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Labour must make itself a movement again

10 September 2013

‘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?’

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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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Show comments
  • Abhay

    The current Labour cannot revitalise itself. It is run by the same type of metropolitan bougeois that run the Conservative party or the Lib Dem.

    There is practically no difference in the world-views of, say, Balls, Milliband,Cameron, Gove,Clegg etc. The differences are in details. They have the same thoughts, aspiration, views, prejudices and biases.

    Renewal is a process of alteration of world-view in fundamental ways. The amount of courage that needs is beyond the metropolitan bourgeois in charge of Labour currently. Everything else is bunkum, nonsense, hollow verbiage, idle prattle.

  • Augustus

    “Today, that relationship takes another step as Ed Miliband seeks to revive the original impulse behind the trade union/Labour link.”

    “Du sublime au ridicule il n’y a qu’un pas.”
    -Napoleon Bonaparte

  • Keith D

    Labour has been a bowel movement ever since their treachery perpetrated against their core support,the British working family.They hate the British people and if they ever get back in this country is done for.

  • Fred Smith

    It emerged from a movement, it helped implement many of the movement’s aims, it had its day and became a degenerate faction for obtaining office, establishing a new sort of aristocracy and generally opposed to the movement from which it arose. It’s largely survived on mindless tribal loyalty.

    Sorry, too much sentimental attachment here to a fond memory of what once was a vital thing, which now continues as a zombie, taken to the extreme of finding an elixir of life to visit artificial vitality to what should properly be resting in peace.

    “Frankenstein” explored the possible horrible consequences of revitalising corpses. Read it and be warned.

    Anyway, movements don’t work along the lines of reversing into a shell.

  • McRobbie

    Can’t really understand this dogma about the unions supporting the “working man and women”. Surely in this day and age just about everyone is a working person. The numbers of ultra rich non workers is very very small, certainly totally out numbered by the non working benefit receivers. So the unions must mean the better paid, obviously on the arrogant assumption that they dont work as hard as the lesser paid! Thats rich that is! Its a typical left wing bigoted view on the real world…we are all in this together and the difference between labour and tories is entirely big state v little state, and the unions support the big state and the public why can’t they be honest, they aren’t interested in the working person if they aren’t in the public sector paying their union fees from our taxes.

  • HookesLaw

    Mr Hunt waffles on but the reality he will not admit to is that capitalism needs trade unions.
    Entrepreneurs need the mechanism of group negotiation with their workers this gives them the security to plan and invest and produce.

    If trade unions did not exist then capitalists would have to invent them.

    There is no need for politics to have anything to do with trade unionism. The interference of politics, the connivance of politicians with trade union barons, only only exploits workers.

  • sarahsmith232

    the current Labour party couldn’t put average Joe workers demands ‘at the heart’ of Labour policy if that pack of Oxbridge educated, middle-class snobs had a gun to their heads.
    they all know rightly what those demands are – get something ****ingwell done about immigration. get something done about the system which preferences immigrants in social housing. get something done about reforming the benefit system so that it’s no longer a trapping long-term lifestyle choice and is again a safety net. so i.e support the Tories benefit reforms. dream on if you think any of that’s going to get anywhere near a Labour manifesto.
    over and over and over again, same old article just written by a different Labour hack. ‘we’ve listened to what you’ve told us, we’re out of touch, we’re going to go back to our roots’ etc etc blah blah. it’s all BS. they’re constantly writing about the importance of listening to what it is people want up until people tell them something different from what they want to hear. this Labour lot think they know better, if they hear ‘reduce immigration’ etc then it’s ‘your not worth listening to ’cause you’re a racist’.
    Labour doesn’t want to implement policies that have any appeal to their tradition supporters, they think they’re too thick to have any opinions worth listening to.

  • Two Bob

    A bowel movement.

  • Robert_Eve


  • CharlietheChump

    Tristram Hunt
    Rhymes with . . .

  • Tom Tom

    The Labour Party needs more Tristrams from public school and Cambridge. It needs to shake off Methodism and Northern membership and get more PR types and Bankers in its ranks. It needs to evolve into a Party where every member has an Equity Card and can sleep with a lobbyist.

  • Hello

    How exactly does the NatCen survey unveil an apathetic nation? One of Labour’s many problems is that, as a precondition for it’s success, it requires a miserable majority and so, lacking a miserable majority, it has to project one.

    • Tom Tom

      It has a miserable majority on its front bench

  • Russell

    “the tall chimneys……… vomiting”

    The first thing that comes to mind when Miliband, Balls,Cooper,Harman,Reeves,Eagle,Twigg, in fact every labour MP who speaks is exactly that….vomit. holding back is extremely difficult as the hypocritical sycophants lie smear and spin.
    Back to the Guardian ‘Tristram’ (a good working class family name!)

    • telemachus

      Tristram is a genius
      You should read his Rise and Fall of the Victorian City
      “The pioneers of Victorian Britain saw cities as places for generating ideas, with active citizenship and strong local government. They wanted to stamp their values on to the physical fabric of the city and a celebrity of the architect followed. But the emergence of modern suburbia changed cities, shifting the focus from the civic to the domestic sphere. Four million houses went up between 1918 and 1939 in the great age of suburbia. We have seen a regeneration of cities over the last 10 years, but urban sprawl is a new spectre, harming both civic life and the environment. We should take inspiration from the mid-Victorian world – design-led, public sector driven, community engaged, with outstanding civic architecture. And we should battle sprawl as the number one priority.”

      • Tom Tom

        The Treasury destroyed Victorian cities sucking them dry to fight wars and nationalising their electricity and Gas Works in 1948 and water in 1972 and their buses and trams expropriating BET and other firms. It is LONDON that destroyed Cities not Suburbia. This idiot uses American examples to explain UK problems. Maybe he has never heard of the Public Works Loan Board. He is too young to have learned how this country worked

        • telemachus

          Please do not make the mistake of rubbishing a seminal work because of a political label

      • CharlietheChump

        I told you before little Trotty, no-one cares about your foaming socialist ecstasies

      • Two Bob

        Brutalist architecture ruined our cities. Marxist ideology with no soul.

    • Shazza

      I, too, wish to vomit every time I see these champagne socialists. I really want to vomit when I think of what this Party of Mass Destruction inflicted on the British people during their 13 year, treasonous misrule. But I really, really, really want to vomit at the thought that they might get their hands on the reins of power again. And watch them then really finish the destruction of a once great country.

  • wobble

    Bowel movement .!

  • dalai guevara

    No one here cares about Millipede.
    We care about May, who is in convalenscense, ie not fit for purpose.
    We care about IDS, silence only from his corner.
    We care about Gove, silence again, only larger class sizes for the plebs. Don’t you know, it’s all about ambition.
    We care about Hague, the lapdog, not even fit enough to rig the UN.
    We care about Osborne, who Fraser has comprehensively debunked. Man, was he furious!
    We care about Ibiza Dave, all in it together, on the sidelines of his own party.

    No, Millipede matters not.

    • Nicholas chuzzlewit

      Thank you for that contribution from our correspondent from Mars. Meanwhile, back on Earth…..

      • dalai guevara

        SHTF, big time

        • Tony Quintus

          Yep, everybody in the world is saying things in Britain are getting better, so of course they must be getting worse, just like the day before the election the economy had been saved but the day after the election there was “no money”

          • dalai guevara

            Yep, delta £ minus 400bn since then.

            • Tony Quintus

              Yep, due to a 7.2% gdp crash and a structural deficit equivalent to over 25% of government spending, £156billion (fy 09/10 value, more like £200billion in todays money), not to mention 7 years running deficits prior to the crash.
              If Gordon hadn’t broken with the Major spending plans we would’ve had ZERO national debt by the time the crisis hit, instead it was £525billion

              • dalai guevara

                Yup, the geniuses are tripping over their own feet in the race to the bottom

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