‘As you enter the dock the sight of the forest of masts in the distance, and the tall chimneys vomiting clouds of black some, and the many coloured flags flying in the air, has a most peculiar effect … Nearly everywhere you meet stacks of cork, or else yellow bins of sulphur, or lead-coloured copper-ore. As you enter this warehouse, the flooring is sticky, as if it had been newly tarred, with the sugar that has leaked through the casks.’
This was how Henry Mayhew described the 90 acres of London docks – stretching across St George, Shadwell and Wapping – in the 1850s. It was where the riches of the Empire came in, and the finished wares of the Workshop of the World went out.
But it was also a landscape of Dickensian abuse, immiseration, and exploitation as dockers fought to make a living. ‘The scuffling and scrambling, and stretching forth of countless hands high in the air, top catch the eye of him whose voice may give them work … It is a sight to sadden the most callous, to see thousands of men struggling for only one day’s hire.’
This was the injustice which gave rise to the great Dockers’ strike of 1889 and the rise of New Unionism: a trade union movement which went beyond the old guild protectionism and sought to place itself within the political debate. It realised it had to challenge the ideological consensus which gave rise to such barbaric inequalities.
And it found a natural home within the Labour movement. From its foundations in 1893 as the Independent Labour Party under Keir Hardie, our politics began with the Big Society: a rich associationalist tradition, the coming together of a heady mix of local co-ops, trade union branches, free voluntary associations, socialist societies, idealistic intellectuals and the transforming zeal of non-conformist religion.
As Tory MP Robert Halfon rightly puts it,’Most unions are community organisations, funded by their members. What is this, if not the Big Society in action?’
Indeed, Hardie deliberately insisted upon affiliation membership, branch autonomy and a weak central executive as being the basis for the new party’s organisation in order to bring these disparate groups together under a broader banner of social justice, equality and fair labour rights.
Today, that relationship takes another step as Ed Miliband seeks to revive the original impulse behind the trade union/Labour link: a return to that voluntarist, participatory democracy at the heart of the Labour story.
Because the problems that contemporary politics face are as numerous as they are endemic. Today’s NatCen Social Research survey points to a Britain that is more tolerant but more individual, less bound by identities of gender, sexuality, race and class. And that hits mass membership political parties hard.
However, the Social Research survey also unveils a nation that is, more than anything else, apathetic. And that hurts progressive political parties far more than it does our reactionary opponents. Inevitably, there is a temptation for politicians to react to systemic change with divisive politics; an attempt to pit disparate groups together through nastiness and enmity.
So, the challenge is all the greater to revive progressive politics and battle modern injustices. Admittedly, not the immiseration of the London docks, but the effects of zero-hours, falling apprenticeship opportunities, finance-starved small businesses and stretched family budgets.
And the trade unions must be a part of that solution. When they battle on exploited agency labour, the effects of pay-day loans, the rights of trade unionists in Columbia and health and safety at work, today’s trade unions place themselves within a heroic tradition of struggle.
This is the impulse behind Ed’s speech in Bournemouth today and, with it, the desire for a transparent, grown-up relationship between the Labour Party and the trade unions. We want honesty about membership levels and financial support. We could also do with a bit more transparency between the leadership of trade unions and their members: massive over-consolidation amongst the trade unions has made them too distant from civil society and sometimes too afraid to innovate.
What Ed Miliband said today was both an affirmation of our rich shared history but it was also an admission – that the Labour Party has not done enough in recent years to be a movement. In putting the voices of working people right at the heart of our party, with honesty and transparency, we will once more be true to a movement that has delivered social justice in Britain for the last one hundred and twenty years.
Tristram Hunt is the Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central
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