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The union link and challenging inequalities of wealth and power

unions togetherThe controversy over the Falkirk West selection reached a new level over the weekend with article in the Observer by Ed Miliband calling for the link with the unions to be “mended not broken”, and Unite’s General Secretary, Len McCluskey, writing in the Sunday Mirror to explain the important context:

If your son or daughter fancies becoming a Labour MP, forget it. They have more chance of cleaning in the Commons than being elected to it. That is what the row over Labour selection procedures is really about – who can play a part in our politics. Today, Parliament is increasingly the preserve of an out-of-touch elite – Oxbridge-educated special advisers who glide from university to think tank to the green benches without ever sniffing the air of the real world.

That is what Unite is trying to change. We want to give our democracy back to ordinary working people. We say they need to be given a fair crack of the whip in the Labour Party in particular – the Party that was founded to represent working people, because the establishment of a century ago ignored them.

The Party that wants to make Britain a fairer place should start by putting its own house in order. That is what caused the Falkirk argument.

Unite was working completely within the rules to secure the selection of a working-class woman as Labour candidate, someone with 30 years membership of the Party. That has upset those who are more used to parachuting favoured candidates into safe Labour seats on a you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch yours basis.

Michael Meacher argues persuasively that

It’s time to quieten down over Falkirk and await the true facts now that Ed Miliband has referred the whole matter to the police. As long as this row goes on, it only benefits two interests. One is the Blairites who have been seeking to break the link with the union for the last two decades, and now see this as their best opportunity by painting McCluskey as a union autocrat who needs to be brought down by Miliband in a show of strength – as though they themselves are the innocents who’ve never resorted to shady or illicit manoeuvres to stuff the PLP with their own kind. The other is of course the Tories for whom this episode is manna from heaven, giving them endless opportunity to berate Labour as the cat’s paw of the unions – as though they themselves are not firmly in the pay of the banks for whom they provide far more favours than Labour has ever done for the unions.

Robust defences of the union link with the Labour Party have been written by Ian Lavery,Mark FergusonOwen Smith and Jim Sheridan.

The value of the trade union link to the Labour Party cannot be overstated as it is central to the distinction between labourism and liberalism. The Liberal ideological tradition rest upon individualism, and the belief that as John Stuart Mill puts it:

The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental or spiritual.”

The Liberals, and their co-thinkers in the Labour Party, see organised labour and trade unions as just another vested interest, a force of conservatism, and a constraint upon liberty.

But political liberty also masks inequality of power. Regarding every citizen as legally equal is an important principle of the rule of law, and must be defended and promoted.

But the fiction that influence in a democracy is based only on individual voting gives equal weight to the vote of the CEO of a multinational corporation and the person who cleans their office; everyone has an equal legal right to found a newspaper, whether they are a billionaire executive of a vast corporation, or an unemployed single parent living on benefits. The employment contract uses the legal fiction of an agreement between equals, but in real life the power of the relationship lies with the employer when faced with an individual worker.

Liberalism does not address the structural inequality of power that derives from inequality of wealth.

In stark contrast, the mainstream values of our labour movement, both for good and ill, derive from the experience of collective organisation. Our values, the values of solidarity, of advocacy for the poor and disadvantaged, of fighting against inequality and privilege, are built upon the rock of the trade unions. It is through trade unions forming collectives of mutual support and communities of solidarity that the inequal imbalance of power in the workplace is addressed.

Trade unionism is also married to the strong ethical tradition within labourism, from R H Tawney to Tony Benn that rejects the self interest of the liberal tradition. For example, the astute observation of RH Tawney is that liberty is related to equality. If freedom is defined as absence of restraint, then liberty promotes inequality, because the more powerful in our society have less constraints upon them, and the majority of the population will always be unfree.

For Tawney, true liberty is the freedom to act positively for the benefit of the community, and being empowered to resist the tyrannical demands of the rich and powerful. Trade unionism is therefore inherently virtuous through being founded upon collectivity and mutual support, rather than individualism and personal acquisitiveness.

At the heart of labourism, the Labour Party at its best, is the aspiration to use legislation and government influence to redress inequality, in a complementary way to that which trade unions use industrial organisation and political campaigning.

Trade unions with 6.5 million members, more than 3 million of them in unions affiliated to the Labour Party, are inherently modern institutions that have to relate to the contemporary reality of the world of work. Although unions obviously rest on iconography and traditions of the past to help create a sense of community and purpose among activists, trade unions succeed or fail on their ability to address the current issues affecting their members.

Successful trade unions have mature mechanisms for relating to their millions of members, through thousands of shop stewards, through branch structures and lay member democracy, and through committees and decision making bodies who take their tasks very seriously.

The value of the unions to the party does not just lie with the individuals who are members of the unions, or even with the affiliation monies. The greater value is with the ethical and moral foundation of trade unionism that, at its best, informs the Labour Party’s own sense of purpose; and linkeage to the institutional strength and mechanisms of the trade unions that allow unions to collectively understand the interests of their millions of members, and to provide those members with representation and advocacy.

It is important to understand that the relationship that unions have with their members relies upon activists who have their own cycle of meetings and activity that runs parallel to the Labour Party’s own structures. Any “mending” of the relationship between the unions and the party has to continue to respect the representative democracy of the unions, and recognise that trade union activists have a lot to offer the party, but that the affiliates need their separate voice.

This post first appeared at Socialist Unity

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