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Unite is at a turning point in its relationship with the Labour Party

len mccluskeyThis is the abridged text of a speech made today at a meeting of the Unite executive council and regional political committees at the TUC’s conference centre in London

It is clear we are at a turning point in the historic relationship Unite and its predecessor unions have had with the Labour party.

This will have come as a surprise to many of you – although no one will be shocked by the knowledge that strains in the Labour-union link have been building up for years, at least since the advent of New Labour in the 1990s.  Those strains have been fuelled by the failures and disappointments of Labour in office, not least its refusal to seriously address the unique legal impediments trade unions have to work under in Britain. 

They have been worsened by the feeling that for a long time we have been taken for granted by people who welcome our money, but not our policy input, who want to use our resources at election time but do not want our members as candidates.  And all this in an environment when ordinary people in all walks of life have become increasingly disengaged from and disenchanted with politics and politicians.”

Defending the status quo is not an option

Ed Miliband has made some bold and far-reaching proposals for recasting the trade union relationship with the Labour party. I know that some pundits were expecting me to reject them outright, to re-run the experience of the last generation on this issue – the party leader says something, the unions reject it and have no positive proposals of their own. The first plan goes through anyway and we look like not just losers but conservative losers.

Well, we all honour our movement’s traditions, but this is one tradition overdue for a change. Unite is doing things differently in one area of our work after another, including politics.  And we need to do things differently here too. We need to engage, rethink and see if we can find better ways to advance our ends.

No-one has said that the twentieth century should go on forever, and that in 2013 the labour movement should be structured in exactly the same way as in 1913. In a nutshell, we have to be interested in outcomes, not processes.

Why dig in behind a status quo that has not worked for us? The block vote didn’t stop a Labour government invading Iraq.  Affiliation didn’t keep Labour out of the clutches of the banks and the City. Our special relationship didn’t get the union laws repealed. So don’t let anyone say that the status quo is worth defending.

And don’t let’s be dishonest with ourselves. Before Falkirk, before Ed’s announcement, there were plenty of people in this room today saying, absolutely rightly, that the relationship with Labour had to change.

On future of the Labour party

So now we have the Collins review. Unite goes into this process with clear objectives, which everyone who cares about the future of the Labour party needs to share.  Our main aim is to ensure that as many Unite members as possible, already paying our political levy, now sign up individually, by whatever means have transparency and integrity, to be affiliate members of the party.

For that to work, and for the trade unions to put their shoulders to the wheel to make it work, the offer has to be an attractive one.  Above all, that means a Labour party that our members want to support, because they believe it can and will make a difference in their lives.  Not a party that is a pinkish shadow of the present coalition that gives the City a veto over economic decisions and embraces the austerity agenda squeezing the life out of the country.  But a party that offers real hope, that stands up for the poor and vulnerable, that puts growth at the heart of its agenda, that confronts privilege. A party that makes the 2015 election a real and vivid choice as to the future of our country, not one that leaves the electorate indifferent.

If it does this, then this scheme will work. But if our members are unclear as to the answer then no amount of persuading will get them to sign up. I believe that Labour under Ed Miliband can be that party – a party that our members want to support because it feels like their party.


  1. Rod says:

    Well said, Len.

    The writing is on the wall for Labour’s communication consultant/lobbyist/careerist out-of-touch elite.

    It’s only a matter of time…

  2. John says:

    Is Len just saying this rubbish, o Ed can nock him, and get imself on
    Me brownie points, try to understand Len, you are but one person who inmates to labour, you ont dictate policy, or have influence on who can join,

  3. Terry Conway says:

    Stripped down to its basics this is abject surrender by McCluskey. The same rationalisations were made by those unions who facilitated the Smith/Prescott OMOV reforms 20 years ago. Where is the evidence of any policy prospectus radically different to the Con Dem’s? Concessions made on the basis of wishful thinking. Pathetic.

  4. James Martin says:

    I’ve got to ask John, are you actually a real person, or is there a troop of monkeys somewhere randomly hitting letters on a keyboard for you?

  5. Patrick Coates says:

    Len I am a member of the Labour Party which is a membership organisation. It is also a business, which employees people, they may or not be in your union.
    This seems to me like a take-over bid, what are you going to do for the grass roots CLP members, when you are the boss.

  6. Chris Watts says:

    As a member of the Labour Party and President of a local GMB branch I would agree that there is needs for change to the relationship between the Party and affiliated Unions. This change has been a long time coming.

    BUT: There is a right way of doing this and a wrong way. We have collectively (I stress collectively) chosen the later and the only winner will be the Tories if the eventual outcome reflects the current methods and actions in attempting to resolve the issue. The bluster of one side has been meet with a response of “be careful what you wish for” from the other. Babies are being thrown out with bath water and many faces are minus a nose.

    The rhetoric needs to stop, meaningful discussion resume and egos put back in boxes if we are to come out of this stronger and united in order to constitute a collective force to be reckoned with.

  7. John says:

    Tee he, james ,I suppose it’s like when the far left lose an argument, they just keep repeating ,knowing they’ve not got any real point but hope people will just accept it ,I dthey repeat it,

  8. Rod says:

    @Chris Watts

    You may not have noticed but the Tories are already winning and that is why things must change.

    As Len has written in the Unite newletter:

    “If your son or daughter fancies becoming a Labour MP, forget it. They have more chance cleaning in the Commons than being elected to it.”

    You say you want a resumption of meaningful discussion but Labour’s out of touch, Parliamentary Oxbridge/communication consultant/careerist elite didn’t achieve their elevated ensconcement via meaningful discussion – because there hasn’t yet been any, instead they’ve worked by means of nod, wink, power grab and stitch-up.

    Change or become irrelevant, that’s the choice on the table for Labour.

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