Sunday 30 September 2018

Corbynism and the Trade Unions

While the divided Tories meet in Birmingham to argue over who's going to take over from Theresa May and the Brexit morass of their own making, it's worth spending a little time considering some of the divisions that surfaced during Labour conference inside the Corbyn project. In particular, I'm talking about the tension between Corbynism and the trade unions - a relationship that has hitherto been productive and, effectively, saved Jeremy Corbyn's leadership when the Labour right made their move. However, friction between the two are inevitable and has recently been in evidence. Part of this stems from a generalised tension between the Labour Party and its union affiliates - the party has to construct a broad electoral alliance to appeal to as many voters as possible, and the audience of unions are ultimately their own members, which are of a much narrower range. On top of that, Corbynism as a movement and trade unions as institutions are different animals. Their political ontology are not the same. This then is the overall context in which we should understand moves to insert more trade union influence into how the party elects its leader, and why the reformed trigger ballot system won out at conference and open selections were defeated.

Consider basic definitions. What is a trade union? It is an organisation of workers whose remit is to defend their interests, sometimes individual, sometimes collective, against one or many employers. For example, in the main the Communication Workers' Union sits across the table from Royal Mail (postal) and BT (telecoms). Unite on the other hand represents a larger number of workers in a huge variety of workplaces. Occasionally, when the balance is right, unions can go on the offensive and use their collective strength to exert pressure on employers to release more of the wealth they produced in the form of wages, less work time, and/or better conditions. As a general rule, unions are bureaucratic organisations too. They come with an administrative apparatus in which key positions are elected according to timetables, and on the basis of representative democracy. i.e. Few if any unions reserve recall rights, though getting by with a hostile executive or a no-confidence at conference would be practically impossible. As office holders the elected see the day-to-day operations of the union, taking on responsibilities of strategic priorities, resource allocation, staffing, etc. For elected officials and those employed by unions tend to be cushioned from the kinds of realities their members face. As a rule, they are generally better paid, enjoy better work conditions and perks, and tend toward the acquisition of bureaucratic, if not conservative habits of thought.

These are pressures that bear down on people in these positions, and naturally these changes are conditioned by the state of class struggle at any given moment. In lean times for working class politics, like the 30 years between the end of the miners' strike and Jeremy Corbyn's election as Labour leader, this insulation can preserve the memory and experience of working class militancy. One characteristic of this period was the disproportionately large number of leftists, including the far left, who became elected officials and full-time union officers. Now politics is mixing it up again the relationship becomes more complex. As bureaucracies, the mass take over of the Labour Party gives them new opportunities to extend union influence - but poses a threat also.

Unions tend to approach their influence in the party in the same pragmatic way. They look to maximise their influence via numbers on the NEC, motions to conference, sponsored MPs, sponsored party events, nominations of union personnel to job vacancies in the party, and relationships to party factions. See how Community and USDAW, for instance, chum up with Progress. How the T&G and then Unite in the West Midlands were the backbone of Labour First, and the CWU's affiliation to Momentum. This maximisation of organisational/general secretary influence is also an outgrowth of unions as sectional bodies. In the final analysis, workers have common interests. But their unions often don't. The immediate interests of one group of workers may come into conflict with others as employers try and play off one section of the workforce against another. For instance, different unions might organise different parts of the same employer. When I was a supermarket worker, the employer recognised the T&G (with whom I was a shop steward) and USDAW, which frustrated wage negotiations as one was used to undermine another. Likewise another place had three unions, one for each different section of workers, which made coordination among organised employees extremely difficult - not least because each group had bespoke negotiating arrangements. Also, unions can and do compete among themselves for recruits, up to and including scabby behaviour. At the end of it, a union is an organisation that wants to survive and thrive and these organisational interests have the tendency to win out over wider considerations.

As organisations embroiled in the day-to-day guerrilla warfare of wage bargaining and preserving/improving working conditions, unions have to be pragmatic. Levering its collective strength and using soft power against an employer requires a continuous appreciation of tactics and strategy - at least if a union is doing its job properly. Therefore unions are habituated to piecemeal change, small victories (and reverses) and incremental improvement. This habit lends itself well to the to-ings and fro-ings of parliamentary democracy, and why so many trade unionists past too the passage from the shop floor to the floor of the Commons. This is also the material root of Labour's historic anti-intellectualism, and the short shrift revolutionary politics have received in this country.

And then the old certainties dissolve and a new relationship with the party comes into play. Corbynism from the beginning had one foot in the unions, but the movement did not move through them. In its first phase of taking over the party, the people responding to Jeremy Corbyn's candidacy was composed of the politically atomised but socially networked. Minorities were old hands at the activism game, or people called back into politics, but the bulk were entirely new and had never been members of a political party before. They joined up as masses of individuals embedded in proliferating digital networks, which in turn recruited even more. These connections were vehicles of contact, affinity and affectivity. Corbynism in the unions initially assumed a similar character between existing leftists and a fed up officialdom. It proved string enough to bounce several general secretaries into endorsing Corbyn's candidacy, which in turn was helpful for winning over Corbyn-sceptical party members who take union support of candidacies seriously. Nevertheless, as a self-activating network, a spontaneous swarm that swamped the party and initially identified more with the ideas Corbyn represents than the rest of the labour movement apparatus, it was therefore different from the established, incremental and bureaucratic politics of the unions in and out of Labour.

From this arises an important set of differences. The more methodical practice of the unions contrasts with the impatience of Corbynism. Their habituation to committee room compromises with other forces differs from the experience of Corbynism which, before party conference, is used to the direction of travel being its way thanks to the weight of the expanded membership. Hence the emphasis in Corbynism on members' rights and the role they should have in steering the party. This is where tension came out into the open in Liverpool. Unions wish to preserve their influence over the apparat and PLP, but having a truly sovereign membership with the subordination of the MPs and unions to it not only threatens years of painstaking influence-building, but offers a vision of what could happen in several unions if Corbynism spreads and its radicalisation deepens. While all unions might like to recruit hand over fist, they might be less keen if this was accompanied by demands for member-led democracy and curbs on the power of officialdom. In short, this tension is the inescapable result an encounter between two sets of progressive forces with different political ontologies, or modes of being. It's the bureaucratic hierarchy and representative democracy of the unions vs the multitudinous mass of Corbynism whose trajectory points toward more direct democracy. This is why the struggle for open selection and more party democracy is not about to go away.

Can the tension be soothed? If things stand still, no. Therefore we have to ensure things do not stand still. Corbynism reached 13 million voters because it addressed and articulated a previously dispersed and unorganised set of grievances. On this, Corbynism and the unions are in fundamental agreement. They require more politicisation, and taking up to become bones of contention, of points that can be productive of even more struggle. But while there are plenty of such issues, the lynchpin is and will always be the workplace. This is the hinge of bourgeois power. Calling on unions to recruit more and organise more is to patronise the efforts of existing trade unionists who spend their time doing just that. However, here Corbynism has a role to play. In addition to legislation that makes effective trade unionism more difficult is the small, cultural matter of organised industrial action at work getting purged from the collective memory. Workers are inculcated by so many institutions as neoliberal subjects without social ties, which is reinforced by the nature of work, ranging from the precarious, temporary and the part-time to the individuating character of immaterial labour. A Corbynism of the unions is important and necessary because a dose of deepened member sovereignty will enable unions to respond better to where most workers currently are and, hopefully, start drawing them in to the wider labour movement.

Corbynism is important from the standpoint of world politics because it is the holy grail of many a abstruse debate about the death of class: it appeals to and forges together an array of positions which, if one is wedded to a liberal conception of identity politics, should not be possible. It reconciles seemingly exclusive constituencies by appealing to their common interests, doing so in alliance with "traditional" class politics and a hopeful vision of the future that encourages political imagination, if not experimentation. It has transformed the Labour Party, and has gone from there to reach out to a truly massive audience. For a movement just over three years old it is at the threshold of forming a government should the Tories fall, and it has transformed the traditional party of the working class utterly into something approaching where class politics now is. Unions as sectional organisations and oriented to mass workplaces will have a harder time achieving a similar take off, but it is possible. Democratising unions, making would-be members feel a living, relevant relationship to it, of offering themselves as networks of support and training as well as organs of resistance is the pathway to rejuvenation and overcoming tensions with the party and Corbynism in particular.

Like it or not, Corbynism is the future, more direct democracy is the future, becoming more swarm-like is the future. Politics is changing, the character of class is changing. We have to make sure our way of organising collectively changes too so we can use our strength most effectively. And win.


John Edwards said...

Excellent article. But in paragraph 5 I think you mean "short shrift" rather than "thrift"

Phil said...


Anonymous said...

So just what has the Labour Party ended up with as far as selection goes?

Phil said...

This is what Skwawkbox have to say - this is pretty much what I think it entails:

Phil said...

From Andy Newman off Facebook:

Some interesting thoughts here, but I think the conclusion puts the cart before the horse.

In correctly recognising the sectional interest of trade unions, and their purpose of exerting leverage on employers, you nevertheless suggest the a "Corbynisation" of the unions would be about democratisation.

But the missing part of your argument is that you don't demonstrate why such democratisation in itself would strengthen unions in fulfilling the purposes for which members are prepared to pay.
It strikes me that the fundamental weakness of Corbynisn as a social movement has been.its inability to use the dynamism and creativity that it has shown in elections towards workplace and trade unions activity that can deliver improvements right here and now, rather than waiting for a Labour government.

Speedy said...

The younger "immaterial" working class may or may not recognise themselves as thus - they are perhaps closer to the consciousness of white-collar working class Tories of the south of England.

Union power is relative to the marketplace. The rail union is relatively powerful because it can stop the trains running. Unions representing call centre workers less so.

Corbynism is a principally middle class movement, and by its nature global. This is what detaches it from the concerns of the unions, which are the opposite. A democratised union movement would be as likely to call for protectionism and closed shops, particularly in this globalised context.

I get that you are excited by the spectacle of packed conferences, but the polls tell a very different story.

Phil said...

This from Alan Story:

Hi Phil:

You conclude:

“Like it or not, Corbynism is the future, more direct democracy is the future, becoming more swarm-like is the future. Politics is changing, the character of class is changing. We have to make sure our way of organising collectively changes too so we can use our strength most effectively. And win.”

My question:

Why doesn’t Corbyn intervene in the Sheffield trees dispute where a right of Blairite Labour –controlled local council has signed a £2.2 billion, 25-year PFI “deal” with a Spanish-owned multinational contractor that we in Sheffield will be paying for until 2055, has outsourced hundreds of jobs, and which, so far, has led to the felling of 5,500 mostly healthy street trees…and threatens +11,000 more trees?

Corbyn and Labour’s NEC intervened in Haringey. Why can’t we have “Haringey North”?
A petition started in August 2017 and signed by +12,000 people asking Corbyn to intervene:

Local trade unions are NOW opposed:
On the wacky finances of the Sheffield PFI and how a good whack of our payments are ending up in a Guernsey tax haven (see the pdf at the bottom of this endorsement from the Sheffield Greens of a dossier produced by NO STUMP CITY:

A piece by George Monbiot in The Guardian in October 2017:

You cannot even begin to imagine the anti-Labour hate ---- and that’s not too strong a word! --- this wretched PFI deal has stirred up. The lack of democracy in this LP-controlled city takes your breath away.

Alan Story

Phil said...

A few comments from an anonymous union official ...

First, obviously as a full time official of well over 10 years I'm highly biased. But I also may have some insight. Your description of the unions broadly right but misses the role we've played in the party and the reliance the party has had on it in the past. Corbynism is not guaranteed dies (if you think Corbynism is fixed and immutable you’ve not been watching how quickly politics can change) and if you weaken influence of the unions, then you’ll be lucky if what the Labour Party morphs into is something as left wing as New Labour as the safety / ballast we provide will have gone. If you think my comment about any reconstituted party not being as left wing as New Labour is rubbish, I’d remind you that Blair wanted to go further in reducing the influence of the trade unions and was foiled. Think what New Labour would have been like without the unions being at the heart of the party. Your suggestions are re-heated Blairite objectives, albeit with a different set of arguments. You say “Democratising unions, making would-be members feel a living, relevant relationship to it, of offering themselves as networks of support and training as well as organs of resistance is the pathway to rejuvenation and overcoming tensions with the party and Corbynism in particular.” I think you are plain wrong here. Unions have lots of democracy already. For example, unions elect general secretaries every five years, their national executives every year or two years (depending on the union), their national bargaining bodies, their regional councils and committees and their lay branch leaders (including workplace reps). At all of these lay meetings whether at a workplace, branch regional or national level votes are taken on decisions to do with the union and their members. I would argue on a day-to-day basis there is way more democratic activity in unions than there is in the Labour Party. It is not the lack of democracy that is the problems in unions, it is the lack of participation in that democracy. In nearly every union the GS election and the elections for the national executives (the two most powerful positions / bodies) fail to even get 10% turnout, often it can be as low as 6%. Even in branch level elections turnout is no better. And in most union branches most positions are not even contested. What we need is to change the concept of unions from insurance providers to a body that works use to build high participation action to win things themselves. If you do this then the higher engagement in the democratic structures follows naturally.

Finally, I would argue you need the institutional voice of work in the party otherwise the Labour Party will just become a democratic socialist party that is not part of a much wider movement. And unions do some things better than the party does (say like around equality issues, and a lot of basic organising) and our influence is positive. Let's be honest here, every Labour Party Regional Director relies on the unions way more than they rely on Momentum - we are embedded as part of the party machinery. If you want that influence from the unions then you have to give them institutional power in the party. If you really want to build a movement it requires a two-way exchange between the two wings. Can the union link be improved upon and updated? For sure. Should it be weakened? I’d say be careful what you wish for, because like the leadership rule changes a few years ago there can be unintended consequences to changes in the party’s democracy. And those consequences don’t always go the way the authors of the changes expected.