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Yes to a union voice, no to state funding

State funding no thanksJuly has been a hot month. It has been especially hot in the hothouse world of Westminster politics, where lobby hacks mix with media savvy politicians, stories and plots are hatched and exposed. In the immediate aftermath of Ed Miliband’s shock announcement that in future he wanted Labour’s affiliated members to ‘opt in’ to party membership, one GMB official was reported to have said; “How did we get from Falkirk to here in only ten days?”

It is a good question and one that I don’t think has been answered. It may be that few are actually in a position to answer fully  just yet, but there are straws in the wind and little in politics happens by chance.

As soon as I heard that Lord Mandelson of Foy had taken some time away from his money to address a meeting of the neo-liberal Progress Group, and talk about the selection process in Falkirk, I smelled a rat. Why in earth would Mandelson be taking an interest in a selection contest in industrial Scotland if both he and his allies didn’t see an opportunity to push on the trade unions?

When I spotted Mandelson a few days later in the company of a former union leader turned union critic, Alan Johnson, my senses were accentuated further.  When a local selection storm in a tea cup became national news, I knew there was something up. It didn’t matter that Mandelson himself has been involved in so many dodgy selection procedures, and that the rank hypocrisy of his charges rankled all the more because the media were deliberately turning a blind eye. What mattered was what I have christened A very Blairite Coup, in deference to Chris Mullin’s Very British Coup, appeared to be underway.

The intensity of the attacks on the union ‘barons’, the supposition of guilt maintained by countless commentators who had never seen a word of the internal Labour Party report, suggested that high stakes were being played for. My own view, for what it is worth is that Ed Miliband was almost stampeded into a course of action that could yet immolate the Labour Party financially.

But why have the Blairites decided to play for such high stakes, to risk all on a gamble that might not work and to reopen a whole series of wounds that had begun to heel under Ed’s leadership?  For a start many of them have still not forgiven Ed for defeating his brother, and they have certainly not forgotten the role of the unions in helping him to do that. Throughout the recent period they have given every encouragement to their friends in Fleet Street to carp and de-stabilise Labour’s leadership. I believe that they, and their organisation Progress, are not looking towards this election, but the election following.

By this time they hope that a number of their strategic objectives will have been reached. Firstly the collective voice of the affiliated unions will have been broken and with it the unions financial dominance over the party. Secondly, and as lucidly set out by a former Blair aide recently returned from Australia, John McTernan in the Daily Telegraph recently, there are over a thousand former New Labour apparatchiks in top jobs as a result of their links with Messrs Blair and Brown.

According to McTernan some of these figures could offset the money lost from the donations – perhaps even Tony Blair himself with his estimated £25 million fortune. With money like that, who knows, Blair could even be harbouring plans for some political return?  And thirdly there is state funding of political parties.

Some in the Labour Party hope that a deal with the Tories that restricts and records donations more opaquely could in turn lead to a substantial increase in state funding. There is after all some limited state funding in progress through the Short Money at present (£6.5m this year).  State funding would not be popular with the public but when set against an everlasting tale of woe involving shady corporate donors, this could be seen as the least bad option.

Of course State funding would mark a victory for the professional politicians, as they haul each other up the ladder into Westminster. With State funding there is less need for members of parties, or the need to build membership in order to increase subscriptions. The job is simply done for them, and without the necessity of trade union general secretaries, needy party members and all of the paraphernalia of what we have come to know as a our democracy.

This then is why I believe Falkirk will come to be seen to symbolise a key moment in British 21st century British politics. For it may also be come to seen as the last time trade unions actively tried locally to recruit their members to re-build a party that had become hollowed out under Blair and Mandelson.

This makes the coming weeks hugely important. We do not want state funding of parties by the back door, nor do we want the collective voice of trade unions individualised into near insignificance. It is surely important that by the time of the TUC and Labour Party conferences, the unions and the constituencies come together to see how we can maintain the federal, democratic nature of the Labour Party. And this should surely continue to take place in a way that helps Ed Miliband broaden the appeal of the party, while maintaining its essential core.


  1. James Martin says:

    Yes Mark, but you are assuming that Milliband minor isn’t now in on the original aim of the Blair and Mandelson ‘project’ which was to destroy influence of both socialists and organised labour within the Party. Blair’s stupidity over Iraq prevented him from completing what he had started, but would it be so strange that Milliband has been pulled into the plotters fold?

    Certainly the only time I have seen him really angry (literally frothing at the mouth in some of the Falkirk interviews the other week), was when he was attacking a trade union (who so far has not even been proved to have actually done anything wrong). If only he got so worked up about the huge attacks on working class people through mass unemployment, the driving down of wages, benefit cuts, the destruction of state education, the creeping privatisation of the NHS and the bedroom tax. If only…

  2. John says:

    James,everyone who’s a activist is organised labour in the party, in the days of the closed shop, whee everyone had to join a union,and all unions gave money to the Labour Party, that was state funding,

  3. Robert says:

    John god you talk some rubbish mate how can the Unions donation even in the days of the closed shops be state funding.

    I’m all for Labour and the Tories getting donation from members , problem is if people in Unions want to be members of the Labour party they can be , but being a member of a Union I’m not in any way shape of form a labour member not even by association.

    Not until Labour gets it policies right and sadly Miliband’s not the bloke to do this Blair is now running the internal party

  4. solarman says:

    I can only agree with you about the speed of this move. Originally I did think Ed had been bounced by Cameron but now think that he was waiting to seize the moment with both hands.

    I see it as quite a good thing though. Surely it gives the unions a double influence over labour. They have individual members to influence at local level and they have most of the political levy as a war chest to fund the development of their own desired policies.

    If there is as much scheming as you think there is then this is going to happen.

  5. Tom Blackburn says:

    By attacking Unite, what Miliband has done is bring the question of disaffiliation from the left fringes of the trade unions closer to the mainstream. The Labour leadership’s hysterical response to Falkirk – after decades of tolerating right-wing stitch-ups with barely a murmur of complaint – just goes to show that any challenge from the left will be stamped out as soon as it looks like it might amount to anything.

    Labour stands to lose a massive amount of money from this (assuming Miliband gets his way). Given the widespread public antipathy towards the major parties, I don’t think state funding is a goer – it seems more likely to me that Labour will have to move further right to attract more business funding if it’s to make up the shortfall. Naturally this suits the Blairites, because Labour’s transformation into the British equivalent of the US Democrats will be more or less complete.

  6. Rod says:

    “Ed Miliband was almost stampeded”

    If Ed Miliband allowed himself to be almost stampeded how do you think he would manage as PM if asked by a US President to assist in an unnecessary invasion of another country?

    If Ed Miliband crumbles when put under pressure by the Progress Tendency then let’s hope he never becomes PM.

    Of course, there is an alternative view: that Miliband wasn’t “almost stampeded” but, and this seems much more likely, Ed Miliband actually initiated then led the stampede.

  7. John says:

    Robert , we are society, in the closed shop day you had to joins union, that union had to give money to labour, if you refused to join a union,you were sacked from your job ,weren’t entitled to unemployment benefit, there fore you had to join a union, so that way the state made you give money to the Labour Party,

    I really don’t think Blair has any influence on Labour, other than there’s re enough in the party who admire him, that Ed knows he has to keep them on check, as they’re popular with the wider electorate,

    That’s how, see a Open mind and its not rubbish ph at all, and you didn’t have to ask God, you could have just asked me,my friend,

  8. Robert says:

    John your on drugs mate, nothing else can explain some of your tripe mate

  9. ” in the closed shop day you had to joins union, that union had to give money to labour, if you refused to join a union,you were sacked from your job, weren’t entitled to unemployment benefit”


    I’m hoping your only ten years old for the above is such shit, I feel you are confusing back then with today when benefits are stopped at the drop of a hate.

    No ones benefits would have been stopped for not joining a trade union, that is plain daft. But why would someone not wish to join a union, it was the reason wages and working conditions were far better back then than they are today. Its also why the Tories Lib Dems and Blairites hate the public sector like the plague, its because its workers have maintained their union shops.

    The reason workers despised folk who refused to join unions was because they surfed on our backs, they accepted the pay and conditions negotiated by union members, but did not wish to put their hand in their pocket.

    Besides, your argument falls flat, you appear to be saying workers had a right not to join a union, but this works both ways, workers who were trade union members had a right to refuse to work alongside them.

    In truth as a union member, shop steward and convenor, I never came across anyone who refused to join a union, most were keen, as they understood the value of trade union membership.

    They were not wrong now were they, look out the window, smell the coffee, check out wages and working conditions today.

  10. John says:

    FerryBridge 6,refused to join a union were sacked , weren’t entitled to unemployment benefit,

  11. Kevin says:

    You should get your tin foil hat ready Mark, I hear the Blairites are now planning on controlling selections through.

    Maybe, juuuuust maybe, the reason Ed Miliband, people across the party, the press and the public have reacted so strongly to the Falkirk stitch-up is because Unite, a large and important national organisation and Labour’s biggest donor, is accused of breaking the law in its attempt to fix the selection for its favoured candidate. A huge accusation.

    Maybe all the claims of back room plots, attempts to keep working-class candidates out of parliament (although often the people making these claims don’t seem too keen on Alan Johnson, while holding great reverence for Michael Meacher and Tony Benn, neither of whom could be called horny-handed sons of toil) are a diversion, and the defence that ‘everyone is up to it’ is both disingenuous (there has been no suggestion that other organisations are signing people up without their knowledge) and, in any case, an admission of guilt in trying to fix it.

    Unite got caught fixing in a manner above and beyond the usual rough and tumble of selections, and possibly illegally so. This was wrong, and their leadership shouldn’t get angry because someone pointed this out. Their hysterical reaction only subsided when there were no toys left in the pram to throw and it only served to highlight the perception that union bosses thought they could tell Ed Miliband what to do and act with impunity within the party. They don’t and they can’t, and Ed’s response is an attempt to demonstrate this to the public, which would not only deal with this problem but also to possibly begin address his catastrophically bad poll ratings on leadership and weakness.

    If Falkirk hadn’t happened, this wouldn’t be up for discussion. Blairites don’t even have potato gun in today’s Labour Party, it’s Unite who have shot themselves in the foot.

    And if it’s just conspiracy theories you’re after, this is ok, but Michael Meacher on 9/11 is much better.

    1. Jon Lansman says:

      “There has been no suggestion that other organisations are signing people up without their knowledge”, says Kevin. Untrue. I suggested it here:

      It isn’t right to sign up family members to a political party without their knowledge but it undoubtedly happens in every winnable constituency in the country in every party. It clearly isn’t what Unite intended, and you can’t expect Unite’s leaders to have been aware that it happened.

      Kenin adds: “Unite got caught fixing in a manner above and beyond the usual rough and tumble of selections, and possibly illegally so.” Also untrue. According to Seumas Milne in the Guardian, Unite “isn’t held directly responsible in the report”.

      Kevin’s final words have been deleted as they are offensive to a contributor and contrary to the comments policy.

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