Labour Research October 2017


Labour and the unions: forging stronger links?

Since Jeremy Corbyn became Labour Party leader, several unions that were not Labour-affiliated have been considering their relationship with the party.

The Labour Party was formed to represent the interests of working people and trade unions in Parliament when it was founded as a parliamentary pressure group (the Labour Representation Committee) in 1900 — and the majority of the UK’s 5.6 million trade unionists still belong to one of the 12 Labour-affiliated trade unions. 

And since Jeremy Corbyn became party leader two years ago, a number of non-affiliated unions have been considering the nature of their relationship with Labour. As the party holds its annual conference in Brighton, Labour Research looks at recent developments in this area, and at how unions influence Labour policy through their formal and informal links with the Party.


The FBU firefighters’ union has returned to the Labour Party fold and re-affiliated to the party more than a decade after disaffiliating in 2004. 

The break with Labour came as the result of a bitter dispute over pay and conditions with the then Labour government led by Tony Blair. Corbyn, together with shadow chancellor John McDonnell, was co-founder of the union’s parliamentary group following the disaffiliation.

At a special conference in November 2015, FBU delegates voted for the union to support a Labour Party “reinvigorated after the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader”. It was one of the first unions to declare support for Corbyn’s leadership campaign and its executive council voted to recommend re-affiliation after his “landslide election victory” in September that year. 

“Firefighters recognise that the Labour party has changed for the better since the election of Jeremy Corbyn, who has given our members and supporters hope that we can shift the political debate in favour of working people,” explained FBU general secretary Matt Wrack. “We have a Labour Party leader and shadow chancellor who are vehemently opposed to austerity, who are ready to fight for a fair alternative that doesn’t attack the living standards, livelihoods and the hard-won rights of working people.”

According to FBU national officer Dave Green, internal debate about re-affiliation was fairly straightforward. “There was already a historical link with Labour for decades prior to 2004,” he told Labour Research. 

“There was some internal resistance to affiliation stemming from how the Blair government treated firefighters during the pay dispute and, among non-Labour members, recognition that while they support Corbyn and what he stands for, there are still factions within the party that would like to return to a Blairite, right-wing agenda.” 

But, he argued: “Whatever your views about politics and your individual politics, it is absolutely clear that nationally Labour is the only party that will defend public services and therefore the fire service.” He said that this was not the case with any other party, “including the Lib Dems, who may offer warm words but are culpable in terms of what happened to the fire service under the 2010-2015 coalition government”.

While there are no FBU officials on Labour policy forums at present, the union has three delegates at the Labour Party conference this year and is hoping to have an FBU rep on the NEC in the future. In addition, in drawing up Labour Party policy on the fire service, senior members of the front bench team sought the views of the FBU and listened to its ideas.

“The FBU represents the vast majority of people in the fire service and is the professional voice of firefighters,” Green said. “It is logical that any political party worth its salt would ask the FBU for its views. This says a lot about what affiliation means — you have a say in the future of your industry.” He points out that for the first time in many years, the 2017 Labour Party manifesto included specific and clear commitments regarding the fire service. 

It set out that a Labour government would halt cuts to the fire service, recruit 3,000 new firefighters, review staffing levels and consult on national minimum standards for the service. 

The manifesto also committed a future Labour government to reinstating separate governance arrangements for fire and police services and giving the Fire and Rescue Services a statutory duty to coordinate and respond to floods.


However, after gaining the FBU’s affiliation, the Labour Party lost broadcasting and entertainment union BECTU as an affiliate as a result of that union’s merger with the larger Prospect civil service union in January 2017. 

BECTU reassured its members that, within Prospect, it will “continue to lobby the political parties on issues and industrial matters of importance to our membership”, and “continue to access the Labour Party leader”. 

However, it will no longer be at party conferences, nor will it be able to vote in Labour Party leadership elections. The union pointed out that the Labour Party employs a trade union liaison official to liaise with all trade unions, including other non-affiliates like the Equity actors’ union, and the journalists’ NUJ union. 

It said: “The BECTU sector within Prospect will make use of this official and will have access to the Prospect political fund to support our political work. 

“Prospect has a well-established record of political lobbying and engagement on behalf of their members and BECTU will work within that context to deliver for members.”


Other unions have recently debated, but ruled out, formal affiliation. For example, delegates at this year’s National Union of Teachers (NUT) annual conference narrowly rejected a call for a “review of our political campaigning”. (The union and the ATL teaching union formally merged in September.)

This included “consideration that affiliated unions have a formal role in policy formulation”, raising the question “of whether a different relationship with political parties, particularly Labour, could promote the interests of NUT members”. Instead, delegates voted to instruct the union’s executive to explore how best the union can assist in, and engage with, the development of the party’s education policies. They did this while recognising the “anti-austerity leadership of the Labour Party committed to an alternative to the economic orthodoxy of cuts in public spending and actively supporting the trade unions”. 

Among other things, this will mean meetings between national officers and the shadow education team to ensure that Labour’s education policies reflect “as closely as possible the principles outlined in the NUT manifesto, Stand up for education”. 

The union also recognises that the policies will not develop solely out of a “bilateral dialogue” with Labour, but that campaigning alongside parents, community organisations, other education campaigns, other political parties opposing austerity and the wider labour movement is also important. 

As a result of the conference decision, NUT policy now recognises that while many unions are affiliated to Labour, and the strong affinity between unions and the party is longstanding and important, none of the teaching unions is, or has been, affiliated, and the political independence of the union continues to be popular with members. 


Last year, the non-affiliated PCS civil service union’s annual conference voted to review its political campaigning in the light of Corbyn’s election as Labour leader. Its conference passed a motion proposed by general secretary Mark Serwotka on behalf of the national executive council (NEC). 

This instructed the union to carry out a full review of its political campaigning and to bring any new proposals to this year’s conference, including the union’s relations with the Labour Party and the issue of affiliation. 

A PCS spokesperson told Labour Research that in previous years, the debate has involved opposition to the union affiliating to Labour both from “civil service traditionalists” — who argue that the civil service is politically neutral and therefore the union should also be neutral — and those in organisations to the left of Labour “who wouldn’t want to be tied to Labour”. But he said that the climate has since changed and that following a more “good-natured and comradely” debate this year, the position is pretty much settled. 

“The debate is not so fractious and has moved away from a black-and-white affiliate or don’t affiliate,” he said. 

“Conference agreed a motion to support Labour candidates within the bounds of existing policy, which stops short of affiliation but is still openly pro-Labour and close enough to the action without a formal tie. We have a Labour Party that we can openly support. 

“We are doing everything we can to support Labour under Corbyn because of the types of policies the current leadership is developing. These pretty much mirror our priorities and policies over the last 10 years, particularly since 2010.”

This year, the debate has been more about general political strategy and the impact of political campaigning.

Key policy areas for the PCS include lifting the 1% cap on public sector pay, scrapping the Trade Union Act and restoring national bargaining over civil service pay and conditions. 

“Unlike other public services, there is no national level bargaining, but instead 200 sets of negotiations over pay and conditions every year, which is time consuming and inefficient,” the spokesperson explained. 

“The 1% pay cap means there are no genuine negotiations and the fragmented bargaining system has also lead to pay inequality, with people on the same grade doing the same job on sometimes wildly different pay, and pay inequality between women and men a particular issue. Corbyn committed to national pay bargaining in 2016 and the Labour Party and PCS are also in tune with regard to anti-austerity and anti-privatisation policies.” 

The 2017 Labour manifesto set out that the next Labour government will end the public sector pay cap, repeal the Trade Union Act and roll out sectoral collective bargaining, for example.

The main area where PCS wants Labour Party policy to go further is social security, and it is developing its own policy and campaigns and working with Labour in this area. 

The union has informal, and “semi-formal” links with members of the front bench and the leadership and is continuing to engage with the Labour Party on its policy review. 

The spokesperson said that while social security is a major political and industrial area for the union, “there is not a huge amount” in this area in Labour’s manifesto. “The DWP [Department for Work and Pensions] is the biggest employer and most PCS members work in social security and tax. We will be pushing on this over the coming year.”


Another union currently considering whether or not to affiliate to the Labour Party is the RMT rail and transport union. While its sister rail unions ASLEF and the TSSA are both affiliates, the RMT was expelled from the party in 2004 after allowing a number of its Scottish branches to support the Scottish Socialist Party. 

It subsequently set up the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) in 2010 “with the primary goal of enabling trade unionists, community campaigners and socialists to stand candidates against pro-austerity establishment politicians”. Since then, hundreds of its candidates have stood under the TUSC umbrella in national and local elections.

However, “in the light of the new situation in the Labour Party, the poor electoral record of TUSC, and the lack of response to TUSC from other trades unions”, the union’s NEC last year recommended that the 2016 annual general meeting (AGM) should review the union’s involvement in TUSC. 

Its annual conference in June this year then agreed that the union should consult with branches and regions over whether it should affiliate to the Labour Party.

“In light of the changes to the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, RMT’s AGM has decided that the time is right to undertake a consultation with our members on the issue of Labour Party affiliation,” said general secretary Mick Cash.

He made clear that no decision has yet been made and will not be made until the consultation has been completed and a special general meeting held in line with the RMT’s rule book and the union’s policies and principles as “a member-led organisation”. There is no timetable for this process.

While making very clear that he would not wish to intervene in other unions’ democratic processes, the FBU’s Dave Green says that for the FBU, affiliation means “giving Jeremy Corbyn, and what he represents, not just vocal but physical and financial support”.

“We are up against an establishment which has chosen the Tory Party to represent it and is making sure it is dripping with money,” he said. 

“Unions need to give Labour as much ammunition as possible and support it collectively. It is the only party that will ensure that ordinary decent people have a decent standard of living.”

Labour’s affiliated trade unions

The country’s four biggest trade unions — the Unite general, UNISON public services, GMB general and shopworkers’ Usdaw unions — are all Labour Party affiliates. 

Also affiliated are four more of the largest 20 TUC unions: the CWU communication workers, the FBU firefighters, the Community general and the MU musicians unions. And four smaller unions have Labour Party affiliation: rail unions ASLEF and the TSSA, and the BFAWU bakers’ and NUM miners’ unions. 

This year’s figure for total union affiliations fell from 14 to 12 as a result of two union mergers in January 2017. The UCATT construction union merged with Unite, while broadcasting and entertainment union BECTU and civil service union Prospect are now one union. 

UCATT and Unite were both already Labour Party affiliates. However, BECTU’s disaffiliation from the Labour Party was a condition of the merger with the larger union. Prospect makes clear that it is politically independent and its rules expressly forbid its affiliation to any political party. 

The Trade Union and Labour Party Liaison Organisation (TULO) is the umbrella organisation that coordinates the activities of these affiliated unions and brings “the voices of three million working people to the heart of the Labour Party”.

It campaigns both for and within the Labour Party, bringing Labour and trade union members together to campaign “on issues that matter to all of us” — from saving the NHS, to defending jobs, to speaking up for rights at work. It’s current rights at work campaign is calling on the government to protect jobs and rights through Brexit and beyond. 

ASLEF general secretary Mick Whelan is TULO chair and CWU and TUC general council member Maria Exall is its vice chair. In addition, regional TULO committee officers are drawn from affiliated unions.

Influence through affiliation

The Unite general union says that its Labour Party affiliation means that it has “a formal role in the party at every level — from Unite branch delegates attending local Labour party meetings and leading campaigns, to the union’s national affiliation and places on the [party’s] national executive committee, policy commissions and at conference”. 

In addition to this collective voice, union members of affiliated unions who pay a political levy can also become individual affiliated supporters and attend and contribute to local Labour Party meetings. 

If they also want to vote on motions or in elections for local officers, they can join as full members at a reduced rate.