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The party, not its leader, must settle Labour’s future

Defend the Link colourSo Ed Miliband is to have his Clause 4 moment. Last month’s announcement by the Labour leader of a special conference in the Spring to endorse Lord Collins’ as yet unwritten proposals to rewrite the Labour party constitution is a further provocation of the affiliated trade unions, which demands a strong response.

The announcement compounds what so far has been the most offensive aspect of Mr Miliband’s onslaught on trade union affiliation to the Labour Party, namely the total contempt it revealed for the Labour Party constitution. Like Tony Blair before him, Mr Miliband appears to see himself as the owner of the Party rather than its leader.

In any democratic party, far-reaching changes of the kind announced by Mr Miliband are for the members (individual and affiliated) to decide after proper deliberation in accordance with the rules and procedures of the party. They are not matters to be imposed by a leader who seems to have an uncertain grasp not only of his obligations as leader, but also of the nature of the Party he leads.

It is now for the Party to decide whether the changes proposed are acceptable, and this ought to be done BEFORE Lord Collins of Highbury begins the work he has been engaged by the leader to undertake. The best place for that to be done would be Party conference this year, where the Party can make it known to the leader whether or not he has crossed the line.

In my view, a gauntlet has been thrown at the feet of the trade union leaders. They can meekly accept and surrender the Party they created. Or they can stand together to defend it, in the courts if necessary, in the event of changes being imposed to the structure of the Party in a way that is contrary to its rules and constitution, which are legally binding documents.

At the heart of Party structure is the principle of ‘collective affiliation’, whereby trade unions (not trade unionists) are members of the Party, with membership being based on the number of political levy paying members. It is a form of membership that informs every aspect of Party organization, from the CLP to the PLP, from the NEC to Conference.

Collective affiliation is a historic principle of continuing contemporary importance. It was not necessary for Mr Miliband to sell the soul of the Party to protect himself from another beating by Cameron at PMQs. The case he made for the Labour Party’s links with the trade unions – on the day after his fateful speech – was an eloquent one, and should have been used to defend the constitution rather than dismantle it.

It is now open to trade union general secretaries to make it clear that what is being done is unacceptable. Their relationship with the Party is perfectly legitimate and they should not allow themselves to be pushed out. It is their party. If there are those in the Party who are uncomfortable with trade unions as bedfellows, they should feel free to leave and to form another party.

In making it clear that they are not prepared to be cuckolded in this way, it is also open to trade union general secretaries to make clear that they will not stand back and watch their Party being turned into a pale shadow of the US Democrats, first stripped of its democratic socialist ideology, and now stripped of its historic labour movement membership.

That is only the half of it, The other offensive aspect of Mr Miliband’s speech is the equal contempt it reveals for the affiliated trade unions, as members of the Party, along with the contempt shown for individual trade unionists, who are expected to go along with these proposals without even having been consulted in advance of the changes having been announced.

Mr Miliband appears to have bought the Tory line about big union bosses hook, line and sinker. But had he any experience of the Movement he purports to lead, he would have known that his proposals are not in the gift of general secretaries to deliver. Trade unions are democratic organisations, in which – unlike the Labour Party – the views of members cannot be so casually denied.

There are more than a dozen unions now affiliated to the Party they created over 100 years ago, and which at least in 1945 delivered an outstanding government. It will be for each of these unions to decide whether or not they accept the new relationship proposed by Mr Miliband. Some may quite rightly see the announced termination of collective membership as a form of constructive dismissal, and respond accordingly.

But however they respond, this is a matter that will have to be considered by each trade union individually. Unfortunately for Mr Miliband, there is no reason to believe that the executive committees or conferences of every union will agree with these proposals, or that they will agree to amend their rules to set up the machinery necessary to make them work, whatever Lord Collins determines they should be.

Nor is there any reason why they should. At a stroke Mr Miliband has liberated trade union political funds, putting millions of pounds of pocket money annually at the disposal of general secretaries and executive committees, to engage in political work that is not Labour party oriented. Once the habit develops of spending money in this way, it will be hard to break.

Mr Miliband’s nightmare goes on. The idea that trade union members will want to become associate members of the Labour Party rather than members of organizations associated with the Labour Party betrays if not naïve optimism then extraordinary hubris. And so does the idea that trade union general secretaries and executives will allow themselves simply to become recruiting sergeants for Labour.

But even if they did, how is a diminished trade union role going to pay the bills for all the national, constituency, and electoral work of the Party? The first duty of the leader of the Labour Party is to ensure its survival. We can only assume that these calculations have been made and that the figures are available. The sooner they are released the better.

Responsibility for this disaster is Mr Miliband’s, and his alone. But it is a disaster that could be avoided by the mobilisation of the affiliated trade unions eschewing self-interest by working together in solidarity, along with the CLPs equally dismayed by what is going on. Mr Miliband has reminded us of a form of politics that we thought had passed. We need to ensure that it has.

Why? Because a coherent trade union political strategy can best be served by working within a political party that has a chance of forming the government. The strength of our voice within that party will depend not only on the resources we devote to it, but also on the political skills we are able to deploy. Miliband has landed a political blow. But this is not the time to walk away from a political fight.

5 Comments

  1. Rob the cripple says:

    I take it then Labour will not be asking the Unions for donation, I know the GMB and UNITE, have stated they would not be giving all the Levy this time as they intended to use it for it’s own political training program, the GMB had already cut £500,000 from it’s donations not sure about Unite.

    Maybe this is Labour saying well if your cutting all the funding we will do it alone, which will be interesting.

    With many members now looking at the Labour party in the same way they look at the Tories these days, with Labour stating they would keep to the 1% wage freeze.

    It is time that Unions decided to vote on staying in, disaffiliation, we tried it a few years ago and was told point blank that no structure existed in the Union to even discuss this, maybe they should put in the rules and regulations for us to discuss it.

    We all know in the past to many Union officials saw the Labour party as a means of making more money, we knew for example some officials were on a number of committees within the Labour party, then became advisers to the labour party which was a paid appointment, this should not be done, because it means that officials are then basically paid not to call strikes or to make decision at Union level.

    Unions need to grow they need to have more highly trained highly skilled people in work places to get members, at the moment if a shop like Tesco was to strike the majority of people would cross a picket line because not enough are members. same in some factories we are not seeing councils strikes even thought thousand are being sacked.

    I know Thatcher hit the Union hard, but surely Union should be aiming to grow now and maybe it’s time to actually dump this idea labour is anything other then a political party out for it’s own ends not the working class, Labour own words are not working class but hard working and the squeezed middle class.

    Labour is not even interested in the Unions did not Miliband cross a picket line while in Wales only a number of Tories did this when a strike occurred at the Assembly, not one Labour party member crossed the line, but we have a Labour party in Wales what we have in London is New Labour pretending to be something else but it’s obvious now it’s a progress run party with a weak oh so weak leader.

  2. Rod says:

    Well said Rob.

    The Progress Party, as the beneficiaries of numerous safe-seat stitch-ups, must be gleefully rubbing their hands. Once the Union link is removed/diminished the way will be clear for a complete Progress take-over.

    And all this achieved via a secret report seen by hardly anyone!

    Progress Labour will enjoy launching fund-raising initiatives around the City of London – business priorities can be discussed before cheques are signed. And having expressed his approval, Blair will doubtlessly be wanting to put his money where his mouth is.

    It’s now time for the Unions to realise which way the wind is blowing and begin to prepare an alternative.

  3. John Reid says:

    Rod, pure comedy gold,

  4. Rod says:

    @John

    Agree entirely.

    Plans are already in hand* and these clowns think think they have political credibility!

    A novelist would be too embarrassed to make it up.

    * http://www.progressonline.org.uk/2012/02/06/a-new-%E2%80%98prawn-cocktail%E2%80%99-offensive/

  5. lawrence white says:

    with david cameron leading his minority tory government in the most successful tory legislation ever…the labour party has the best,the most positive opportunity ever to take back the government.
    but both unions and party MUST work together, to achieve that goal.

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