Trade unions and trade unionists have been essential to cause of British social democracy for over a century and a half. The Labour party was founded as the political wing of the labour movement with trade unions as the industrial wing. There is still a structural and important link between trade unionism and Labour politics. However, the relationship has become too institutional, too elitist, more about Westminster political players than the trade unionist grassroots.
The Labour party suffers because of this also. Movement based politics ultimately relies on the interaction and action of large number of individuals working together towards a common cause. I was frankly shocked to see that support for Labour amongst members of my own trade union, Unite, has fallen to 26 per cent (though 34 per cent expect to vote Labour next time.) Equally as surprising is the fact that only 48 per cent of those polled voted Labour at the last general election.
As a new pamphlet from the Fabians points out, Obama's support amongst trade unionists was 60 per cent last year. While over there in October, I was able to meet with the political director of the United Steel Workers. I was blown away by the operation they had in place both to mobilise their members and to turn their members into donors and activists. Like the Obama campaign itself it had a centralised strategy, delivered locally. It was effective as it had been for John Kerry in 2004.
If the Labour party is to become a movement once again then trade unions and trade unionists are critical to that. It is not enough just to have an open door to 10 Downing Street. Millions of trade unionists have to be re-engaged in Labour party politics again. Winning the next election is one thing. Beyond that, Labour needs to build a new type of party: a movement, grounded in local communities, directly addressing local concerns. That is the future. An effective trade union movement is critical to the future. And the work starts now.