Labour’s ‘Contentious Alliance’ at Conference

by Tom Blackburn

Its operation regularly taxes the comprehension of the vast majority of those who participate in it. To appreciate that is perhaps the first step to its understanding.

Lewis Minkin on Labour Party Conference[1]

The Labour Party Conference occupies a central role in the party’s culture. A great deal of the internal organising and factional manoeuvring which goes on within the party revolves around its annual Conference. But there have always been serious questions asked about how much political weight it actually carries - not least because of the intense stage management for which it has become renowned in recent years, and the long-established tendency of party leaderships to shrug off Conference decisions of which they disapprove.

Nevertheless, there has been a huge drive - mainly by the Labour left - to mobilise ahead of this year’s Conference. Indeed, around 1,200 grassroots delegates are expected to attend the 2017 Conference in Brighton. It seems fair to say that this was mainly in pursuit of the so-called ‘McDonnell amendment’, which as it turns out has effectively been superseded by a deal agreed by the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC) and its leadership. Conference will vote on these proposals in Brighton.

But as yet, Jeremy Corbyn’s oft-proclaimed ‘new politics’ has yet to make much of an impact on this old party gathering and key focal point. The contrast in Liverpool last year was striking - while attendees gathered for a diverse and eclectic range of debates and discussions at The World Transformed fringe event, the party’s old guard comprehensively outmanoeuvred the left at the Conference itself, adding two more rightwing members to the NEC and tipping the balance on it away from Corbyn and the left.

While Conference remains relatively untouched by Corbynism, revitalising and empowering it will be an important aspect of the wider democratisation of the party. But first we need to demystify Labour Party Conference, to understand its exact function, to highlight what effective powers it has now and has had previously, and how it has deployed them over the years. Part of this involves making sense of the role at Conference of the party’s affiliated trade unions - which comprise one half of what Lewis Minkin has termed a ‘contentious alliance’[2] between the political and industrial wings of the labour movement.

Despite the centrality of Conference to the Labour Party, there are few in-depth studies of how it functions. This essay is therefore heavily indebted to Minkin’s 1980 book The Labour Party Conference - which, while accounting for its age, remains the most detailed and insightful study of its subject - as well his other two major works on the Labour Party, the aforementioned Contentious Alliance and The Blair Supremacy[3]. All three titles are remarkable for the depth of Minkin’s scholarship and the intimate attention to detail demonstrated within, and a single essay can do no more than scratch their surface.

The block vote

The most obvious manifestation of trade union influence at the Labour Party Conference is the block vote. The target of much scepticism and often fierce criticism from both left and right, the block vote no longer wields the same influence at Conference as it once did; it was abolished for leadership contests in 1993 and since 1996, trade unions have accounted for half of all other votes at Conference[4], with constituency parties having an equal share of the vote. Nevertheless, it continues to be a substantial and very tangible presence in Conference decision-making and is still surrounded by much mythology.

From its foundation, the Labour Party has had a federal structure, with power divided among the unions, the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), the Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) and the party’s affiliated Socialist Societies. The block vote itself, however, has not been an ever-present feature of trade union practice. As Minkin points out, prior to 1890, votes at the Trades Union Congress were taken on a show of hands - in other words, unions did not have voting rights commensurate with their membership but according to the number of delegates present in the hall. The block vote emerged as those arguing for the foundation of independent political party started to gain a hearing in the unions at this time. Minkin asserts that the block vote was devised by their opponents, with a view to stymieing their progress[5].

Furthermore, not all trade union votes at Labour Conference have been cast as a block. Some unions, particularly those with strong traditions of federalism such as the Textile Workers and the Mineworkers, were known to split the votes they cast at Conference prior to 1953. But this practice ended with the introduction of ballot boxes by Labour’s then-general secretary Morgan Phillips - who was fearful of the symbolism of trade union leaders holding up their voting cards for TV audiences to see - and has never happened since[6].

The block vote has been at the centre of much resentment and tension on both the left and right of the Labour Party. On sections of the socialist left, it has occasionally been held that the perceived bureaucratic and economistic tendencies of trade unions may make them at least as likely to hinder as facilitate any push for socialism inside the party[7]. While not taking this exact position, Tariq Ali and Quentin Hoare wrote in New Left Review in 1982: “The block vote has historically been one of the most potent weapons in the hands of the right, and strategies based on hopes for its utilisation by left bureaucrats rather than right bureaucrats have proved particularly barren.”

Certainly, abuses of the block vote are not unknown in the history of Labour Party Conference. There have been various ways to skin this particular cat. Until 1982, for instance, it was possible for individual unions to increase their affiliation (and hence their voting weight) shortly ahead of Conference, having surveyed the likely political lay of the land[8]. Furthermore, over the years both left and right have often taken a somewhat flexible approach to union mandates where they felt they had the opportunity for creative interpretations. To quote Minkin:

the procedures at the Conference did greatly increase the discretionary possibilities left open to union delegations and thereby often to the union’s leaders in interpreting mandates. It must be stressed that union Conference decisions did have such a binding quality that union leaders were extremely reluctant to break them directly. If the mandate at Conference was clear and precise, and if the Conference resolution was also clear and precise, then the vote had to be cast accordingly. Yet often this was not the situation. So the mandate had to be applied with an eye on the principles underlying the mandate as well as the mandate itself[9].

Minkin also documents how union officials lumbered with a mandate of which they disapproved could sometimes use the compositing process (whereby motions are combined with other resolutions on the same subject to create a single resolution, with a better chance of being selected for a debate and a vote at Conference) to manoeuvre out of them through “judicious wording”[10]. Despite this, it would be something of a caricature to say that the block vote was a simple matter of union general secretaries acting as a law unto themselves (although there were occasions when this did happen). Minkin again puts this usefully into perspective:

...arbitrary and autocratic power exercised from the trade union delegations was highly unusual… Rarely were the mandates openly broken or disregarded. But it was an important feature of the policy process that such rare instances did occur… they were usually in response to the needs and cues of the PLP leaders[11].

Union delegations to Conference have rarely been as politically monolithic or as supine before the will of union leaders as is often supposed. Differences of opinion within them have often been substantial, and there have been many occasions where union leaders have been unable to stamp their authority on their Conference delegates ahead of crucial votes[12]. Furthermore, complaints about the block vote from the left have sometimes deflected attention from inadequate left organisation inside the trade unions, or simply sought to rationalise a lack of support for socialist policies among some trade unionists. Minkin comments that trade union culture also played a role in providing union delegations with a considerable degree of autonomy:

There have always been Left-wing trade unionists who felt that the representative should take his mandate from his own union Conference. But a much more powerful body of opinion has felt that it was improper for the union to lay down an official line and attempt to lay down formal restrictions[13].

Minkin does however note that often, union delegates “were prepared to exercise their judgement in a way that did not always coincide with the mandates of their own organisation but instead sustained the role of the Parliamentary leadership”[14].

The unions’ presence and role at Conference has also been the subject of a robust socialist-feminist critique, not just because of their historic tendency to send predominantly male delegations there[15] but also because block votes once determined the composition of the since-abolished women’s section of the NEC - with minimal reference to the views of their rank-and-file women members.

Hilary Wainwright partly ascribed the unwillingness or inability to adequately represent marginalised and oppressed groups within the working class to what she has described as a ‘fundamental weakness’ of Labourist ideology and culture:

...tending to treat the collectivities to which it is loyal - the trade union and the state in particular - as often idealised wholes apart from the individuals who compose them… which in practice involves a failure to recognise that social structures, though certainly existing prior to individuals, also depend on their agency and activity.

Furthermore, Wainwright drew attention to a long-running Labourist reluctance to probe and push the boundaries of political respectability, suggesting that it was this that tended to “[stop] the process short when it comes to women members’ right to direct representation at the centre of the party’s power structure, and to the constitutional (or for that matter political) recognition of black members’ rights to self-organisation”.

But despite terming the block vote an "anti-democratic farce… Labour’s own House of Lords", Ali and Hoare acknowledged that this link to the organised working class - though bureaucratic and even deferential in important respects - has in fact restricted Labour leaders’ room for manoeuvre at crucial times, terming it:

a class constraint on Labour leaders, which makes it, for example, more difficult for them as we saw in 1978–9 to embrace austerity policies with impunity than for the SPD [Germany’s Social Democratic Party] or even a party like the PCI [Italian Communist Party].

This “class constraint” might have proved somewhat less effective in later years as the trade union movement declined in size and influence, but it continued to be the case that Labour leaderships could not act with total indemnity in this regard. Ali and Hoare’s conclusion on the matter - that any attempt to sever this link, whatever its flaws, would be “a massively regressive move” - therefore still applies.

Conference sovereignty, the unions, and the revisionist challenge

Union leaderships have been by no means unquestioningly subordinate to the PLP and its leadership. Spells of serious truculence on the part of union leaders have flared up throughout the Labour Party’s history, as happened after Ramsay MacDonald’s betrayal in 1931, or when Bevin’s blistering speech from the Conference rostrum in 1935 effectively destroyed George Lansbury’s leadership[16].

However, this has always sat uneasily with a lot of Labour parliamentarians given their vision of themselves as being above class interests and the mucky business of class struggle - as Panitch has argued, the party’s identification with the advancement of working-class interests has always been “particularly tortured and ambiguous”. Labour MPs have very often tended to have a somewhat mystical view of their own function as fulfilling a higher national purpose, “not in the Gramscian sense of formulating and leading a hegemonic class project, but in the conventional idealist sense of defining a ‘national interest’ above classes”[17].

Minkin notes that even in the party’s early years, many Labour MPs therefore sought to assert their independence from the Conference and the NEC - and hence from the broader labour and trade union movement - by demonstrating an orthodox ‘fitness to rule’. As Ramsay MacDonald himself told Conference in 1928:

There is one thing I would like to say, and I think it is about time we said it. As long as I hold any position in the Parliamentary Party - and I know I can speak for my colleagues also - we are not going to take our instructions from any outside body unless we agree with them[18].

But the political earthquake of MacDonald’s defection, taking place against the backdrop of deepening global political and economic crisis, forced leading intellectuals in and around the Labour Party to reconsider some of their fundamental political assumptions. As John Saville puts it:

The crisis of 1931 had profoundly disturbed the complacency which had affected large sections of the Labour movement concerning the ease with which radical change could be introduced… Even such a moderate socialist as R.H. Tawney felt it necessary to emphasise that the attempt to implement a socialist programme would be a 'pretty desperate business' to be met with 'determined resistance' by every section of the privileged classes; and the political position of the newly established Socialist League (1932), in the words of Stafford Cripps, was that in their defence of property rights the 'ruling class will go to almost any length to defeat Parliamentary action'. It was this sort of thinking that largely influenced the politics of the left in the first half of the 1930s, against the background of the worst economic crisis world capitalism had so far experienced[19].

Clement Attlee was one of those leading Labour figures moulded by the experience of 1931, and Minkin notes that his Labour government after 1945 (at least for its first three years) made a point of respecting Conference decisions and abiding by them. Conference itself came to be seen as a kind of bulwark against the threat of ‘MacDonaldism’, the very name now a byword for betrayal[20].

However, with the onset of the Cold War and the waning radicalism of the Attlee government, the party leadership and the trade unions both tightened their grip on the party Conference. Minkin highlights the fact that ‘the platform’ suffered eight defeats from 1946-8 - with not one in the key areas of foreign and defence policy. Agenda management thereafter intensified even further and after 1950, the party leadership went a decade without suffering a reverse at Conference[21].

After Labour’s third successive election defeat in 1959, the party’s ‘revisionist’ intellectuals, gathered around the leadership of Hugh Gaitskell, embarked on a round of soul-searching. It’s worth noting here that Tony Blair and his acolytes have often sought to portray New Labour as a kind of Year Zero for the Labour Party - lumping the diverse strands of the party before 1994 into one homogenous, formless ‘Old Labour’ blob. In fact, New Labour was never as alien to previous incarnations of Labourism as it liked to claim - or, indeed, as it would come to be seen by many on the Labour left. In fact, Gaitskellite revisionism would serve as an important precursor to Blairism, as we will see.

What remains of this revisionist strand of Labourism today is in a parlous state, but as Radhika Desai has argued, the Gaitskellites put forward “a bold revision of the aims and methods of socialism”[22] as conceived in its orthodox Labourist incarnation. In Anthony Crosland’s The Future of Socialism, the Gaitskellites had a more systematic statement of their creed (whatever its shortcomings) than their Bevanite rivals did of theirs. But in the process of mounting this challenge to some of the party’s main articles of faith, the Gaitskellites earned themselves not only the hostility of the left, but also enduring suspicion among the more traditionalist elements on the Labour and trade union right.

As the Gaitskellites set about calling into question the very fundamentals of Labourist ideology, they struck up a close working relationship with political sociologists and psephologists - disciplines then coming into their own for the first time, and thereby providing the revisionists with a seemingly scientific basis for their arguments[23]. Whereas criticism of the party’s policymaking structures had previously come mainly from the left, they now started to originate from the Gaitskellite right[24], putting the Bevanites on the defensive.

It was argued, in a highly proto-Blairite manner, that the prominent role of the trade unions at Conference and on the NEC had become a major turn-off for the middle-class voters Labour needed to win to stand any chance of forming a government, and that in any case the party’s activist base could be jettisoned in favour of the pursuit of positive media coverage. Despite the ‘revisionist’ tag, as we have seen, asserting independence from the party’s rank-and-file and the trade unions was in itself nothing new on the Labour right. However, the Gaitskellites were the first to consciously formulate this aim and articulate a strategic rationale for it.

Anthony Crosland made the Gaitskellite case for change in October 1960: “With the growing penetration of the mass media, political campaigning has become increasingly centralised; and the traditional local activities, the door-to-door canvassing and the rest, are now largely a ritual.”[25]

It stands to reason, therefore, that the Gaitskellites had relatively little regard for the sovereignty of Labour Conference, which remained sacrosanct for most party activists. As it would for the Blairites decades later, for the Gaitskellites distancing themselves from what they considered to be Labour’s shibboleths became an electoral strategy in itself. A direct showdown with the old guard at Conference was therefore in their interests, Minkin suggests. Furthermore, he notes, a confrontation on defence was likely to be of particular use to the revisionists as they sought to deflect attention away from the issue of public ownership, where they had largely failed to shift party and trade union opinion[26]. But Gaitskell’s attempt to scrap the original Clause IV failed, with even traditionalist rightwing trade union opinion against him on this.

In 1960, Labour Conference voted for unilateral nuclear disarmament. It was clear during the previous year that opinion on the matter had been shifting inside the trade unions, particularly inside the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) and the General and Municipal Workers Union (GMWU)[27]. Gaitskell himself appears to have anticipated this, making ambiguous statements in this period about his stance on Conference sovereignty, first hinting at repudiating it and then affirming it[28].

Conference’s support for unilateral nuclear disarmament was neither accepted nor simply ignored, but actively rejected by the leadership, which mobilised to overturn it via the pro-Gaitskell Campaign for Democratic Socialism. Harold Wilson - then shadow chancellor - challenged Gaitskell for the leadership as a result, duly mouthing pieties about the “important pronouncements” of Conference while refusing to commit himself to full Conference sovereignty[29]. In the end, Wilson won the votes of fewer than a third of Labour MPs.

The vote on unilateral nuclear disarmament was duly reversed at Labour Conference in 1961, with the Gaitskellite ‘Policy for Peace’ document, stipulating full support for NATO, passed by an overwhelming margin. But as Minkin argues, though Gaitskell had seemingly got the outcome he wanted, he had only done so with the assistance of the trade unions, thereby amounting to “an acceptance of the very authority which was being challenged”[30]. While the episode helped to cement the Gaitskellites’ dominance within the party it did not, as Minkin argues, enable them to shake off the yoke of the trade unions or detach themselves from the wider labour movement.

Heading towards breakdown

Upon Gaitskell’s death in 1963, Wilson ascended to the Labour leadership. Many of his supporters read into this a reassertion of Conference sovereignty, as this appeared to have been the issue on which Wilson - a former Bevanite to boot - had challenged Gaitskell for the leadership three years earlier. They were to be sorely disappointed; as one Labour MP would later put it, this was to be the era in which “the grass came away from the roots”[31]. As has generally been the case with Labour leaders, Wilson considered it essential to demonstrate his credentials as a dependable steward of British capitalism. It appeared to him that the most effective way to do this - in line, tellingly, with Gaitskellite prescriptions - was to assert his independence from the trade unions and the Labour Party rank-and-file[32].

While the Conference agenda-setters and the NEC worked overtime to shield the new Labour leadership from embarrassing defeats[33], the 1964-70 Labour government would have its foreign and defence policies rejected by Conference on six occasions[34]. This did nothing, however, to deter the government for proceeding with its staunchly pro-US line on Vietnam. Discontent within the party and the trade unions was mounting, and the situation would soon start to prove unsustainable.

After 1967, the NEC would increasingly start to align itself with the critics of the leadership, although its dissident role should not be overstated. Moderate rightwingers like Jim Callaghan, who enjoyed close relations with the trade unions at this time, started to take up more independent-minded stances[35]. The NEC - including Callaghan - passed a motion rejecting Wilson and Barbara Castle’s flagship In Place of Strife white paper (an attempt to curb the powers of the unions) by 16 votes to 5, although it did also spurn a Conference vote on the situation in the former Rhodesia at around the same time, suggesting it was not entirely motivated by a commitment to Conference sovereignty[36].

Wilson and the Labour frontbench continued to defy Conference decisions after returning to government in 1974, in particular ignoring the verdict of a special Conference on the Common Market the following year[37]. These years of ongoing disregard for the views of Conference on key issues was proving catalytic, setting the stage for the battles that would shake the party to its foundations during the second half of the 1970s and the early 1980s. As Patrick Seyd observes:

During the 1960s the practice of PLP initiative sustained by the NEC and supported by the annual Conference broke down and the left was in a position to win votes at both the NEC and the annual Conference[38].

Seyd also notes that the battles over In Place of Strife had serious repercussions inside the trade unions, inciting a reaction which would make a crucial contribution to the revival of the Labour left in the 1970s[39]. However, Minkin asserts that “what is striking is not their [the unions’] aggression but their restraint in refraining from using the Labour Party as an instrument’ following In Place of Strife”[40] - in other words, though they had a range of potential sanctions at their disposal, ranging from cutting sponsorship or calling a special Conference to pressurising union-backed MPs, they were reluctant to use them.

This is an important thread which runs through the history of the party-union relationship - the unwillingness of trade union leaders, even the more radical among them, to intrude too much on what is seen as the politicians’ turf. But at this period, a new generation of trade union leaders was emerging, with new leftwing leaders elected in four of the five largest affiliated unions[41]; the most dramatic shift was seen in the Engineers’ union (AUEW) where Hugh Scanlon replaced rightwinger Bill Carron, although the right would regain ground here again after 1972[42].

While there were important political differences between them, Scanlon and like-minded TGWU leader Jack Jones were different from even their leftwing predecessors in that they were prepared to associate with the grassroots Labour left - including Tribune and the Institute for Workers’ Control - and both backed campaign group Socialist Charter in its efforts to make the PLP “an instrument of popular control responsive to the members and their Conference”[43].

Although the two largest unions were left-led by this point, the right remained in control of a number of smaller and medium-sized unions - which meant that the left was deprived of a rock-solid majority at Conference[44]. Nonetheless, it was clear by this point that the best efforts of the revisionists to change the soul of the labour and trade union movement had failed. Minkin observes that the frustrations of the Labour left had been pent up throughout the years of revisionist control of the party apparatus[45] - and now, backed up by some of the movement’s most powerful trade unions, they were forcing their way onto the agenda at Conference.

Trade unions and the twilight of post-war social democracy

By the mid-1970s, with a global economic crisis again flaring up, post-war social democracy was staggering towards its expiration. It would be left to Margaret Thatcher to administer the final coup de grace, but the initial neoliberal turn had been made by Callaghan and Denis Healey after 1976[46] - sending shockwaves through the entire labour movement. As Ali and Hoare wrote about the period, “the reduced ability of British capitalism to make economic concessions [to the working class]... made it increasingly hard for union leaders to make deals with successive governments, thus undercutting the traditional union-Labour relationship”. But although the Wilson and Callaghan governments of the ‘70s are commonly portrayed as helpless prisoners of intransigent trade union ‘barons’, this is in fact a crude caricature of the reality.

In fact, union leaders made great efforts to safeguard the ‘74-’79 Labour government. While many workers experienced years of real-terms falling wages, the trade unions did win some substantial gains from this arrangement - Minkin lists measures including the repeal of Ted Heath’s Industrial Relations Act, the abolition of statutory incomes controls, freezes on rents and price controls, linking pensions to average earnings, and the Health and Safety Act 1974. Minkin also states that at around this time, Jones and Scanlon “became as sensitive to the idea of the social wage as much as the cash wage”[47]. The knowledge of what the looming spectre of Thatcherism likely portended, of course, also gave trade union leaders another reason to cling tightly to Wilson and Callaghan.

The trouble for Jones and Scanlon was that, in doing so, they were inadvertently helping to fuel the left upsurge they were hoping to quell[48]. The pair emerged as crucial bulwarks of government stability, bringing them into further conflict with the left in their respective unions[49]. But internal elections in some unions were starting to indicate a rightward shift. The hard-right Terry Duffy, who would later become a key figure in the battles against the Labour left in the subsequent decade, was elected AUEW present in 1978 and by the end of that year, the union’s executive council had no leftwing members remaining[50]. The rightward movement in the unions was uneven and took years to play out in full, but it was well underway by the latter half of the 1970s.

Scanlon had also set his face against constitutional reform of the party, increasingly a key demand of the Labour left. Under heavy pressure from Terry Duffy[51], Scanlon defied the will of his AUEW Conference delegation to vote against the proposals of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD) for mandatory reselection at the Conference of 1978. The left was apoplectic at this abuse of the block vote, though Scanlon somewhat dubiously claimed it was a genuine mix-up on his part[52]. While Jones was more sympathetic to the reformers, he too maintained a distance from CLPD. Scanlon however considered internal party reform to be “chicken shit” compared to the big economic and social issues of the day[53] - apparently not sharing the view that, as the Labour left at the time was arguing, to address these issues in a manner beneficial to the working class (rather than on the terms of capital), democratisation of the party and empowerment of its grassroots was a prerequisite.

Changes elsewhere in the trade unions worked to the advantage of the Labour left, however. The National Union of Public Employees (NUPE) - probably the most radical trade union in Britain by the late 1970s - had seen its affiliation to the party rise by 350,000 from where it was at the start of the decade[54]. This served to partially offset moves to the right in other affiliated unions, and according to Minkin a net total of about 500,000 votes had been added to the left’s tally at Conference by 1979[55].

The Conference of that year, in the wake of Labour’s epoch-breaking election defeat, saw a tidal wave of anger unleashed at the platform. In 1978, Conference had delivered a stinging rebuke to Callaghan by rejecting his pay policy, only for the leadership to then go ahead and - in a fit of hubris - implement a below-inflation 5% pay increase in the public sector. The 1979 manifesto also greatly disappointed much of the Labour and trade-union rank-and-file, with a raft of Conference-backed policies, including Lords abolition, excluded. The demand for constitutional reform - specifically mandatory reselection of Labour MPs, extending the vote in leadership elections to CLPs and unions, and handing the NEC control over election manifestos - was thereafter pursued “with a ferocity which shocked many in the PLP and indicated the full extent of the resentment they had generated amongst Labour’s activists”[56].

Union leaderships, however, were by no means eager to stick the boot in. Most union leaders by this point were aligned with the centre and right of the movement, and there was much anxiety and guilt within the movement at the way trade unionists had been seen to bring down a Labour government[57]. However, the depth of the anger among CLP delegates - not just young upstarts but time-served, dedicated Labour members - went some way to swaying union delegations and made it harder for the leaders to control them[58].

The Bennite insurgency and ‘hammering the left’

The upsurge of the left in the CLPs and the unions "[shook] the whole structure and raised fundamental questions about the relationship between unions, party and parliamentary representation", as Ali and Hoare put it. But it was the right wing of the trade union movement which would subsequently play the decisive role in rolling back the advance of the left during this period. Dianne Hayter’s Fightback[59] gives the most comprehensive insider account of this. The shock of the SDP split and the subsequent damage it caused to Labour’s electoral prospects, however, considerably strengthened the right’s hand - and they were assisted by the fact that the SDP’s attempts to woo unions from Labour had proved singularly unsuccessful.

John Golding, MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme, had been elected to the NEC at the 1978 Conference but this initially flew largely under the radar of the left[60]. Indeed, the left overall considered itself strengthened by the NEC elections of that year, thanks to the addition of Neil Kinnock (still considered to be on Labour’s radical left at this time) and Dennis Skinner. But Golding was to prove instrumental in the counter-offensive against Labour’s Bennite new left, helping to establish the St Ermin’s Group of rightwing trade union leaders single-mindedly committed to wresting control of the NEC from the left. By the Conference of 1982, all of those leftwing members of the NEC targeted for removal by the St Ermin’s Group had indeed been deposed[61].

But it wasn’t just hostility towards the right of the party and its leadership that had fuelled the left’s upsurge in the 1970s and early ‘80s. In fact, the perceived failings of the leftwing Tribune group in Parliament had come under sustained criticism from the rank-and-file Labour and trade union left. The Tribune group was no more than loosely organised, with some MPs joining it for what Seyd calls “cosmetic reasons”, simply to placate leftwing constituency parties[62]. Tribune was also strictly a parliamentary grouping, with no serious effort to cultivate an extra-parliamentary base. Indeed, previous attempts by the left to build such an extra-parliamentary grassroots organisation - as with Victory for Socialism in the 1950s - had been clamped down on hard by the party’s bureaucracy[63].

CLPD therefore pursued its three key reforms - mandatory reselection, tasking the NEC with producing manifestos and introducing an electoral college of CLPs, unions and MPs for leadership elections - with the aim of subordinating the PLP and its leadership to Conference, thereby (in theory) ensuring that they would implement its decisions. Their experiences had taught them that it did little good to pass radical policies at Conference, only to then leave it to a leadership and MPs who didn’t believe in them to implement them. However, CLPD managed to win some support from beyond the socialist left by adopting “an ambivalent attitude to campaigning on issues other than the constitution”, enabling it to “attract people with differing ideological views but a common desire for democratisation within the party”[64]. As the organisation had argued in a 1975 newsletter:

Under the present arrangements there is no way the Conference can effectively influence the Parliamentary Labour Party… It has no machinery to ensure that its policy recommendations are acted on. However, the individual accountability of each MP to a regularly-held selection Conference, backed up by the possibility of replacement, can bring about this fundamental change which no Conference can accomplish[65].

While it received support (including financial backing) from different sections of various trade unions[66], the only larger unions to back all three of CLPD’s constitutional changes at both the 1979 and 1980 party Conferences were TGWU, ASTMS and NUPE[67]. Relations between the last of these - which had been at the centre of union unrest during the Winter of Discontent - and the parliamentary leadership remained highly strained at this time. TGWU general secretary Moss Evans had tried to broker a compromise in the party on the matter of constitutional reform, but failed to impose his will on his union’s delegation and its executive committee[68].

The rightwing unions, at this time, displayed a high level of disorganisation and, in some cases, tactical ineptitude. Ahead of the January 1981 special Conference to decide the make-up of the electoral college for leadership elections, AUEW’s executive council had instructed the union’s delegation to vote against any formula giving less than 51% of the vote to the PLP. This meant that, once their own proposal to give the PLP 75% of the vote fell, they could not switch their support to GMWU’s alternative motion, which would have given MPs 50% of the vote. Meanwhile USDAW, another right-of-centre union, put forward a motion proposing to give 40% of the vote to the PLP, 30% to unions and 30% to CLPs. Sensing that this had a good chance of passing - as indeed it eventually did - CLPD and the leftwing Rank and File Mobilising Committee adroitly threw their own weight behind it.

But after that debacle, by October of the same year, the right-leaning unions were starting to get serious. Tony Benn’s then-recent bid for the deputy leadership had alienated some of his left-of-centre trade union allies, including ASTMS’ Clive Jenkins and TGWU’s Alex Kitson, providing the right with an opportunity. The rightwing counter-offensive not only saw key leftwingers removed from the NEC altogether, but saw others deposed as chairs of its influential subcommittees[69]. Benn himself was one of the victims, as his tenure as chair of the Home Policy Committee - which had had a major influence on party policy in the preceding years - was brought to an end. Some of Benn’s allies in CLPD, including Vladimir Derer, had noted the relative flimsiness of his victories in supportive unions during the deputy leadership contest, and felt that this could soon be reversed[70].

While the left’s push for reform continued, union leaders were coming under intense pressure from sections their own rank-and-file to “sort out the mess”[71]. In January 1982, the NEC and trade union leaders met at Bishop’s Stortford, where it was agreed that there would be no more constitutional changes (which also meant no reversals of the recent reforms), and no further challenges for the leadership or deputy leadership. The change of the NEC’s orientation was crucial. The constitutional changes achieved thus far had been achieved by an alliance of the left on the NEC and CLP and trade union activists. Without NEC support, the left elsewhere would inevitably struggle to steer its reforms through Conference[72].

Divisions also started to open up on the left over the proscription of Militant and other issues. CLPD was badly split and voted narrowly in favour, but the lasting tensions within the organisation were such that it was unable to campaign effectively for further reform in the following years[73]. A section of the Labour left would subsequently realign itself after 1983 with the leadership of Neil Kinnock, who had in turn realigned himself with the party’s centre-right. He was assisted in his efforts by a number of trade unions. For example, while not a single major union changed its own policy on EEC membership between 1983 and 1986 - outright withdrawal had been party policy at the 1983 general election - there was a feeling that the disastrous election result had settled the matter for them. Hence union leaders backed Kinnock in his efforts to change party policy in this area[74].

The platform continued to suffer defeats at Conference in the Kinnock years, however, being on the receiving end of 17 reverses from 1987-89 alone. Between 1948-59, by contrast, the then-leadership had suffered only a single defeat at Conference[75]. But Kinnock was successfully able to earn the support of the unions in a range of crucial areas - including reform of the party’s HQ as well as its stances on economic policy and public ownership - as he sought to orientate the party away from some of its central policy commitments of preceding years[76].

Blair and the ‘awkward squad’

Come the advent of New Labour, bringing both Conference and the NEC to heel was a key concern of party managers. The pitched battles of the 1980s, and the radical policies of NEC subcommittees, had to be avoided at all costs. After the Conference of 1994 - where Tony Blair signalled his intention to scrap Sidney Webb’s Clause IV, and in which he would succeed where Gaitskell had failed - a tight-knit group of advisers was convened by the leader to bring Conference under control. Crucial to this was avoiding constitutional changes being put forward by delegates, coupled with a “pervasive concern over presentation” emphasising Blair’s personal dominance of the party[77].

Blair’s close coterie came to believe that having a ‘good’ Conference - i.e. one where the leadership got what it wanted with minimal trouble - was crucial to the party’s performance in the opinion polls. Liam Byrne produced figures asserting that the Labour Party had declined by 10% in the opinion polls after the Conference of 1981, but had gained 11% in the wake of the far less fractious Conference of 1983[78]. This intensified Conference management soon scored successes, avoiding defeats on a string of potentially dicey issues (including railway renationalisation, Trident, the minimum wage, education and the blocked candidacy of Liz Davies in Leeds North East) at the Conferences between 1995 and 1997[79].

By the mid-1990s, the trade union movement had been in sustained decline for years. In 1996, trade union membership was below 7 million, down from 12 million in 1979[80]. Union voting strength at Labour Conference was reduced to 50% that same year, but managing the unions in the run-up to Conference remained a crucial concern for Blairite party managers - although CLPs were at this time viewed as a likelier source of unrest - and indeed unions themselves were initially keen to assist in this task[81].

Union leaders, highly conscious of the damage a hostile media could do to the Labour Party and its standing with the general public, were largely supportive of the New Labour project early on. As with the Gaitskellites, while senior Blairites were wary of being associated with anything that smacked of ‘Old Labour’ - especially over-reliance on trade union leaders - they were forced to bend to reality and acknowledge the clout the trade union movement had within the party, and to work with it on party management.

Despite this, senior Blairites were often publicly at pains to dissociate themselves from the trade union movement. In October 1996, Stephen Byers - then Labour’s industrial relations spokesperson - hinted to the press that the party-union link could be severed altogether, though this was swiftly denied[82]. More ambiguously, Blair pronounced that New Labour would “be respectful of the unions’ part in our past”, but that it would “have relations with them relevant for today” - and, revealingly, the unions by 1995 accounted for 54% of the party’s income, down from 77% in 1986.[83].

There were still dissidents among the union leaderships. GMB’s John Edmonds and Unison’s Rodney Bickerstaffe both had their run-ins with Blair, more and more so as he pursued an increasingly hardline and neoliberal approach to public sector reform after 2001. TGWU meanwhile was more internally divided, though its executive generally favoured co-operation with the Labour leadership[84]. Serious tactical divisions occurred between GMB and Unison, with Edmonds taking a more confrontational approach and Bickerstaffe’s successor, Dave Prentis, a more accommodating one (he would be more sympathetically treated by party officials as a result, at least to begin with)[85].

But come the late 1990s, participation at Conference was noticeably on the wane. Minkin reports that the hall was frequently half-empty, with delegates instead taking advantage of other sessions - including training events - which were often of more interest than what was going on inside the hall itself[86]. The resolutions-based Conference system was effectively brought to an end alongside the introduction of the National Policy Forum (NPF)[87]. The NPF, meanwhile, was hamstrung from the start. Minkin notes that it was “open to creative democratic development, but it was also vulnerable to creative managerial control”[88]. Interest in it among the CLPs rapidly dissipated[89]. Minkin summarises by saying that “...the party's collective independent role in [policy] formulation had disappeared and 'partnership' had become in great measure managed subordination”[90].

From 2001 on, however, there was mounting anger among the trade unions at Blair’s ever-more intransigent approach to public sector reform. GMB cut its affiliation to Labour from 650,000 to 400,000 in November 2001, with John Edmonds stung not just by the policy the leadership was pursuing, but the manner in which that policy was arrived at[91]. So serious was the tension, Minkin reveals, that Blairite managers even considered blacklisting GMB as a union for party officials[92].

With the invasion of Iraq looming, it might have been expected that the increasingly disgruntled unions would look to exact their revenge on the leadership on this issue at the Conferences of 2002 and 2003. But this failed to materialise, as the unions concentrated more on domestic issues on both occasions. However, the NEC was forced to withdraw its statement on Iraq at the 2002 Conference after GMB and Unison warned that they may not have been able to get their delegates to vote for it[93]. Opposition to the war on the TUC’s General Council was often ferocious at this time, though unions constrained themselves carefully in public. The TUC’s then-general secretary, Brendan Barber, declined any invitations to appear on anti-war platforms[94]. By the time of the 2003 Conference, there was a feeling that the occupation of Iraq would prove short-lived. A contemporary resolution tabled by the RMT on the war was ruled out of order, reconsidered privately for three days, and then rejected again[95].

At this time, a subtle shift was occurring in trade union politics. A new wave of union leaders - rapidly dubbed ‘the awkward squad’ by the press - emerged, including Derek Simpson of Amicus and TGWU’s Tony Woodley (both aligned with the left at this time), while Prentis was involving himself in internal party politics to a greater extent than his predecessor Bickerstaffe had done[96]. However, Minkin observes that the response of the party leadership was generally muted, noting that previous union leaders with a far more solid grounding in leftwing politics - namely Jones and Scanlon - had been tamed by Wilson and Callaghan. Minkin also points out, however, that Jones and Scanlon had been granted the kind of influence and attention that Blair and Brown would never have dreamed of giving to their latter-day counterparts[97].

It did become clear, however, the ‘awkward squad’ lacked a coherent alternative political vision for the party and the wider movement. Minkin points out that at no point did they push for constitutional changes which could have strengthened their own position vis-a-vis the party’s leadership[98]. But cracks were opening up elsewhere. Two left-led unions - the Fire Brigades Union and the RMT - both disaffiliated from the party in 2004, while Blair himself would announce his own departure from the political stage at the Trades Union Congress in September 2006.

Later that month, with Blair’s resignation imminent, the Labour Conference was a somewhat ill-tempered affair. Dave Prentis had his mic cut off while he addressed the hall, while a host of critical resolutions - including on employment rights, the NHS and pensions - were all passed against the will of the platform, although only a minority of CLP delegates supported each of them[99]. Trade union leaders subsequently looked to Brown with some sympathy and discussions with the unions in this period were cordial, but as much as they might have wanted to, it was hard for them to discern any substantial political difference between him and his predecessor[100].

The 2010 general election defeat, widely considered to represent the final demise of New Labour, was followed by the rise of Ed Miliband, the union-backed candidate, to the party leadership. Unfortunately for the unions, however, Miliband would spend the next five years visibly cringing at the mantle. Under intense pressure from a Blairite right vastly overrating the popularity of its own politics and demanding he distance himself from the unions - and on the pretext of what turned out to be a bogus row over a candidate selection in Falkirk - it as Miliband who inadvertently opened the door to Labour’s socialist left, introducing one-member-one-vote (OMOV) for leadership elections.

The unions, astutely sensing an opportunity to obtain a Labour leadership that was more to its liking, endorsed the change - which had been intended to have the opposite outcome - and it was passed overwhelmingly at a special Conference in March 2014. The rest, of course, is history.

Corbynism, the unions, and Conference

Despite the best efforts of the party managers during the Blair and Brown years, it is unlikely that political contestation will ever be permanently stamped entirely out of Labour Party Conference. It might decline in salience, urgency and ferocity, but the demand for Conference democracy - at various levels of the party and its affiliated organisations - persists. As Minkin argues, understanding the culture of the party is central to understanding this point:

...the Conference of a political party is always more than simply a forum in which issues are fought over and decisions are taken. In the operation of its procedures and in the role allocated to it in the Party’s authority structure are embodied a syndrome of political ideals: in the case of the Labour Party, these are egalitarian and participatory[101].

While Corbyn retained the support of most affiliated trade unions during the turbulent leadership contest of 2016, it is fair to say that scepticism towards him and his agenda remains among sections of the movement. GMB endorsed Owen Smith in 2016, while Unison’s Prentis expressed opposition to the pursuit of major rule changes - unavoidable if Corbyn is to reshape Labour in his political image - prior to this year’s general election.

The Labour left continues to face what was singled out nearly four decades ago as the party’s “central dilemma”[102] - namely that imposing leftwing policies on a parliamentary party that doesn’t want to implement them, or doesn’t believe they can be implemented, is doomed to fail. While a major confrontation on constitutional appears to have been avoided this year with the deal over the ‘McDonnell amendment’, it seems doubtful that the various sections of the party and the unions will be able to put it off indefinitely. Avoiding the appearance of division so soon after June’s far better-than-expected general election result may well have been a factor behind the compromise successfully brokered this year, though we should not delude ourselves that a lasting peace has broken out.

But the Labour left’s dominance of the party is far from guaranteed. Its organisation inside the trade unions has been a historic Achilles heel. Seyd notes that the Labour Co-ordinating Committee of the 1970s made a point of extending “the influence of the Labour left into rank-and-file trade-union activities”[103] but this remains exceptional in the Labour left’s history. It has also long had a tendency to assume that support for its ideas among rank-and-file trade unionists is stronger than it actually is[104]. It would be foolish to argue that trade unions consist of an inherently socialist membership continually tricked, misled and betrayed by a wily rightwing bureaucracy.

The Labour left’s alliances even with leftwing trade union leaderships, as we have seen, have often tended to be uneasy and contingent, breaking down when serious pressure has been applied. Leftwing union leaders have, as we have noted, very often been reluctant to interfere in what are seen as the prerogatives of the politicians. This has been partly out of reverence for the conventions in this area demarcating the respective areas of responsibility of the industrial and political wings of the labour movement, but also the product of a wariness on the part of trade unions at being seen to exert excessive influence (with the risk of negative electoral repercussions for the Labour Party). Their rightwing counterparts have generally been less troubled by this particular burden, given that their political interventions have so frequently come at the prompting of Labour’s parliamentary leaders. Corbyn's current position, secure in the leadership but still lacking in loyal parliamentary support, potentially complicates matters.

There is a need, then, not just to build stronger links with the organised left inside the trade unions and to orientate those unions in a more decisively socialist direction, but also to engage in the long-term process of helping to rebuild them. Trade union membership is roughly half of what it was at its peak in the early 1980s. The Labour left must be prepared to engage in the task of strengthening organisation in the workplace; this might include CLP-backed unionisation drives, a renewed Labour Party recruitment drive among trade unionists, or perhaps even an adapted version of the old Labour left idea of setting up workplace branches. As Wainwright wrote some 30 years ago, but which remains relevant: “it is more and more urgent for Party members to organise as Party members within the union”.

It is possible that the Labour left could become entirely fixated on what Gregory Elliott has termed “composited triumphs” at Conference, with an “addiction to inner-party struggle”[105] taking precedence at the expense of the vital task of cultivating a base in communities and workplaces, building up robust, organised, self-confident support for socialist ideas and policies. Factional manoeuvring inside the Labour Party can become all-consuming, but it must not be allowed to become the be-all and end-all for the party’s rank-and-file left.

But it is essential that the task of democratising the Labour Party, a prerequisite for which will be the further empowerment of Conference, is fought and won by the left. Without this, the party - with the best will in the world - will be unable to bring about a decisive shift of wealth and power in Britain. If the opportunity which Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership represents for socialists is allowed to slip from our grasp, we cannot be sure when anything comparable might come around again. Whatever the past and present shortcomings of Labour’s party democracy, Minkin’s verdict from 1980 applies with equal force now:

...there is now an opportunity for a serious attempt to build a more vigorous and fertile Party life. In this effort the Party’s tradition of intra-party democracy can be, as it was in the past, an encouragement to active involvement[106].

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

  1. Lewis Minkin, The Labour Party Conference, Manchester University Press 1980, xv ↩︎

  2. Lewis Minkin, The Contentious Alliance: Trade Unions and the Labour Party, Edinburgh University Press 1991 ↩︎

  3. Lewis Minkin, The Blair Supremacy, Manchester University Press 2014 ↩︎

  4. Minkin 2014, p335 ↩︎

  5. Minkin 1991, p279-80 ↩︎

  6. Minkin 1991, p283-6 ↩︎

  7. Minkin 1991, p159 ↩︎

  8. Minkin 1991, p289-90. Clive Jenkins and ASTMS were among those accused of 'buying votes' in this manner. However, despite the tightening up of the rules, some unions continued to report unchanged affiliation numbers despite declining overall membership as the 1980s wore on. By 1990, 19 affiliated unions were casting votes in excess of the number of levy payers declared to the Certification Officer. ↩︎

  9. Minkin 1980, p165 ↩︎

  10. Minkin 1980, p139 ↩︎

  11. Minkin 1980, p324 ↩︎

  12. Minkin 1991, p196 ↩︎

  13. Minkin 1980, p268 ↩︎

  14. Minkin 1980, p268 ↩︎

  15. Minkin 1991, p282 ↩︎

  16. Minkin 1980, p19 ↩︎

  17. Leo Panitch, 'The Impasse of Social Democratic Politics', Working Class Politics in Crisis: Essays on Labour and the State, Verso 1986, p14 ↩︎

  18. Minkin 1980, p14 ↩︎

  19. John Saville, The Labour Movement in Britain, Faber & Faber 1988, p58 ↩︎

  20. Minkin 1980, p26 ↩︎

  21. Minkin 1980, p23-4 ↩︎

  22. Radhika Desai, Intellectuals and Socialism: 'Social Democrats' and the Labour Party, Lawrence & Wishart 1994, p66 ↩︎

  23. Minkin 1980, p274 ↩︎

  24. Minkin 1980, p275 ↩︎

  25. Quoted in Minkin 1980, p276 ↩︎

  26. Minkin 1980, p283 ↩︎

  27. Minkin 1980, p273 ↩︎

  28. Minkin 1980, p274 ↩︎

  29. Minkin 1980, p288 ↩︎

  30. Minkin 1980, p288 ↩︎

  31. Quoted in Minkin 1980, p290 ↩︎

  32. Minkin 1980, p292 ↩︎

  33. Minkin 1980, p150 ↩︎

  34. Minkin 1980, p291 ↩︎

  35. Minkin 1980, p296-7 ↩︎

  36. Minkin 1980, p302 ↩︎

  37. Minkin 1980, p331 ↩︎

  38. Patrick Seyd, The Rise and Fall of the Labour Left, Palgrave 1987, p20-21 ↩︎

  39. Seyd 1987, p5 ↩︎

  40. Minkin 1991, p177 ↩︎

  41. Minkin 1991, p161 ↩︎

  42. Minkin 1991, p162 ↩︎

  43. Minkin 1991, p164 ↩︎

  44. Minkin 1980, p322 ↩︎

  45. Minkin 1980, p326 ↩︎

  46. John Medhurst's That Option No Longer Exists (Zero Books, 2014) provides a very useful account of this period. ↩︎

  47. Minkin 1991, p166 ↩︎

  48. Minkin 1991, p165 ↩︎

  49. Minkin 1980, p350 ↩︎

  50. Minkin 1980, p356 ↩︎

  51. Leo Panitch and Colin Leys, The End of Parliamentary Socialism: From New Left to New Labour, Verso 2001, p150 ↩︎

  52. Seyd 1987, p107 ↩︎

  53. Minkin 1991, p181-2 ↩︎

  54. Minkin 1980, p357 ↩︎

  55. Minkin 1980, p358 ↩︎

  56. Minkin 1980, p351 ↩︎

  57. Minkin 1991, p193 ↩︎

  58. Minkin 1980, p365 ↩︎

  59. Manchester University Press, 2005 ↩︎

  60. Panitch and Leys 2001, p151 ↩︎

  61. Panitch and Leys 2001, p200 ↩︎

  62. Seyd 1987, p77-8 ↩︎

  63. Seyd 1987, p76 ↩︎

  64. David Kogan and Maurice Kogan, The Battle for the Labour Party, Fontana Paperbacks 1982, p41 ↩︎

  65. CLPD Campaign Newsletter, May-June 1975, quoted in Seyd 1987, p85 ↩︎

  66. Kogan and Kogan 1982, p43 ↩︎

  67. Minkin 1991, p198 ↩︎

  68. Minkin 1991, p198 ↩︎

  69. Seyd 1987, p160 ↩︎

  70. Minkin 1991, p203 ↩︎

  71. Minkin 1991, p203 ↩︎

  72. Minkin 1991, p204 ↩︎

  73. Seyd 1987, p164 ↩︎

  74. Minkin 1991, p296 ↩︎

  75. Minkin 1991, p311 ↩︎

  76. Minkin 1991, p314 ↩︎

  77. Minkin 2014, p333 ↩︎

  78. Minkin 2014, p334 ↩︎

  79. Minkin 2014, p334-5 ↩︎

  80. Panitch and Leys 2001, p240 ↩︎

  81. Minkin 2014, p335 ↩︎

  82. Panitch and Leys 2001, p235 ↩︎

  83. Panitch and Leys 2001, p235 ↩︎

  84. Minkin 2014, p336-7 ↩︎

  85. Minkin 2014, p494 ↩︎

  86. Minkin 2014, p345-6 ↩︎

  87. Minkin 2014, p356-7 ↩︎

  88. Minkin 2014, p303 ↩︎

  89. Minkin 2014, p330. In 1997, 800 party members put themselves forward for the 27 NPF seats reserved for the CLPs. By 2000, this number had collapsed to just 41. ↩︎

  90. Minkin 2014, p307 ↩︎

  91. Minkin 2014, p508 ↩︎

  92. Minkin 2014, p532 ↩︎

  93. Minkin 2014, p543 ↩︎

  94. Minkin 2014, p545 ↩︎

  95. Minkin 2014, p565 ↩︎

  96. Minkin 2014, p550 ↩︎

  97. Minkin 2014, p551 ↩︎

  98. Minkin 2014, p563 ↩︎

  99. Minkin 2014, p650 ↩︎

  100. Minkin 2014, p735 ↩︎

  101. Minkin 1980, xii ↩︎

  102. Charlotte Atkins and Chris Mullin, How to Select or Reselect Your MP, CLPD/IWC 1981. Quoted in Panitch and Leys, The End of Parliamentary Socialism, p140 ↩︎

  103. Seyd 1987, p93 ↩︎

  104. Minkin 1991, p184 ↩︎

  105. Gregory Elliott, Labourism and the English Genius, Verso 1993, p131 ↩︎

  106. Minkin 1980, p334 ↩︎

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