Interpreting the Labour Party: Approaches to Labour Politics and History

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

11

Lewis Minkin and the party-unions link

Eric Shaw

'For over 80 years', Minkin declares in his magisterial survey The Contentious Alliance (1991: xii), the Labour Party-trade unions link 'has shaped the structure and, in various ways, the character of the British Left'. His core proposition can be encapsulated simply: trade union 'restraint has been the central characteristic' of the link (1991: 26). This constitutes a frontal challenge to received wisdom – endlessly repeated, recycled and amplified by Britain's media – that, until the 'modernisation' of the party, initiated by Neil Kinnock and accelerated by Tony Blair, the unions ran the party. So ingrained is this wisdom in British political culture that no discussion of party-unions relations in the media can endure for long without some reference to the days when 'the union barons controlled the party'. This view, Minkin holds, is a gross over-simplification and, to a degree, downright misleading. The relationship is infinitely more subtle and complex, and far more balanced than the conventional view allows. The task Minkin sets himself in The Contentious Alliance is twofold: on the one hand to explain why and how he reached that conclusion; and, on the other – the core of the book – to lay bare the inner dynamics of the party-unions connection.

What is most distinctive and enduring about Minkin's work? In what ways has it most contributed to our understanding of the labour movement? Does it still offer insights for scholars of Labour politics? In the first section of this paper, I examine how Minkin contests the premisses underpinning the orthodox thesis of trade union 'baronial power'; in the second, I analyse the 'sociological' frame of reference he devised as an analytical tool to uncover the roots and essential properties of the party-unions connection; in the third section, I address the question of the relevance of Minkin today.


The 'baronial power' thesis

I call the received wisdom about party-unions relationship the thesis of 'baronial power'. It can be stated simply. 'In a sense not true of its social democratic counterparts on the mainland of Europe', Marquand (1991: 25) contends, Labour, 'has been a trade union party, created, financed and, in the last analysis, controlled by a

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