Will Thorne one of the early pioneers of the GMB, the TUC and GFTU (General Federation of Trade Unions) was a key figure in that set of circumstances that created the Labour Representation Committee which in turn created the Labour Party. The TUC and GFTU were significant players in the formation of the Party. Their purpose was to represent collective working class, trade union interests in Parliament. It was an extension of the work in the previous century to influence the Liberal Party in Parliament in workers’ favour. Over the years the GMB remained one of the Labour Party’s most loyal supporters to the extent that sometimes, for example on its supine position in favour of the European Union for many years, it was difficult to tell which tail was wagging the dog.
The decision of the Central Executive Council of the GMB to reduce its Labour party affiliation to practically zero has some historical resonance and reads more than a tactical flash in the pan that will be studiously reversed when some concessions are wrung from the Labour Party leader at his private meeting with affiliated unions at the TUC.
There is deep resentment that the Labour Party is infected with the culture of neoliberalism that sees the individual rather than the collective as everything. The collective voice of the trade unions wherever they are represented is one of the most representative in society. It represents people at work and without work there is no society. Trade unions do act on the basis of accountability and mandates, which gives them a form of democracy not common in the rest of society. It gives them too a power and social force and wisdom not found in the minds of individuals jockeying for votes and tactical advantage. A trade union speaks for its members through a process of democracy not found in any of the Parliamentary political parties.
Trade union membership is thirty times larger than the Labour Party’s and twelve times larger that all the political parties put together. Trade unions are much more popular than political parties in that they engage people in a living democracy, a vital collective of thought and action.
For the Labour Party to seek to reject this popular force indicates it is seeking to separate itself from its main root and complete Blair’s work, remember OMOV (one member one vote).
For the unions to start rejecting the Labour Party but not the Parliamentary route and illusion will not be enough. But the GMB is delivering a stark warning. As the Parliamentary route becomes more hopeless, alternative forms of power and representation will emerge, independent extra Parliamentary industrial activity and civil disobedience. These have to develop to restore wage levels, and stopping the cuts and closures will take on a new momentum. More unions need more of their own resources dedicated to the real political fight of their members in these battles. That is politics, and that is why the government is seeking to introduce an anti trade union and anti voluntary sector lobbying bill to further constrain organised opposition and deal with the most potent impact of trade unionism which is not expressed through its political funds and Labour Party affiliation, but through its power to organise, educate, agitate and act.