Interpreting the Labour Party: Approaches to Labour Politics and History

By John Callaghan; Steven Fielding et al. | Go to book overview

10

Too much pluralism, not enough socialism:
interpreting the unions-party link

Steve Ludlam

A central object of Labour's re-branding as 'New Labour' was to distance it from its trade union affiliates (Gould 1998: 257–8). The relationship was tense before and after the 1997 election, when Blair reduced the unions' formal power in the party, and restricted employment policy initiatives largely to his predecessors' promises (Ludlam 2001). But discontent was limited by real union gains, and tension eased markedly between Labour's mid-term election losses in 1999 and the 2001 election campaign, in which the unions played a crucial role. After the 2001 campaign, though, bitter conflict erupted over the Government's drive to place more public services under private sector management, and discontent over New Labour's stance on EU labour market policy became more intense. To younger students of British politics, this public conflict may have appeared novel. Since the mid-1980s most unions had supported Labour's organisational and policy modernisation under Neil Kinnock and John Smith. Only the occasional public reference to the allegedly 'bad old days' of the 1970s acted as a reminder of earlier conflicts.

Yet in the first post-war study of the labour alliance – the unions-Labour Party link – Martin Harrison (1960: 12) had dubbed it 'the most controversial relationship in British politics'. And thirty years later Lewis Minkin (1992: 646) echoed Harrison, describing 'a disputatious and controversial relationship – the most contentious in British political life'. Nevertheless, the relationship has attracted little specialist scholarship.

Between Harrison's and Minkin's seminal studies, just seven other monographs appeared: Irving Richter's studies of the politics of three affiliated unions (1973); Leo Panitch's study of incomes policy (1976); William Muller's study of unionsponsored MPs (1977); Lewis Minkin's study of the Labour Party Conference (1978); Derek Fatchett's study of the first struggle over political fund ballots (1987); Andrew Taylor's analysis of the link during the Social Contract era and its aftermath (1987); and Paul Webb's study of the link's institutional forms and of union members' electoral behaviour (1992).

These monographs have not generated a sustained academic dialogue about the linkage, although Minkin's Contentious Alliance was the result of an extended

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