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Labour’s reshuffle – and what it means for party reform

Defend the Link colourIt may not be something to which most commentators (with the exception of Labour Uncut) have devoted space but the Labour Left and the trade unions will be pleased that Jon Trickett has been appointed as Labour’s “deputy chair”, job title notwithstanding (the real chair and vice-chair of the Labour Party are elected annually by Labour’s national executive not appointed by the Leader). Jon will oversee ‘party reform’ which will encourage all those who wish to see the trade union collective voice undiminished within the party.

Labour Uncut has suggested that Jon’s appointment may be “the most important appointment in Labour’s reshuffle“, since it “sends a message that the Labour leadership are worried“. It means, they argue, that Ed’s desire to reform the party-union link “is not going to be a campaign where Ed Miliband appeals over the heads of union leaders to the rank and file membership of the Labour movement” to get his reforms through, but that instead he “wants to do a deal with the union bosses.”

In their reasoning they are right even if their conclusion turns out to have been an exaggeration. The leadership does indeed realise that they do not have the votes to force an unwanted change on the party. Jon Trickett is widely seen in trade union circles as their closest ally in the shadow cabinet and amongst those who have Ed’s ear, both on the policy agenda and in party reform. He has done much to advance the cause of working class involvement at every level in the party though he remains the only shadow cabinet member who was previously a manual worker. He is therefore both a vital emissary from the leadership to the trade unions as well as a reliable voice for them in Ed’s camp. The two of course go together.

Labour Uncut goes on to speculate on the basis of such a deal (about which it lacks enthusiasm to put it mildly). Some months ago, the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy circulated for discussion which was seen as the basis for just such an agreement between Ed Miliband and the trade unions by:

  1. Meeting Ed Miliband’s aspirationto change the way individual Trade Unionists are affiliated to the Labour Party….. Individual Trade Union members should choose to join Labour through the affiliation fee, not be automatically affiliated”.
  2. Meeting trade union aspirations for a continuing collective voice in the affairs of the party they founded, and sustainable levels of voting & representation
  3. Meeting the shared aspirations for individual trade unionists to play a greater role in the life of the party.
  4. Ensuring the party continues to receive adequate funding, through trade union affiliations, accurately described by Frances O’Grady as the “cleanest money in politics”.

This worked by delinking the collective representation of trade unions in the structures of the party from the involvement of  individual trade unionists in the life of the party and instead preserving their accountability to their whole membership through their own internal democratic structures. Ed himself, in his recent interview with Mark Ferguson on Labour List makes a distinction between these categories in talking about his proposals:

I think the collective voice of the unions in the Labour Party and collectively engaging with the unions is important. This is about how we change our relationship with individual trade unionists.”

This delinking could work by having two categories of membership in addition to individual membership:

  1. affiliated members (namely trade unions collectively represented, with affiliation fees perhaps based on bands of affiliation e.g. under 5000 members, 5-25k, 25-100k, etc) and
  2. what you might call associate members who would be those trade union levy-payers who opt-in indvidually, and whose levy continues to be collected via check-off of direct debit is passed onto the party, and who may become involved in local activity where they live or work as well as being granted a vote in leadership elections (as now) as well as in parliamentary and other selections.

The justification for this delinking is that the two forms of membership perform different purposes – one to encourage individual involvement and the other to facilitate the collective voice and representation of organisations that still represent millions of workers and could, with the support of a Labour government committed to raising living standards, represent many more.

It both provides Ed with what he has been seeking and it ensures that the collective voice of trade unions and their current level of representation are sustainable. That, or something very like it, is the basis of a way forward that could unite the overwhelming majority of the party.

But the real measure of the success of party reform is not this. It is whether trade unionists can be persuaded not only to join or actively support Labour in greater numbers, but whether millions of them can be persuaded again to see Labour as expressing their voice, as their political home.

This is not about how much influence “union bosses” (Labour Uncut‘s term not ours) have in the party. The truth is that they have had very little for many years, just like individual members.

Union leaders are angry not because they are disaffected with Labour but because they have been defending Labour in spite of the pressure from their own members who are so disaffected from Labour that they are more likely not to vote at all than to vote for any other party.

This is about reconnecting with the disaffected, those who have abandoned (or been abandoned by) Labour. Winning them back is not about structures. It is about re-evaluating who and what we stand for. About policies and about values. That iswhat needs to and I am sure will occupy the minds of Jon Trickett and Ed Miliband in the coming months.


  1. Robert says:

    I think this is the biggest turn off and both the Unions and the labour party have made a massive blunder when wages are being cut benefits hammered you have these people taking and arguing about the fecking levy.

    Labour has been for years demanding the levy is paid to them in full and that it belongs to the labour party not the Unions and it cannot be touched.

    This while people are being hammered you have Miliband fighting this fight the bloke really is a beginner and to think the Unions wanted him and not his brother tell you what Unions know.

  2. Robert P says:

    The compromise suggested seems fine to me, although I just want this issue to go away! The Labour Party can then concentrate on what voters care about.

  3. Peter Willsman says:

    CLPD are working up our proposals and we would much appreciate help and comments from comrades.A copy of our draft paper can be obtained from Jon Lansperson/LeftFutures.

  4. Shaji says:

    Why is Miliband trying to change the nature of Labour’s funding? This query unearths real crux of the matter. Of course Labour wants the money – but it wants to collect the funds directly from individuals and not via the trade unions. In effect, Miliband wants to silence the collective voices of working class.
    Because, if the funds are individually obtained, collective voice of working class do not have any power; it cannot question (New) Labour and it’s not-so-labour-ideologies /policies it currently stands for. This is exactly what Thatcher wanted; this is exactly what any of the capitalistic parties and private corporate across world aspire to establish. Crush the collective voice of the working class.
    The trade unions have two options:
    1. Fight back, kick out its capitalistic Blairite leaders and re-claim the party to realign what it was originally established for.
    2. Ditch Labour and form a new political party which will stand for the working class.
    Both options have their own advantages and dis-advantages. Once started, the cleaning process will bring disastrous outcomes for first-few-years. But the right decision will prove itself correct in the long run.

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