Labour History Review

Preserving the 'Contentious Alliance'? The Labour Party, the Trade Unions, and the Political Fund Ballots of 1985–1986

Labour History Review (2011), 76, (1), 51–69.

Abstract

This article seeks to contribute to the argument surrounding the transformation of the Labour Party and the redefining of labour movement orthodoxies during the 1980s by providing a historical perspective on the political fund ballot campaign and its impact on the party-union partnership. Drawing on Lewis Minkin and Steve Ludlam's studies of the Labour-union alliance, the article is built around core components of the partnership. It uses Ross McKibbin's concept of inter-war 'conventional wisdom', which perceived trade unionism as a threat to civil society and the British state, to provide essential historical context. The article is underpinned by Margaret Thatcher's cultivation of a new 'conventional wisdom' which was intended to empower the 'silent majority' of moderate trade unionists and isolate militant shop stewards. The political fund ballot campaign tactics are reappraised through analysis of the activities of moderate and 'soft left' trade unions. This in turn raises the question of the extent to which the TUC's 'new realism' and Neil Kinnock's centrist strategy coincided. Thereafter, the article challenges the notion that the ballot campaign reinvigorated the party-union alliance by highlighting the detrimental effect of internal Labour Party restructuring and Labour's adoption of a media-led political marketing strategy. Highlighting the erosion of key elements of the Labour-union relationship after 1987, it concludes that the political fund ballot results were a staging post in the wider transformation of the Labour Party, the most important legacy of which was securing union finance, essential to the 'modernization' of the party.

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Author details

Stewart, David