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Individual trade unionists are being offered no influence. Just like party members

Ed at TUC 2013At the end of Ed’s speech at this week’s TUC, most delegates clapped politely, as befits the person they’d prefer to be the next prime minister. But there was no enthusiasm. Trade union delegates feel misunderstood and unwanted. and it is not surprising.

Ed talked of a “new relationship with individual trade union members“. That desire is of course shared. New Labour clearly regarded trade unions as an embarrassment. In truth the Blairites preferred dealing with the senior management of multi-national companies with whom they had more in common, politically and socially, than with the workers or their representatives.

Ed does appear to be genuine in wanting a mass working class base for Labour. What he appears to lack is an understanding of what trade unions are for and how they work, of the rationale for collectivism and the basis of solidarity. Ed understands that falling living standards is a central issue but this also explains why he appears to see no role for trade unions in raising them, nor for a Labour government in helping them do so.

I don’t know whether many trade unionists sat around Ralph Miliband’s dinner table but young Ed’s mum and dad definitely made an error in sending him to work in Tony Benn’s basement office in the summer holidays rather than suggesting McDonalds or Tesco.

Some people ask: what’s wrong with the current system? Let me tell them: we have three million working men and women affiliated to our party. But the vast majority play no role in our party. They are affiliated in name only. That wasn’t the vision of the founders of our party.

So said Ed in Bournemouth. The truth is that the vast majority of trade union members normally play no active role in their trade union either. But they they pay their subs, and they support and value their trade union. They do turn to it when they need help, they do place some trust in it and they do respond to its calls when they can see that what they are being asked to do can make a difference.

Unfortunately, though Labour supporters outnumber those of all other parties put together, trade unionists support for and commitment to Labour is much weaker than for their union. But they do at least contribute to their union’s political fund and they do want their union to speak and act on their behalf politically as well as industrially (as did 87% of those who voted in this year’s Unite ballot, for example).

We should remember too that most Labour members “play no role in our party” though they may have opted into membership. They contribute financially Some may occasionally help out in a general election or use their vote in an occasional internal election or selection. A small minority do the rest of the work.

What party members don’t have is any influence over party policy. And please don’t mention Your Britain. Just find me a few members of Labour’s national policy forum who feel that their membership has been a productive use of their time since Ed told us “members should have more say in policy making.” I can’t find any and I talk to plenty.

So what Ed is offering individual trade unionists is no influence. Equality with individual party members maybe, but attractive enough to recruit 300,000 trade unionists? I don’t think so. They want their trade union to exercise influence on their behalf. In the continuing absence of any real internal party democracy, trade unions have sought to exercise that influence collectively though negotiation — alongside national policy forum meetings at Warwick.

Ed Miliband, I am told, complains that the trade unions are confrontational. Perhaps he needs to reflect on how much less confrontational his relations with them might be if (a) he didn’t attack them without due cause like he did over Falkirk and in the proposals and (b) if trade union delegates were allowed vote at pLabour’s conference alongside constituency delegates on policy statements from a genuinely participative national policy forum which proposed coherent options that reflected significant bodies of opinion within the party.

Perhaps Ed should pay attention to this view:

I was brought up to believe that the Labour movement has real power to change the injustices in society. The trade unions are key to this. They are often at the heart of that fight and Labour’s link with working people through the trade unions is a fundamental part of our mission. Crucially, it allows Labour to be connected to the lives of millions of working people and provides a key communication link between the leadership and the grassroots. As leader I will defend this link. I want to see more people join trade unions – it’s a real shame that the private sector has such a low level of trade union membership.

It isn’t enough to attract more working class members into the party, important though this objective is. Even if we were to attract 300,000 more as Ed hopes. The trade unions are a real channel of communication with millions. With help from a Labour government, they could be a channel to millions more. And help raise living standards and thereby grow the economy. And whose view was this?

Ed’s, of course.


  1. Rob the cripple says:

    So your saying E MIliband is not New labour, one thing saying it’s dead another proving it.

    Listening to Labour state the hard working and then listening to Cameron yesterday saying hard working it hard to tell then difference between the two leaders.

    The fact is Ed has been more New Labour and Blairite then he knows he is always attacking the sick the disabled and the poor telling us he would cap rises, what even if two years time the Tories bring back the good life, he keep telling us he cannot say anything about the bed room tax because well he does not know what it will be like, but he does know that the sick the disabled and the unemployed will need benefits capping.

  2. Why is Anne Maguire hosting ‘New Thinking on The Welfare State’ by Right-wing corporate lobbyist group REFORM? See this excellent expose by Open Democracy. Labour is dead! Long live Left Unity!

  3. John p Reid says:

    But many party members who only do what you say ,do it as volunteers, trade union membership, even if we choose to be affiliated with labour, do it, because our union is their to protect us, for our work, you assume that trade union members a working class, and that union members interested in politics, would join labour anyway,

  4. James Martin says:

    Good article, although we need to be clear that when we talk abiut the issue we don’t imply that most unions are affiliated. At my reckoning there are now only around 15 or 16 affilated unions out of a TUC membership of 50-odd. Ok, that includes some of the bigger unions like GMB, Unite and half of Unison, but it excludes some significant unions too (PCS, RMT and all the education unions).

    And having been a member of both affiliated and non-affiliated unions I can say with some assurance that it is not actually an issue the vast majority of members care about one way or another, because as has been indicated people do not join a union because they like its policies or politics (even where in places like education they have something of a choice), but because the local branch is effective, they like/respect their local rep, they want protection and insurance against their bosses and they want to take part in industrial action (when I was in PCS we always gained far more members than we lost when taking action – I believe similar pro-strike boosts to membership have happened in the teaching unions in the last couple of years under Gove).

    But yet again we heard this week Miliband coming out with the middle-class student union view of why people join/become active rather than what happens in real life, and if he really does think that by breaking the link he is going to end up with a few thousand extra individual members he is dafter than he looks.

  5. Rob the cripple says:

    Most people know what this is about if you opt in to paying the levy Labour will then state the levy is theirs in full.

    The Labour party would accept a cut if they can make the levy theirs in full and end the Unions right to cut it, it what they tried to do once before.

    Labour has been seriously annoyed by the levy being cut and used as a means of getting labour to toe the line.

  6. swatantra says:

    Ed talked of a “new relationship with individual trade union members“. And quite right too.
    You wouldn’t expect Ed to dictate what the Unions should do regarding their internal affairs and policies. And we shouldn’t expect the Unions to dictate what the Labour Party should do, unless that is their Union members are in the very large majority Labour Party members. That unfortunately is not the case. Only actual members of the Labour Party should be controlling and inflencing Labour Party Policy. And that is the crux of the argument. So that ‘Link’ has to be redefined. The Trade Unions may have spawned the Labour Party but I think the Labour Party has come of age by now and stands on its own feet.

  7. Rob the cripple says:

    Then Swat go for state funding mate, why should the Unions fund the labour party.

    We all know what the argument is really about it Labour has always seen the levy as it’s. Jack Straw stated the levy should be paid to the Labour party in full.

    Now of course if we have an opt in labour will state people are opting to pay the levy to Labour and as such it should be paid in full.

    This is all about funding nothing else, poor old new party same old games.

  8. James Martin says:

    Still not leant any history swatantra? It may prevent me from having to keep pointing out what an ignoramous you are if you ciuld be bothered. The LP was never a party built on individual membership alone, but was a federation – first with unions and socialist societies, and then later with individual members added to the mix.

    If you really want a party with just individuals and no collective input then go and join the Lib-Dims, they have it down to a tee and I suspect you would feel far more at home there…

  9. David Melvin says:

    In many constituencies the Labour party only exists at CLP level with little or no trade union representation. Individual members do not participate in policy making. The little influence that trade unions have is through their collective role and not as individual members. Are trade unionists who are not already LP members really going to join as individual members? Perhaps if their union pays their membership subs: but that’s where we started.

  10. swatantra says:

    I’m for State Funding, and for individual membership.
    I’d be interested to know if James Martin is a member of the LP.

  11. Rob the cripple says:

    David Melvin why should the Union pay any subs then again if the three biggest Unions walked away from labour today Labour problem would be plugging the gap with money from somewhere else.

    I’m for Union telling Labour to go for it alone disaffiliate, Labour not the answer to trade Unions.

    Swat the same goes to you mate are you a member of any Union, as for state funding of course you are.

  12. David Melvin says:

    I agree unions should not pay the Labour party subs for individual members; but the point I was making that the allegations made against Unite involved the alleged payment of party subs in Falkirk by Unite – but that would appear to be the only way that the Labour party would have a superficial individual mass membership. Joining a Labour party that supports austerity does not appear to be an attractive proposition for anyone let alone trade unionists. If there was another viable party of the left perhap the left in the Labour party and trade unions would not cling to the belief the Labour party will eventually be radically transformed?

  13. swatantra says:

    I’m a member of UCU, and recently a member of Unite; I commend Unite on its new Community Membership initiative. But I don’t approve of any underhand ways of getting LP membership; its should all be done above board. I do understand why some people will not join the LP because the high membership fee, far too high for the average pocket, and Unions may feel tempted to subsidise that fee, or pay it in full. But that is wrong. Its for the LP to rethink its fee and make concessions.
    The thing is the LP is a very broad coalition of sorts; even I don’t agree with all thats going on. thats why I’m a member of CLPD. But there is no other viable Party of the Left, and never will be. Thats why we have to use the LP as our only vehicle of change.

  14. Rob the cripple says:

    You Swat can use the Labour party any way you like me old mate, my self I think I’ll stick to the Labour party in Wales and let the Labour party nationally to you.

    I’m fed up with three Tory parties in power.

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