The Longer View: Labour and the unions

A rocky relationship

The Labour Party's once sacred and symbiotic relationship with the trade unions is again under scrutiny.

The power struggle between the political party and the unions has shaped the labour movement over the last century. Old ties look set to loosen further as Labour seek a new path to electoral success in the 21st Century.

1945 - 1959

A united front

The Labour Party was formed and funded by the trade union movement around the turn of the 20th Century.

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.

“All the tides of history are flowing in our direction” - Nye Bevan demands Labour stick to its principles

Late 1950s onwards

Lights, camera, industrial action

By the late 1950s, the trade union movement had become such an integral part of daily life that it found itself the target of the nation’s satirists.

The language of strikes, pickets and protests had entered common parlance and was famously lampooned in the 1959 British comedy I’m All Right Jack. Such portrayals of union leaders as uncompromising contrarians continued, influencing public perception to the extent that The Two Ronnies could rely upon an uproarious reception by describing Len Murray, then TUC General Secretary, as both a “burke” and a “donkey” in their famous Mastermind sketch.

“It’s not compulsory, only you’ve got to join” – the trade union movement became an easy target for satirists

1969 to 1979

In place of strife

The first big falling out between the trade union movement and the Labour Party occurred in the late 1960s.

Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson asked his Employment Minister Barbara Castle to produce a white paper on industrial relations, named In Place Of Strife. While Castle maintained the proposals were intended to save the trade unions from future attempts to curb their powers, the unions themselves were staunchly opposed. A fierce battle between the party and the trade unions ensued. The unions ultimately won, Wilson backed down and Labour were soon out of power again.

Barbara Castle’s proposed 1969 reforms provoked a hostile reaction from the unions, including TUC general secretary Vic Feather

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


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's reforming zeal

After a fourth consecutive Conservative victory at the 1992 general election, the Labour Party sought a new direction.

’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.”

Tony Blair already had the blueprint for what would become ‘New Labour’ in mind on his first day as a Member of Parliament in 1983


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.

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.

"A constitution it can sell, not conceal” – the amendment of Clause 4 marks the first significant success for Tony Blair’s ‘New Labour’


A union man?

With Labour back on the opposition benches following defeat in the general election of 2010, the trade unions were quick to re-exert their influence.

In a close leadership election, Ed Miliband defeated his elder brother with strong union support. David Miliband claimed the votes of the majority of Labour MPs and ordinary party members, but Ed crucially secured the backing of three of the four biggest trade unions to win by the slimmest of margins. The new Labour leader was regularly depicted by his critics as being indebted to the unions (earning the nickname ‘Red Ed’) and Labour went on to lose the 2015 general election.

‘Red Ed’ pulls off a shock victory over his brother in the 2010 Labour leadership election, thanks largely to support from the trade unions

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