Opinion: There is a place for Liberal Democrats within the trade union movement

On leaving the Labour Party last year (which I have written about here), I was asked if I was going to be leaving my trade union UNISON. I didn’t and no don’t intend to. The question confused me. I was a trade union activist in the Labour Party more than I was ever a Labour Party activist who happened to be in a trade union.

As a trade unionist I see the purpose of my membership is to be supported at work and to have the union collectively bargain on my behalf for better pay, terms and conditions at work. I have held a number of roles within the trade union movement. I have been a workplace steward, a full time senior union rep, a delegate to Trades Unions Congress and a member of UNISON’s National Executive Council representing low paid members from my region. None of which involved too much involvement with the Labour Party.

My main activism was supporting members with their issues at work, supporting them through grievances, disciplinaries and sickness cases as well as acting on behalf of larger groups in restructures. Funnily enough no one when meeting me to get help over their workplace issues were particularly bothered about what political party I was a member of, they were more bothered about what advice I had to give them. You know, being a good union rep isn’t about being a member of one party or another, it’s about listening to people’s problems and acting on them, which is what as community politicians we should be doing too.

Nationally my union campaigns on issues such as the living wage, the bedroom tax, pensions reform and other issues which affect our members such as LGBT equality and fighting racism – and this is where the interaction with the Labour Party and Labour politicians comes in. As a union delegate to Labour Party conference I spoke on the living wage and the work my union had done in campaigning for a living wage. My trade union’s involvement with the Labour Party is more about lobbying for changes to policy rather than bankrolling specific candidates, although that’s not to say that some of that doesn’t go on, but only from the money paid into affiliated political funds. If you opt out of that part, you aren’t supporting the Labour Party.

So why do the trade unions only talk to or associate with the Labour Party? The issues raised within the labour movement are not just Labour Party issues, they are issues which affect every working person. And let’s be honest, the trade unions and Labour don’t always agree, so why shouldn’t the Liberal Democrats engage with them on issues of mutual interest on a similar basis?

The trade union movement is a good thing, but it’s by no means perfect. So how could we as Liberal Democrats change it?

Well I think a good start would be for those in a unionised workplace to join their union, opt out of the political fund and get active within their union. You could perhaps be a workplace contact to hear about what your union is talking about with your employer, you could become a steward, a health and safety rep or a union learning rep, you could attend your branch committees and talk about what’s affecting you at work. Trade unions are basically member led organisations and if we want them to engage with us, we need to engage with them.

I’m still proud to be a trade unionist, proud to stick up for my colleagues when they need me and proud to be a Liberal Democrat in the labour movement. Why not come join me?

* Sarah Brown is a Liberal Democrat activist who lives in Manchester.

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  • Even opting out of the political levy would make me uncomfortable in an affliated union, because I would still be financially supporting a union which financially supports a party I detest, and cash is fungible.

    That said, there ARE unaffiliated unions… I’d be more comfortable if they ALL unaffiliated, though. I mean, it’s not like the Labour party has actually stood for the working person for a long, long time.

  • Hi Jennie, for most unions the political bit and the support at work are completely separate. I can point you to several trade unionists who do not support labour in anyway at all from all ends of the political spectrum. And yeah labour haven’t done anything for workers in years. I would support all TU’s being unaffliated also, I think this would open up more meaningful dialogue between TU’s and politicians of all shades.

  • Up until I went self-employed last year, I was proud to be a Union member in my office and both received help from my Union reps & also encouraged others to join. As Lib Dems we naturally support many of the aims of these Unions, helping people, combating discrimination & bullying, making sure employment law is not ignored, getting better working conditions. We might baulk at some Unions’ support for Labour but this is, as Sarah points out, peripheral to what Unions do in the workplace. There is no reason why Lib Dems should not be members of a Trades Union or even be active in it.

  • Am I wrong, Sarah, when UNISON was created, it was partially affiliated, recognising the status of NALGO, one of its constituent predecessor unions. Isn’t that still the case? By the way, I very solidly support UNISON’s approach to provision of public services, and its approach to the deficit. I think all of the 4 mainstream parties (if we are now to count UKIP as mainstream) are far too timid in dealing with neoliberalism in economics, nationally, locally and internationally.

  • Geoffrey Payne 10th Jan '14 - 1:19pm

    I do not have the time to write the articles for LDV that I would like, but this would be one of them. The number one reason unions are not liked of course is that they support our political opponents, and they seem to be the most sectarian part of the Labour movement to go with it.
    On the other hand, I am very impressed at how most of the unions have not taken part of the demonisation of migrants as a pretext for protecting jobs, which ironically makes them more liberal than the Labour Party.
    If we as Liberals were in a position to implement policies that we would like to do with worker cooperatives and mutuals, then possibly unions would not be needed. You might think that unions have a perverse vested interest for their own survival to maintain the “us” and “them” culture in British workplaces, but every union activist I have spoken to is very much in favour of them.
    There are problem with unions. Some of their activists make impossible demands in order to serve a wider political purpose to bring down capitalism. And whether the far left succeed in taking over a union or not, they often bring an unpleasant culture with them which alienates people. Also unions suffer terribly from the apathy of their members, as do many other institutions such as political parties.
    Overall I agree with the author, let’s improve our relations with the unions.

  • Steve Griffiths 10th Jan '14 - 1:23pm


    I think the organisation that would agree with you that ” There is a place for Liberal Democrats within the trade union movement”, would be the Association of Liberal Democrat Trade Unionists. It still exists as far as I am aware and on the main Lib Dem website it is listed and says it exists “to support Liberal Democrat members in the trade union movement and to input into party policy.”

  • Sarah: fully accept that there are many trade unionists who don’t support Labour. As Steve says, there is the ALDTU for starters. It’s just not something I, personally, could countenance. As a Liberal though, I also fully support the idea that others can have different views from me 😉

  • John Clough 10th Jan '14 - 2:31pm

    Jennie, on the one hand you “detest” (pretty strong word) Labour but later write, “as a Liberal though, I also fully support the idea that others can have different views from me.” Funny kind of liberalism in my opinion.

  • paul barker 10th Jan '14 - 4:04pm

    The links between Unions & Labour have damaged both & go beyonf the question of formal Affiliation. Many Unions , both those with formal links to Labour & those without “lend” Labour free equipment, offices & Union staff during Elections. There is also the practise of running parallel campaigns during Elections, supposedly for Union aims but saying the same things as Labour. Simply picking an Unaffiliated Union wont neccesarily stop some of your contributions going to Labour.
    The Coalition are currently trying to change Electoral Law to rein in some of these practises & are getting a lot of stick for doing so.
    The problem of Unions being taken over by Extremists has got worse over the last decade as Unions have tried to fight falling membership with Mergers, leading to them becoming more distant from the base.

  • John, not at all. I detest the Labour party, but I have friends within it (who are fully aware of my views, as I am of theirs).

  • Leon – glad you agree, my union membership is really valuable in that sense.
    Tim13 – on joining UNISON members are given the choice as to if they pay into the affiliated fund or not. I’m not sure where this stance came from historically.
    Geoffrey Payne – there is a bit of far left activity within the unions, but this is generally a minority. My trade unionism doesn’t fall at odds with being a lib dem – Infact a member of my branch loved the tax cuts this govt has given him!
    Joe Otten – I have been someone who has had varying amounts of facility time provided to me as an activist. I would suggest that the amount of facility time should be connected to the number of members and the amount of change. When my employer went through job evaluation the amount of facility time was increased to this end. Roughly 1 day a week per 100 members seems fair.
    Steve and Jennie thanks for the point re ALDTU will look them up.

  • Leekliberal 10th Jan '14 - 7:38pm

    As a member of Unison via NALGO for over 40 years and also a Lib Dem activist I also recognise the vital role of trade unions have in defending the pay and conditions of workers. Sadly Unison has always spent more of their members money promoting Labour through smoke and mirrors than they have on promoting the welfare of their members. But we have to hang in there while contacting out of both political levies while seeking to break the Labour link

  • Steve The problem with ALDTU has always been that it has only a very small number of dedicated activists, who have not, to put it kindly, always been terrifically welcoming. I also have this feel that quite a lot of Lib Dems are quite anti-Union. Are you one of those, Joe Otten? So historically there has always been antipathy. The Trade Union movement still has a “folk memory” of Churchill (when Liberal Home Secretary) using troops to put down strikes. This was one of the key moments when the Liberal Party went into its steep decline. This relationship, despite the decline of the Unions over the last 30 years, is key.

  • Dave Page, what you write is nonsense. Often UNISON and other Unions have supported us as being a pro-public service party! If they do not support us now, it is hardly surprising, considering the stance we have taken on economic policy and cuts.

  • Matt (Bristol) 10th Jan '14 - 10:22pm

    My issue with the union affiliation to the Labour party is that many union members who would like their union to talk about their workplace issues have to wade through a lot of communications from their union (and often their local reps) which are often highly politicised and confrontational and have as much to do with those on the hard left such as the SWP seeking to steer the Labour party by stealth (and not-so-stealth) rather than advancing the aims of the union for it members as workers in anything other than an abstracted, quasi-political sense.

    This is alientating when you are not politically literate in the language of unions and you are encountering contract difficulties or uncertainty at work (particularly when your reps give you the distinct impression in almost as many words that there is little they can do about it, as you are a short-term employee and your union has to look after permanent staff as a priority as they have been contributing to the union’s coffers for longer).

    In my brief period as a union member, I had several opportunities to vote for the election of individuals; I had no opportunities to vote on anything else other than strike action, and my automatic consent to a whole series of campaigns was taken as read in a lot of literature I received.

  • Leekliberal – do hang on in there 🙂 on the “spends most of their money” supporting labour I would disagree. Only the labour link fund goes into relations with the Labour Party. The general political fund arguably as Dave Page said is also used for “supporting labour through the back door” but you can opt out of both.

    ALDTU needs a bit of a shake up perhaps Tim13 🙂

    Andrew Page – *high fives another UNISON rep* I agree reform from within is the answer 🙂

  • Dave Eastham 11th Jan '14 - 7:04am


    Yup Lib Dem trade Unionists exist – Association of liberal democrat trade Unionists. Yup we are smaller than we would like. Yup we are lifelong trade unionists who are lib dems. Nope we don’t support the Labour Party and no we don’t see being a member of a trade union as necessarily supporting the Labour Party, A little episode in history, known as the “Osbourne Judgement” will tell you why – look it up on the History and Policy web site http://www.historyandpolicy.org/papers/policy-paper-96.html. (For various boring technical reasons we don’t have a website at present but we have the url so watch this space).

    Me? – I’m the secretary of Aldtu. If you want further details email me at [email protected] and I will gladly send you our recruitment leaflet (but you won’t get an answer until tomorrow as I’m about to catch a train for London for the ALDTU exec committee today, as it happens)

    Fraternals and all that sort of thing that Lib Dems believe in. –


  • Thankyou, Dave, for your contribution. It would be good to see ALDTU be able and prepared to take a more active role, to strengthen other elements in the party who recognise the damage being done by neoliberalism, and its constant reduction of the proportion of the economy going to those who work in it, and the consequent enrichment of the capital side. This is wrong, and damaging to liberalism and liberal philosophies, as well as those from other radical, left, socialist etc backgrounds. Another string to the bow of “taking back the party”.

  • Foregone Conclusion 11th Jan '14 - 10:25am

    @Dave Page

    As I understand it the Political Levy (and the reserved fund that comes from it) is for all kinds of political activity – either direct campaigning for parties and candidates or for issue campaigning.

  • Michael Cole 11th Jan '14 - 1:40pm

    Until several years ago, when I resigned, I was a member of the Musicians’ Union. Prior to that I opted out of the political levy. I have to tell you that this was made very difficult. I had to apply for the appropriate forms several times; my first few requests were ignored. Eventually, by bloody-minded persistence, I managed to opt out of the levy. If TU members had to opt in rather than out (and surely this is how it should be) I think that the percentage opting in would be very low.

    In any case, Trade Unions should exist solely to act in the interests of their members, and this means equidistance with regard to all Parties. In a democratic society the support of any particular political Party must be a matter for the individual. There is no longer any good reason for the TU movement to have its own political party. In fact, as we have seen, this leads to a very corrupt relationship.

  • Eddie Sammon 12th Jan '14 - 1:14am

    Thanks for the article, Sarah. I’ve felt for a while that the Lib Dems should offer unions some liberal reforms. This is what I believe they truly want.

  • Lee Catterall 11th Mar '14 - 1:26am

    Hi Sarah. I would like to say that your article was a breath of fresh air when I came upon it! As a Lib Dem and trade unionist myself, it was good to see that I wasn’t alone in my political views and my belief that people should be treated equally and fairly in the workplace. Lib Dem and trade union values really can go hand in hand!

    In the run up to the general election I feel that trade union members should understand that there is an alternative to the Labour party come election time. I wouldn’t mind taking an active role in ALDTU myself to be honest. Something I should look into perhaps…

  • Neil Summers 22nd Mar '17 - 10:45pm

    Hi Sarah if you not getting involved in the political side of unison don’t think it matters you’re right representing members with disciplinary and grievance issues what party you’re a member of is irrelevant. There’s many union activists that don’t support the Labour Party. Hope this helps. Neil

  • Lorenzo Cherin 23rd Mar '17 - 1:45am

    Sarah writes a fine piece , nearly as much of a kinship felt here as on her leaving one party and joining another.

    I was once in Labour . And am a Liberal Democrat , voter then member of several years.

    I joined a non-affiliated trade union , Equity, twenty years ago this year.

    I strongly support the bulk of the Tories laws on things such as the end of the awful closed shop, which denied talent even a look in to the profession that led me to join Equity , something I could only do thanks to the changes that made joining more open and contract based.

    I strongly support the right of anyone to join a trade union and think it worth doing if the union is worth joining.

    I would recommend Equity .

    Cannot say the same of , say , Unite !

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