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The trade unions and the Labour Party

04 October 2013


From Mr Rob Thompson
Sir, - Canon Angela Tilby's column (20 September) jumped out of the page at me: I am a son of the Methodist manse and an active member of the Labour Party. As I read, however, I became increasingly disappointed with her analysis of the theology of the Labour Party.

I am incredibly proud of the victories that trade unions have won for ordinary working people over the past 150 years, and not least of the part that my Methodist forebears played in that effort. But, as important as the relationship between the Labour Party and the trade unions is (after all, the pioneers who founded the party deliberately chose to name it Labour, not "Socialist"), trade-union affiliation is not the "moral heart" of the Party, as Canon Tilby suggests.

The moral heart of British Socialism, with its unique history and philosophy compared with other Socialisms, is and always has been the twin principles of equality and fellowship. Socialism in this country existed before trade-union membership became possible, let alone permitted by law. It evolved not through the relationship between trade unions and a political party, but in individual consciences in chapels and meeting houses, at the mineshaft and on the factory floor. It was passed on from one person to another until it became a collective force that needed the structure and processes of organisations such as the early trade unions and the Labour Party.

Keir Hardie, Arthur Henderson, R. H. Tawney, and later John Smith did not adhere to the mission of Socialism because they happened to be members of trade unions that in turn happened to be affiliated to the Labour Party. Why instead? Primarily, because they had read the Gospels, and because they had seen in the Sermon on the Mount those principles of equality and fellowship.

It seems to me that Ed Miliband's proposal of replacing automatic affiliation with an opt-in system of individual affiliation is the right move to balance the input of union leaders, and thus strengthen the position of ordinary trade-union members and activists in communities far from Westminster.

Equality and fellowship - that is the theology of British Socialism; and I am pleased to tell Canon Tilby that it is alive and well in the Labour Party of the 21st century.

21 Bowden Drive
Lincoln LN6 7LG

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