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Our union link: the status quo is worth defending

Save the Labour-Union LinkThe conciliatory tone of Len McCluskey’s recent speech on the Labour Party, and Ed Miliband’s proposed reforms, should be welcomed, as it steps away from escalating what seemed to be a growing crisis. There has been a witch hunt atmosphere surrounding Unite, that we need to defuse. Len says:

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.

However, I am sure that many activists in the unions, and the centre left of the party, will have concerns about some of the content of Len’s speech, for example where he says:

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 Our special relationship didn’t get the union laws repealed.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.

Firstly, the record of the last Labour governments was not as bleak as Len seems to be painting it.

By 2010, there were 41000 more teachers and 120000 more teaching assistants than in 1997, 80000 more nurses and 44000 more doctors, and 4.5 million families received tax credits of an average £65 per week.

There was meaningful devolution to Scotland and Wales, the abolition of Clause 28, the introduction of civil partnerships, Sure Start, paternity rights, improved maternity rights, a right to Trade Union representation at work, a statutory route to union recognition, the minimum wage, expansion of the NHS, the school building programme, a vast increase of NHS and school staff, the working time directive, working tax credits, family credits, and more. Not to mention an end to the war in Ireland, and the start of a meaningful peace process.

The problem was not that the Labour government did not do good things, and indeed in many areas did good things that the unions had advocated and supported; but that policy delivery was patchy. In significant areas, such as housing, there was a failure to grasp a growing social crisis for working people, and those on modest income. Also, the expenses scandal revealed a growing distance between many politicians and those they represent.

The areas of failure were linked to the accelerating professionalisation of politics: with too many careerists seeing time in Portculis House working for an MP as an apprenticeship, the fast track of special advisors, and the increasing preference for spin over content. Had more Labour MPs during the last government had friends, former workmates and family members on waiting lists for social housing, then they would have personally felt the scale of the problem. Instead too many of them were more concerned with their own second home allowances.

Unite along with other unions has been trying to redress that balance in the current round of selections; and it is clear that the furore over Falkirk has to an extent been an opportunist counter attack by the Blairite right; and that sadly Ed Miliband has seemingly walked into a minefield.

My concern is that Len McCluskey doesn’t seem to value enough some of the positive aspects of the status quo, and how it creates an organic bond between the unions, and the party; and that through this bond – imperfect as it is – the collective aspirations of millions of trade union members, and their families and communities, find voice in the party.

The parts of the relationship to value are the inclusion of delegates from the affiliates in the National Policy Forum, the Regional Boards, the NEC, the Local Campaign Forums, National Constitutional Committee, and elsewhere. Currently the union representatives on these bodies reflect the collective and representative democracy of the affiliates, and thus the decision making processes of the unions, and the policy objectives that flow from those decisions, are directly brought into the party.

The 50% vote at conference may be talismanic to the right wing, but the unions have not used this to dictate policy; its value is that it guarantees that the constitution and governance of the party cannot be irrevocably changed without the unions’ consent.

The danger of embracing the idea, as Len seems to be coming close to, of union members individually opting into a form of membership-lite, is that the reduced affiliation will make it hard to justify the continuation of the unions’ role in the party.

The model that Len seems to accept on principle, of affiliating a much smaller number of members, and then using the extra money to gain leverage effectively on a payment by results basis, is fraught with danger. Not least because it is less democratic and transparent than the current arrangement. Spending more money on campaigns is a good thing, but we want the unions to keep a seat at the table, rather than the alternatives of being outside with a placard and a megaphone, or queuing with our chequebook alongside the corporate lobbyists.

As Len says, the opposition of the trade unions to the Iraq war did not stop it happening, but it was not only the institutional presence of the unions within the party that failed to stop the war; the mass popular campaign with two million on the streets also failed to stop it. So we should not assume that money spent on campaigning will be more effective than money spent on affiliation fees.

Trade unions are pragmatic organisations that seek to promote the interests of our members through all avenues open to us. The Labour Party is able to form governments, and therefore this concerns the question of access to the power to implement the policies we want to see; but importantly it is the participation of the unions in the party’s  structures that makes our influence accountable and democratically defensible in a pluralist society. Union money is clean money, and union votes within the Labour Party are transparent and democratic: this is much better than the closed world of corporate donations, and the shady business of professional lobbyists.

Participation in the Labour Party is one avenue among many that trade unions can use to promote our objectives, and in the same way that industrial campaigns rarely result in either total victory or total defeat, our participation in the party will not give us everything we want. The compromises required by the coalitional demands of electoral politics are not alien to the spirit of industrial relations.

What is currently needed over the consultation period is to find a win-win solution that both allows individual trade unionists to opt in to more meaningful engagement with the party, as Ed Miliband wants; and which also preserves and reinforces the positive aspects of the status quo: the participation of trade unions on a collective basis, that acknowledges that unions are democratic institutions in our own right, and that our members trust us to represent their interests collectively, as well as individually, and on that basis have a voice within the party.


  1. Rod says:

    A win-win solution would be a sensible non-elitist Party presenting an alternative to the Tory policies now favoured by Labour.

    The electoral threat presented by such a party would compel Labour to come to its senses and re-connect with reality – that’s win number one.

    Also, trade unionists, and others, would be provided with an opportunity for meaningful engagement with politics without being continually blocked by the lobbyist/communication consultant/careerist clones who now crowd Labour’s top table – that’s win number two.

  2. Johnny says:

    There is a non elitist party representing alternative policies to the Tories, they are called the Greens.

  3. peter willsman says:

    Andy is spot on.A lot of comrades are working very hard to put together a win-win solution.There is a lot of goodwill in the Unions and CLPs to find a way forward to keep our party as the party of the organised working class and not the SDP Mark2.At the moment there is a lot of muddled and extreme wishful thinking.Party members need to go on Your Britain website and register their concerns.Indeed anyone who is concerned that we are looking inwards instead of fully focusing on fighting the Tories.We will be using LeftFutures to develop the strategy and set out the win-win way forward when it is more fully worked up.Keep watching!!Yours in comradeship Peter Willsman

  4. These events could result in two things:
    1. Labour’s electoral power is greatly diminished and a newer working class anti-austerity party emerges.
    2. The trade unions force Labour to rethink their agenda and become a real leftist party again.

    The trade unions haven’t abandoned workers on the ground floor and I’m glad we’ve got a real opposition fighting for ordinary people here in the UK.

  5. Rod says:

    Peter Willsman: “At the moment there is a lot of muddled and extreme wishful thinking.”

    “Muddled” and “extreme” is a fair description of Murphy’s plan for permanent war*. If there’s a way to elect a Labour government without elevating people like Murphy to positions of power let’s hear it.

    At least Blair, with his promise of a ‘stakeholder economy’, offered a politics of hope and achieved wide appeal – even if, once in office, the promise was forgotten. But Miliband’s despairingly untalented front bench can only manage an attempt at a replication and multiplication of Blair’s major disaster.


  6. peter Davies says:

    It’s all pie in the sky. The affilaition, in financial terms has been broken. The membership and their branches as well as Executive Committees are all of the same opinion now; Miliband has overplayed his ‘Bash the Unions’ card and the money tap has, in effect, been turned off. Sadly, nobody really knows what is going to happen next.

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