New Labour, labour history, the railway unions & John McTernan
With a handful of exceptions New Labour was never great on labour history. Firstly because history is about the past and secondly because history has pointers for the present and they often turned out to be awkward ones.
What form, shape and structure the Labour Party should take is revisited, discussed and argued about in each generation but whatever the outcome the impulse that it must be possible to reform market capitalism and make it a bit better, and in doing so the lives of many, remains. How big or small the possibilities are at any one moment can of course be debated.
What labour history does tell us is that while the Independent Labour Party (founded 1893) sought independent political representation in Parliament, trade unionists were less sure. There were Lib-Lab MPs but they were not independent of the Liberals, even if they did represent working class constituents.
The thing that changed all this was the Taff Vale judgement. A railway union took action against the Taff Vale Railway Co in South Wales. The line was then (with coal) amongst the busiest in the world. The dispute was settled but the employer won a legal judgement that the union was liable for its commercial loses during the strike.
The implications for trade unions could not have been more serious. If they took action to defend members, employers could bankrupt them.
The Taff Vale judgement was reversed in the 1906 Parliament, where 29 Labour MPs were elected for the first time and broadly still stands. Trade unions aren’t liable for employer’s losses during a legally constituted strike.
It was in this sense the railway unions that provided the impetus for the formation of the Parliamentary Labour Party as we now know it.
The Tory Trade Union Act passed into law earlier this year suggests that the impetus still remains. The provisions of the Act can be defeated by breaking them, but in the end the Act does need to be repealed in Parliament.
In this context I note a piece in the Daily Telegraph by John McTernan who has been associated with New Labour which argues the rail unions must be ‘crushed’ (this primarily over the Southern Rail dispute over conductors and passenger safety).
One might think that in expressing the sentiment Mr McTernan places himself outside of the labour movement but as above, no doubt it will debated whether that is the case.