One thing that Keir Starmer’s Labour Party has significantly improved in the last year is its relationship management with trade unions. Whereas there used to be semi-regular coverage questioning the future of Labour’s relationship with its affiliated unions, now there is not. Flashpoints such as the BFAWU’s disaffiliation, Andy McDonald’s indulgent martyrism, the fallout over rule changes, Labour leadership contests, and the picket line ban seem a distant memory now; as does their sometimes sensationalist coverage. 

This is largely because of two factors. Firstly, there has been a renewed effort from the Leader’s office (LOTO) to engage with select trade unions (not all of them affiliated) while it has also got more confident in telling unions that they need a Labour government. Despite him being a fierce critic of the Labour leadership (even calling for Starmer to resign at the last Labour conference), Mick Lynch said of Labour’s New Deal For Working People “If it comes through the way it is, it’s a good first step…and we’ll look for further enhancements through the life of what will hopefully be a long Labour government” and at TUC Congress in September was channelling THIGMOO. Secondly there is a pragmatic view from trade unions that Labour is on course for power and knows it has to capitalise on the opportunity for influence that a Labour government provide.

There are different ways of doing this, for example Unite have opted for a campaign of public pressure on Labour over steel and using its votes on conference floor to force Labour to commit to nationalisation of energy (figures in LOTO say Unite ‘did it to embarrass us’) whereas GMB have cultivated a close working relationship with Rachel Reeves. Ultimately, the prevailing view is that trade unions do not have to like Starmer, they do not even have to trust him (though neither would hurt); they just have to be able to get Labour to pass the necessary legislation. How much they capitalise on it, as the TUC Assistant General Secretary Kate Bell told a fringe at conference, will then be up to them. 

The most evident example of this cooperation is  Labour’s New Deal for Working People. The current proposed legislation is a watered down version of the original green paper published in 2021; however, even in its current form, it would still be the most ambitious piece of single legislation for improving worker and union rights ever passed in the United Kingdom. It is not only unions that can see the importance of this legislation; at various fringes at Labour’s annual conference there has been reference made to how popular the New Deal’s policies (one assumes the ones aimed at individuals and not unions) were in campaigning in Rutherglen. For those parts of Labour that are more sceptical of trade unions, they can at least appreciate electoral bounties. After all, it is no coincidence that Starmer used his conference speech to link improving workers’ rights to improved growth. 

Furthermore, the proposed legislation starkly contrasts the most recent piece of anti union legislation passed by the Conservatives. Even a divided and useless Conservative Party can still rally itself to give organised labour a kick. 

However, this pragmatic focus does have its drawbacks as it makes the trade union and Labour relationship more transactional. The endpoint of transactionalism is that trade unions’ relationship with Labour becomes akin to that between Labour and business. The army of well-dressed lobbyists that have descended on Conference this year can themselves smell power. In fact, it was notable how the fringe on the New Deal for Working People at Conference was spikier than its TUC Congress equivalent three weeks earlier. For many trade unionists, venturing to Conference is an away leg. Being wary of transactionalism is not a misplaced romanticism about the relationship between trade unions and Labour, which have always been complicated (with some groups actively hostile to each other) and had a transactional element; it comes with genuine drawbacks. 

What threatens the progress of the New Deal for Working People most now is not Peter Mandelson (despite what his ego and some trade unionists may tell him), but ineptitude. Part of the cause of the friction at the National Policy Forum was not just the changes to some parts of the green paper, but a complete lack of understanding from some of the advisers and ministers about what trade unions actually were and how they function, particularly the capability and expertise of workplace representatives.

Equally, one of the issues affecting the New Deal for Working People, exemplified by its at times vague language, is that the affiliated unions cannot agree on which parts of the pre-2015 anti-union legislation they would like to be repealed, as there are splits over what LOTO are expected to agree to and what legislative methods could be used to limit its time in the Lords. In both of these cases a more symbiotic relationship (like that in the dim and distant past when the, then more powerful, TUC and Labour Party shared office space at Congress House) would have made these concerns a non-issue as they could be decided informally with an underlying mutual trust. 

Perhaps transactionalism was an inevitable consequence of Labour developing as its own entity. After all, trade unions recognised that Labour could never be solely their own project; hence the 1937 decision to allow some NEC seats to be elected by their constituency parties instead of just union bloc vote. However, this separation may prove costly for both entities in the near future. Bargaining works until it does not; without a recourse to a less codified relationship trade unions will find their influence limited, more formally regulated, and more ably negated. In a purely transactional relationship, Labour will have no good will to fall back on when it needs favors. In 1945 it had the Honourable Alliance with trade unions, and in 1974 it had the Social Contact (which worked until Labour failed to hold up its end of the bargain). Should Labour enter government in 2024, in a situation with parallels to both of the above, what will it have then?