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Trade union unity needed to defend Labour link

workers_united_will_never_be_defeatedJust as the Falkirk affair was put to bed, Unite was faced with a much bigger challenge. Miliband’s call to individualise party membership and end (or severely downgrade) the link between unions and party. Unions from the GMB to USDAW are united against it, while the United Left (the broad left grouping which has a majority of seats on the union’s executive – Ed) met and voted 60 to 1 to oppose it. There is a majority within both the unions and the party to maintain the link. So while it would be a major defeat for the unions if Miliband’s reforms were to go through as is, this will only happen if we support change, or if unions are divided. Unions have almost half the votes at Labour’s conference. The more unified we are, the firmer we are about the dangers of Miliband’s position, the less damaging will be any changes. The precondition for getting the best possible outcome is a united approach by all unions.

Within all of this, I am unsure as to Len McCluskey’s position. I thought his presentation to the first meeting of the Unite delegation at Brighton’s Labour conference was a little subdued and appeared to me to say we are up for trading influence on structures for policy shifts from Miliband. I hear he made a rousing speech defending the link at the Mirror fringe meeting, which many of us could not get in to, after Paul Kenny’s tub thumping “no surrender” speech on the Monday. Yet he has welcomed Miliband’s proposals and along with other comrades, has argued “… the link is not working“; although true, the main reason it is broken is largely down to the unions and it can be mended.

Just last week, Len is reported as saying, at the Jimmy Reid Commemoration Lecture that we would fund Labour in 2015, regardless of affiliation numbers.

More importantly, while we can all agree with Miliband that we should aim for a mass party, it is only the spin Miliband puts on building a mass membership that demands an ending or downgrading the link. Keeping the Link as is, and building a mass party, are in no way mutually exclusive. So the argument about the Link not working and the idea you cannot have the Link and a mass party simply does not stack up.

Ending the Labour – union link or its downgrading is the most important issue the movement has faced in many decades.

The link is so important to us because, apart from collective bargaining, the only way unions can progress members’ interests is through Parliament by extending legal support for workers. The only party in a position to perform this role is the Labour Party. For any union, regardless of the political character of its leadership, that leadership’s duty is to press Labour to support worker friendly legislation.

So change does not support unions’ immediate interests. A reformed party would also be another milestone in the disintegration of the labour movement, marking a further step in the direction of neo-liberalism. Politics like nature abhors a vacuum and removing the unions’ collective voice has been the long-term goal of sections of the right, which many want to fulfil by a merger with sections of the Liberal Party, forming a left of centre party of do-gooders (Guardian readers). Only a fantasist would believe that out of such a defeat a new workers party will spring from the ashes.

If we want to try to reach an agreement with Miliband, and I think it is essential the unions do, it could include his proposal to encourage individual levy-payers to opt into a form of individual membership provided that:

  1. The collective voice of Unite and other unions continue to be represented – allowing our representatives to speak at every level within the party structure on behalf of the whole membership, representing the policies and aspirations of the union as decided through our democratic processes.
  2. The level of representation and votes to which the union is entitled is sustained at the current level, and is not dependent on recruiting any particular number of individual members.
  3. The union is not required to make any changes to our rule book as a condition of continued affiliation to and support for the Labour Party.

The union should respond to the Collins interim report consistently with these principles, which should also serve as our bottom line in any discussions with the party leadership.

Finally, we should not accept the proposal to introduce primaries as a basis of selecting Labour candidates for public office. Our members who support the Labour Party should be able to participate in these selections on the basis that they contribute financially to the Labour Party, as should individual members of the Labour Party., There is no support from any quarter of the Labour movement (other than the Blairites in their mis-named organisation Progress) to involve people in these selection who do not support the party and who do not make a financial contribution to it.

The last London TULO was informed that Alan Olive, the Labour regional director in London, will be running trial primaries in Croydon South in March next year. When Unite and GMB pointed out that this pre-empted the Collins Report and was outside the Rule Book he simply ignored our opposition. I am unaware if this issue was raised at the London Labour regional board meeting, but it is a signal the apparatchiks, as opposed to Progress, intent to push ahead with attacks on our collective participation in the party regardless of any agreement on the Collins Report.

Silencing a working class voice in politics has been the dream of the rich and powerful since the Chartists and then the formation of the party. Unite should defend our voice in the Labour Party with no fudging. The United Left should pursue these points both through the regional structure and ensue they are endorsed by the Unite executive council.

This post was first published at the United Left website. Jim Kelly is Chair of Unite London & Eastern which, with over 310,000 members, is by far the biggest of the 10 regions of Unite the Union


  1. Rod says:

    Hardly a week goes by without Left Futures reporting an event where Labour’s elite does as it pleases, without regard for the membership or for anyone beyond their circle.

    Now Alan Olive goes outside the rule-book and announces trial primaries in Croydon and ignores opposition.

    The Labour Party now resembles the political equivalent of a pyramid selling scheme – the few at the top indulge their eminence and do as they please while the broad, supporting base is exploited and ultimately humiliated. Yet the broad base continues to deliver its support, having invested so much, still hoping for the glorious new day that never comes.

  2. peter willsman says:

    Jim is spot on. It is already clear that Ray Collins (and presumably Ed) has the 50% vote that the TUs have at Conference in his sights.The 50-50 vote at Conference is the clear representation of the political and industrial wings that make up the federation that is our party.It means the TUs have a decisive influence over the Rule Book and over Party policy. It is a red line that the TUs must not cross. I read that Len has floated the idea of the TUs going down to 30%. If true then Len needs to rethink. I will write in more detail on this issue on LFs next week.

  3. Robert says:

    The levy, I think Union have to drop this little money makers for labour.

  4. John Reid says:

    The way the unions treated James Callaghan and labour with respect, after Callaghan did every thing they wanted, the unions repaid the Callaghan by not striking in December 1978!

  5. Robert says:

    God almighty John I know you do not like the Unions and I know your a new Labour bloke but honestly how about coming up to this year,

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