A recent survey of members in the Bakers, Food, and Allied Workers’ Union (BFAWU) has revealed the anger felt amongst trade unionists towards the right-wing Labour leadership. Ian Hodson, BFAWU President, discusses the way forward for Labour.
The actions of the Labour Party leadership over the last year – especially their slavish acceptance of the Tories’ disastrous handling over COVID-19, and their efforts to reopen the economy and endanger lives – has left our members feeling angry and betrayed. That is the conclusion of the consultation about Labour amongst our membership.
As a result of this failure by Labour’s leaders to support workers, the executive of our union were under pressure from the members to withdraw funding from the Labour Party.
When we raised our concerns with the Labour leader, we were fobbed off by an unsatisfactory response from Keir Starmer’s office.
Out of touch
It is clear not only from this recent survey, but also from conversations with our members, that Labour has lost the support of many ordinary working-class people.
In the feedback from our members, we were told that the party’s shift away from accepting the result of the 2016 Brexit vote, led by Sir Starmer, was a big issue, which went down badly in the workplace. This led to a feeling of mistrust and alienation.
Members also called out the branding as ‘racist’ or ‘stupid’ of those who voted Leave. It appeared that Labour now sided with the establishment. And this was exploited by Boris Johnson.
Those members from former mining towns also said they felt their loyalty had been taken for granted by the Labour Party. While some looked for political alternatives, a growing number said they simply wouldn’t vote.
Incredibly, since the 2019 election, our survey showed that a mere 7% of our members now believed that the Labour Party represents their aims or aspirations.
Labour and the unions
Despite this important survey, and despite our efforts, it is disappointing that neither Starmer nor anyone from his office have attempted to engage with our union.
As a further slap in the face, we saw reports that Lord Mandelson was advising the Labour leader. The ‘Prince of Darkness’ has made his views clear: that the party should distance itself from the trade union movement. This now seems to be the current thinking in the Starmer Labour leadership.
While our survey shows that our members are in favour of a political affiliation, there is a big question mark over the present Labour Party. While there were no motions on disaffiliation at this year’s conference, it cannot be ruled out in the future if this situation carries on. To avoid this, the Labour Party needs to drastically change course.
We have a long and proud history as a trade union. Our relationship with Labour stretches back to 1893 and the formation of the Independent Labour Party – a prelude to the creation of the Labour Party. We were addressed by Keir Hardie, and our members stood as candidates in places like Barnsley in 1903, on behalf of the ILP.
That relationship is now being stretched to the limit as a result of the present Labour leadership. It has turned its back on its working-class support, especially in the trade unions.
History of fighting
To many in today’s Labour Party, it may seem that our membership is irrelevant, given that BFAWU is a small trade union. Instead, Starmer and co. prefer to chase rich donors; to champion the policies of low corporation tax, attacks on trade union freedoms, and the ‘Spy Cops’ Bill; to wrap themselves up in the Union Jack, rather than defending workers’ priorities.
Promises to end inequality, build more homes, and bring back our national assets – such as water, rail, and energy – into public ownership seem to have been forgotten.
As a union, we have always prided ourselves on our campaigning. We’ve never been a big union, but always one that punches above its weight.
Our union was at the forefront of the fight to improve working conditions – ending the excessively long hours that were the norm in the 1800s and early 1900s; and stopping bakers from dying at the average age of 30.
We fought to end workplace wage inequality for women in the late ’60s and ’70s; to end the use of precarious contracts like zero-hours; to end inequality for young workers; and to campaign in 2014 for £10 an hour – now £15 an hour – which was described at the time as extreme!
Politics, industrial organising, and campaigning for our union have always gone hand-in-hand. This is why, when our members talk, they have a right to be listened to, and for their comments to be taken on board.
What were the results of our survey?
- 38% of our membership indicated that they felt they were politically active.
- 88% voted in the 2019 election – but sadly only 53% voted for the Labour Party. And those who offered reasons said that they could not vote for a party offering a second referendum. Many also said they could not vote for the Tories either, regardless of their position on Brexit.
- Shockingly, only 7% of our membership felt strongly that Labour today represents their values or their interests: 28% felt strongly it did not; 23% felt it did not; 26% felt neither one way or another; 17% felt it did; and 7% strongly felt it did.
Interestingly, a majority of our members (56%) believed there should be a political link between BFAWU and Labour. But a small majority (53%) felt we should disaffiliate from today’s Labour Party, while 47% felt we should remain affiliated.
The figures indicated that our members have little confidence in the current Labour leader. Asked if they would be more likely to vote for Labour if the party changed its leader, 60% said Yes.
If there was an election tomorrow, 55% said they would not vote Labour, with only 45% saying they would.
This report clearly highlights the breakdown of trust between the Labour Party and our members.
Clearly, this feeling is not going to be addressed by the constant sidelining of the trade unions by the Labour leadership; nor by the string of right-wing Labour MPs, who normally get elected to Parliament thanks to the support and finance of working people, either through membership dues or affiliation fees.
Without its trade union base, the Labour Party would become the new Liberal Party – a reserve team for the establishment.
The party needs to return to its working-class, socialist principles. Our union was proud to campaign for the restoration of the old Clause Four: “to secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry”, based upon common ownership.
If we want a real Labour government, with mass support from working people, we need to return to these values. Only then can we start delivering on the hopes and aspirations of the communities our members work in.