of socialism than ever

Jeremy Corbyn:

triangleTories in tatters: Corbyn must seize the time

News and socialist analysis

News and socialist analysis



Building a new left in PCS


Climate change

Climate change: what's socialism got to do with it?



Stand firm against the pro-capitalist politicians



Trade union movement must put its stamp on swirling events


Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland: Campaign mounts over historic sexual abuse allegations cover-up



How students can fight and win



Ditch the Tories - and austerity



Scotland and Brexit: Developing threat to the capitalist union


General election

Tory meltdown - Organise to finish them off



Tories in tatters: Corbyn must seize the time



Marches, blockades, strikes, occupations... How can protests win?


Socialist Party

Dozens of protests say Boris must go - Socialist Party policies heard on TV



What strategy can end the retail jobs massacre?



Austerity anger feeds movement for Welsh independence



Bury expelled from football league: Boot out the bosses ruining our game

triangleMore News and socialist analysis articles...

Join the Socialist Party
Subscribe to Socialist Party publications
Donate to the Socialist Party
Socialist Party Facebook page
Socialist Party on Twitter
Visit us on Youtube



Phone our national office on 020 8988 8777


Locate your nearest Socialist Party branch Text your name and postcode to 07761 818 206

Regional Socialist Party organisers:

Eastern: 0798 202 1969

East Mids: 0773 797 8057

London: 020 8988 8786

North East: 0784 114 4890

North West 07954 376 096

South East: 020 8988 8777

South West: 07759 796 478

Southern: 07833 681910

Wales: 07935 391 947

West Mids: 02476 555 620

Yorkshire: 0114 264 6551



Alphabetical listing

September 2019

August 2019

July 2019

June 2019

May 2019

April 2019

March 2019

February 2019

January 2019