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After Collins: how will the unions respond?

Ed Miliband with Durham Miners Gala in backgroundThere is certainly a plausible argument that Ed Miliband has been one of the most effective leaders of the opposition in modern British history, demonstrating an ability to set the political agenda that exceeds what either Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair achieved from the opposition benches. Miliband has stood up to the power of the Murdoch press, he has stood up to the energy companies, he has set the public agenda over bankers bonuses, and over the cost of living crisis facing ordinary people.

The next general election poses a stark choice between a Cameron government that will further degrade Britain’s economy and social fabric; or a Labour government under Ed Miliband that will seek to reverse that decline. Not only would a Labour government led by Ed Miliband be a fairer and better place than one led by the Conservatives, but there are signs that Labour is beginning to develop a transformative outlook that will seek to build the economy on a broader and more sustainable basis than we have seen for many years.

I have no reservations in recommending that every trade unionist should vote Labour, and that the unions, whether affiliated to the Labour Party or not, have an interest in promoting a Labour victory.

I have no intention in commenting at this stage on the events in the Falkirk selection; but for whatever reason, Ed Miliband sought to use that controversy to remould the Labour Party to reconfigure the relationship with the trade unions.

Yesterday, (with only two votes against) the Party’s NEC voted to accept the Collins proposals, which if endorsed by the special conference on 1st March, will in my view start an unstoppable toboggan ride.

The question is how will the unions (and indeed how should they) respond? Firstly there is an obvious point that each trade union has its own decision making structures and processes, and each will make their own decision. From my understanding the only union that made a submission to the Collins review in favour of the reforms was Community. To one degree or another, every other union expressed some or many reservations.

My judgment, based upon my own experience as a GMB activist, is that few trade union members will choose to opt in under the terms envisaged by the Collins proposals, and that party funding from the trade unions will therefore be reduced to perhaps 10% of its current levels.

I suspect that within many unions the sentiment may be expressed that there is no point in staying in a marriage where your spouse wants a divorce. Kevin Maguire writing in the Daily Mirror outlined the argument.

But Miliband can do his job and union leaders can negotiate policies for donations rather than handing over millions of pounds in return for sniping and ingratitude. The party over the past few decades got more out of the link than the unions. A prominent Labour figure, a supporter of party ties, told me it was ¬frustrating that ¬unaffiliated unions such as the teachers, cops and nurses were courted while ¬affiliated unions were vilified. A Labour MP, a champion of the union link, ¬whispered that he was afraid Ed is opening a Pandora’s box.

Left-wing unions ¬withholding up to £4million from Labour under a new ¬membership system, he said, would have the resources to fund a rival party. Creating a UKIP of the Left would be self-defeating for indulgent unions, with Tories the only winners if a weakened Labour is electorally drained. The challenge for independent unions would be to issue bold agendas and seek to radicalise Labour from the outside, instead of swallowing abuse on the inside.

For the Labour Party, the loss of union affiliation would not only be financially damaging, but would endanger a link with some 3 million people, and with tens of thousands of activists who broadly share the party’s values. The route for union activists to participate in party structures also brings in valuable experience and talent from individuals whose trade union commitments mean that they don’t have the time for participating regularly in their CLP.

However, from the unions’ perspective, it is necessary to reflect on whether non-affiliated unions have as much influence as affiliated ones, and whether the mechanism by which, for example, American unions directly pursue their own policy agendas without mediation through a political party, and engage with sympathetic politicians as individuals, is worth pursuing.

This post first appeared on Socialist Unity


  1. Chris says:

    I think this basically amounts to the murder of the party. Or suicide, I guess.

  2. Chris says:

    To expand on that, without the unions Labour cannot be a workers’ party. It will be a normal, bourgeois party like the Tories or Lib Dems and I imagine its policies will become ever more indistinguishable from theirs.

  3. P Spence says:

    A disaster for working class representation. More TUs will disaffiliate and evolve political positions independent of the Party. It will make a new Left party potentially more viable as the bourgeois elite continue to destroy working class gains out of class necessity as capitalism’s failures aggravate in coming years.

  4. John reid says:

    It’s unrealistic to say that this is more than Blair achieved, 4 major unions stopped funding labour or had their donations suspended, due to backing other political parties in 2005′ those unions mostly have started funding labour again,

  5. Dave Roberts says:

    John Reid. I must have ad the telly turned off about those unions backing other political parties. Which were the unions and parties?

  6. Alex says:


    The only major unions I can think of are RMT and the FBU. Not sure about any of the others.

  7. John Reid says:

    Dave, Rmt union funded the . scottish socialist party in 2005 and as such were expelled from also funding Labour, in 2012 tom Watson, suggested they comeback to fund us.

    I think there was so thing similar for PCS and their links To LRC

  8. swatantra says:

    I think they’ll take it on the chin, and get thousands of their members signed up to the Party membership, and continue to dominate the CLPs and the Selection/Election process. So, no change there then. Call it ‘entryism’ by another name, if you like.

  9. Robert says:

    Yea swat of course they will.

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