Hard-left union barons are wrecking the Labour Party

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Robert Conquest, the celebrated anti-communist historian, once stated that “the behaviour of any bureaucratic organisation can best be understood by assuming that it is controlled by a secret cabal of its enemies”. This is, I fear, as convincing an explanation as any for the behaviour of much of the British trade union movement over the past few years. Certainly, had they set out to ensure Tory electoral triumph, they would scarcely have needed to act differently. By abandoning their historic moderation and swinging behind Corbyn the trade unions laid the path for Labour’s repeated electoral humiliation. Now, by backing Rebecca Long-Bailey, some seem determined to ensure a repeat performance. 

This might sound like a cause for conservative celebration but that would be mistaken. There are only two political parties in Britain that could plausibly lead a Government and one of them being controlled by zealots does nothing for the national interest. It places us just one dodgy election campaign from Government by people who think the villains won the Cold War. Conservatives should hope Labour moderates, those who are unequivocally committed to core democratic principles, retake the party even if it is likely to boost the electoral threat. 

The irony of much of the trade union movement swinging behind Corbyn is that for most of Labour’s history they acted as the party’s chief barrier to the radical left. George Lansbury, a foolish pacifist who advocated the complete disbanding of the British armed forces as Hitler rose to power, was crushed by the union bloc vote at the 1935 party conference. Decades later in 1981 it was union votes that prevented Tony Benn being elected Labour deputy leader on a hard-left platform.    

However from the early 2000s onwards a series of hard-left union barons rose to prominence. Some, such as Mark Serwotka who took over the Public and Commercial Union and Mark Wrack of the Fire Brigade Union (FBU), remain in position and became important Corbyn backers. Crucially Len McCluskey, who has admitted to being a past supporter of the Trotskyite sect Militant, defeated a moderate rival to become general secretary of Unite in 2010. McCluskey became Corbyn’s most important union ally, and as leader of one of Britain’s biggest unions was able to give the Corbynites massive organisational and financial firepower. 

When Corbyn ran for the Labour leadership in 2015 the trade union movement abandoned its historic role of keeping the hard-left on a tight leash. Corbyn was supported not only by Unite and the FBU but also by Unison, now Britain’s biggest trade union, which isn’t traditionally associated with the radical left and is now supporting Sir Keir Starmer. In total Corbyn had the support of six trade unions affiliated to Labour, double his closest rival, as well as several others that had ended their formal link to the party. 

Whenever Corbyn fell into trouble it was the unions, and in particular Unite, that tried to bail him out. In June 2018 Labour organised a music festival, ‘Labour Live’, that gave some notion of what the party could have done to the British economy. It lost hundreds of thousands of pounds. It would have gone even worse had Unite not block purchased 1,000 tickets and provided free transport for its members, ensuring the festival ground looked at least a third full. McCluskey even handed out free ice creams from a Unite branded van, funded by the union, though exactly how this helped its paying members went unstated. Ahead of December’s general election Unite handed a massive £3.2 million to Labour, the biggest single donation of the campaign. 

Just how entrenched the hard-left has become in the trade union movement is demonstrated by most significant British trade unions being affiliated to either the Cuba or Venezuela Solidarity Campaigns, and in many cases both. These groups give support to the far-left dictatorships in Cuba and Venezuela respectively. Incredibly the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) is listed as a Cuba Solidarity Campaign affiliate, despite journalists in the country facing imprisonment or worse. 

Earlier this year I was due to interview Boris Gonzalez Arenas, a dissident Cuban journalist who has faced repeated arrest, during a planned UK visit. In the end the interview had to be conducted via Skype, as the regime wouldn’t let him leave the country. I could see little point in going to the NUJ for support, given its affiliation with the regime sympathetic Cuba Solidarity Campaign. 

For most of Labour’s history the trade unions acted as the most effective block to Marxist infiltration. Union bosses, typically practical men, had little time for talk of revolution or barricades. Such nonsense belonged safely on the other side of the English Channel. Of course there were exceptions, firebrands like Ben Tillett and Arthur Scargill, but they were very much the minority. Tragically, at some point in the early 2000s, the union movement began abandoning its historic role and moved sharply to the left. Corbynism could still have emerged without the union transition, but it wouldn’t have been anything like as potent. For the far-left to be truly beaten in Britain, it will need to be driven out of the trade union movement just as urgently as the Labour Party. 

James Bickerton is a writer and journalist. Follow him on twitter: @JBickertonUK

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