The Osborne Judgment and Tory Opposition to Trade Union Funding of the Labour Party

The modern Labour party was formed from a late-19th century and early 20th century alliance of the trade unions and early Socialist societies in order to raise the importance of working class issues in parliament. This was in opposition to the Tories, who represented the interests of the Anglican aristocracy, and the Liberals, who represented the Nonconformist middle classes. Corporately, the trade unions that fund the Labour party and the campaigns of individual MPs, are part of the Labour party.

And the Conservatives hate that with a passion and have been trying to drive a wedge between the two ever since. One of the means they have used to try to do so is through legislation intended to outlaw trade union funds going to the Labour party, if the individual members of the trade union contributing are not Labour party supporters. They were loudly advocating this in the 1980s, and they’re doing the same now under Cameron.

The tactic’s over a century old, and is nearly as old as the Labour party itself. It was first used in a ruling by the House of Lords in 1909 in what became known as ‘the Osborne Judgment’. Osborne was a member of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, who objected to part of his union levy going to the Labour party. He therefore sought an injunction against the union, which was granted by the courts and upheld by the House of Lords when the union appealed. The Lords ruled that it was illegal, as there was no mention of political action as part of the objectives and functions of trade unions in the Trade Union Act of 1876. Pelling, in his ‘Short History of the Labour Party’, notes the devastating effect this had:

The decision crippled the party financially, and various attempts made by the unions to continue their support for the Labour Party on a voluntary basis collapsed in the face of the apathy of their members. The party with the support of the T.U.C. determined to secure legislation to reverse the decision. In the meantime, it had to fight the two general elections of 1910, and in both its dependence upon the Liberals was very obvious. In the January election, not a single member was returned against official Liberal opposition; the same was true of the December election except for two mining seats. (p. 24).

The judgment was fortunately eventually reversed, but the Tories have been trying to do the same ever since. This is the background for Cameron’s latest attack on the trade unions and their funding of the Labour party, and it too must go.

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2 Responses to “The Osborne Judgment and Tory Opposition to Trade Union Funding of the Labour Party”

  1. Florence Says:

    So having a history degree, our chancer-lor is intent on re-running us through his favourite bits? Such a shame he had not been endowed with such intellect that would have paused for reflection.

    • beastrabban Says:

      I think he is just re-running his favourite bits, as you say, Florence. I think it’s the bits where we had an Empire and expanding trade and industry thanks to free trade. The other bits – the long factory hours, the low wages, malnutrition, poor sanitation, overcrowding and endemic disease are either explained away or ignored altogether. Certainly there’s little attention given to the late 19th century, when Free Trade on its own began to fail as the other, competing countries started industrialising themselves and catching up.

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