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If unions simply vote for what they believe, Labour can present a bold popular programme

United-we-bargain-Divided-we-begDoubts about tomorrow’s meeting of Labour’s national policy forum have already been raised by Jon Cruddas’s comments (£) about the “dead hand” of central control, which I argued remained a problem because of mistakes by Ed Miliband. Of course, party managers have ensured that Cruddas and policy forum chair, Angela Eagle, attempt to present a picture of Labour “united by a single desire” for “big reform, not big spending.” Today, press commentators at the Independent and Guardian reveal the truth – that party managers are set on preventing commitments to necessary, financially prudent and popular reforms like taking railways back into the state sector at the end of current franchises. As Patrick Wintour puts it:

Ed Miliband is facing a weekend of battles behind closed doors to persuade Labour party activists to back his manifesto, which faces grassroots challenges over railway renationalisation, welfare caps and labour regulation.

Note the reference to “party activists” and “grassroots challenges“. In spite of all the rows in recent years about the “power of the trade unions”, reaching a climax in the Collins report earlier this year, the pressure for a radical bold programme comes not from ‘union barons’ but from party activists. And there is every prospect that the trade unions will this time, as on almost every occasion in the party’s history, allow Labour’s leadership to get its way.

In the aftermath of the Collins report, Progress director Robert Philpot, ever eager for further attacks on the influence of trade unions, opined that “decades of ingrained cultural behaviour by the fixers and factionalists of machine politics do not just end with the passage of a rule change.” Too right. Except the truth of machine politics thoughout the history of the Labour Party is that ‘union barons’ have been not the fixers but the instrument of Leaders’ own fixing.

It needn’t be like that this weekend, nor in the future. Len McCluskey may have said to his union’s policy conference that now is not the time “heated arguments within the Labour Party about policy” but we don’t need public rows. If only trade union representatives would vote for the policies agreed through their own democratic  structures alongside their comrades from the constituency parties, we would be guaranteed also the opportunity to vote for progressive policies at the September party conference in Manchester.

It is an irony that many of the far-left are clamouring for the Unions and Unite in particular to break the link with Labour. They point to how badly the unions were treated over Falkirk, and the failure to get any significant policy concessions out of the party. We don’t agree with their conclusion. We see no prospect of any new party of the Left breaking through in the forseeable future. Neverthless, the lack of support from the Labour leadership for union aspirations within the Party, even when they are clearly popular, affordable and right, is undeniable — the relationship does not work.

In reality the Labour-union link works with union participation but no real influence on the major issues. To understand why the link fails, we need look no further than how the unions reacted to the Blair reforms.

In the 1970s, there was a broad level of agreement between most trade unions and the CLPs in support of an alternative economic strategy on which the party was united but whose implementation the parliamentary leadership prevented. This led to the democratic reforms of the late 1970s/early ’80s but then the left in the CLP’s were progressively defeated through the 80s, leading to the Blair reforms. Although every new attack on democracy met some resistance from trade unions, they always made some concessions. Over time, Blair’s reforms were made with union votes.

Blair reshaped the Party with the aim of ending party democracy by removing political debate and discussion (the lifeblood of a free labour movement) and centralising power, detaching the Party machine from the members. Not only did this generate an overbearing and corrupt bureaucratic structure but, in conjunction with a major expansion of salaried political posts (councillors, MPs’ staff etc), it spawned a political salariat whose climbs up the greasy pole is to ensure the machine runs smoothly and dissent is snuffed out. That career structure is still in place, and though Ed Miliband  may not be authoritarian by nature as both Blair and Brown were in different ways, he has if anything increased the centralisation of power.

The entire structure of the party is stacked against anyone who wishes to challenge the status quo, but like any bureaucracy in the Labour movement, it is only as powerful as the membership is passive and support it. Outside the bag-carriers and the Blairites (read Progress) in the CLPs, there is little appetite for it.

While this structure is Blair’s child, the trade unions votes have not only helped create the structure but have acquiesced in the policies that have emerged from it and kill those which didn’t. So Blair’s policies were endorsed, or at least not opposed by union votes. In Pete Willsman’s account of the Saga of Warwick II (the immediate forerunner of this week’s policy forum)

For most on the Left such a revelation is anathema, as it blows apart a rather simplistic view that somehow big bad Labour beat up on the unions – a view which helps fuel the fire of those who wish us to disaffiliate. Truth be told, the unions are consenting adults in this relationship:

  1. The unions may have fewer than half the votes at party conference, but with the left in the CLPs have an in-built majority there, as they (just about) have on the NEC. This means a raft of progressive polices could be put through both the NEC and at conference.
  2. Every anti-democratic reform the party has put in place has been supported by most trade unions. Indeed if they had not been so supported, as with the Collins report, they would not have been passed.

At the centre of the Labour-union relations are the meetings which help decide the manifesto – including the Warwick agreements and perhaps those at Milton Keynes this year. This special relationship are in effect a parallel structure to that of the NPF. While it appears to privilege unions within the Party, the reality is very different. As Willsman describes, unions negotiate directly with the leader with the goal of getting  their ‘union agenda’ adopted, and the Labour leadership agree to support a number of relatively minor demands.The quid pro quo is that unions support (or at least doesn’t oppose) the leadership on all other matters.

Why else in 2008 did trade unions permit the rejection of policies like a moratorium on foundation hospitals, opposing the outsourcing of commissioning in the NHS, restoring the link between pensions and earnings, a windfall tax on energy and oil companies and the restoration of a 10p tax band?

You might ask what have these agreements brought the unions in concessions that they could have not have won by voting alongside constituency parties, when they could obtain so much more in an alliance with the left CLPs? We hope that is a question we shall not have to answer again.


  1. Sandra Crawford says:

    How stupid can the PLP get. The GENERAL PUBLIC WANT RENATIONALISATION according to a you gov poll. The public agrees with the LEFT.

    Do they want to get back into power?

    Is this a democracy, or is the PLP still working for the corporations, as Blair did?

  2. Rod says:

    “it is only as powerful as the membership is passive”

    Indeed. How many of those who read and/or write for this blog continued voting Labour as Blair lost 5 million votes? How many continued voting Labour when Blair, Brown, Burnham etc increased privatisation of the NHS? How many continued voting Labour when Blair committed the UK military to unnecessary, disastrous wars?

    When the Blairites opposed Ken Livingstone in the last mayoral election Blairites went high-profile with an abstention campaign. They followed through. And fair play to them for that. They didn’t only talk the talk, they walked the walk.

    On the other, Labour’s Left just wring their hands and continue voting Labour no matter what madcap schemes the Blairites perpetrate.

    Unlike Progress, you just don’t have the guts to do anything else. No surprise that Progress have the upper hand.

  3. Chris Lovett says:

    OMG. UNITED WE STAND. DIVIDED WE FALL. It’s that simple – and that’s why the left has failed for 70 years or more to get anywhere. Labour has failed us by being centrist. Stop this wishy washy crap now, please.

    1. Robert says:

      Labour have stated they will hold down wages for the public sector which is one of the poorest groups they will hold down benefits.
      So what your saying we should vote labour because we always do it, because we are what labour people.

      So do not vote Tory, vote Tory Lite, the issues is a simple one if you take that ideology as being right, who would you think are better at cuts Labour or Progress or the real thing, the offer to the people and I think the people will see it is to give the Tories another term.

      After all the mess we are in came under a labour government.

      1. Chris Lovett says:

        Do you really think that was a “Labour” government? Do you really think that Milibean is a “Labour” party leader? Get real. However, the “mess we’re in” isn’t real. It’s a construct of the right who seek to persuade us all that Nations can go bankrupt – impossible – and that cutting wages and social security (note, the correct term) can help, whilst borrowing three times more in four years than even Bliar and Brown did in thirteen. The big mistake was not to emultae Iceland and nationalise the banks when they failed. But then I’m a Socialist.

        1. Robert says:

          Your the one again using childish name calling if you cannot argue the case without calling Miliband names I will just ignore you.

          1. Chris Lovett says:

            Go for it. You probably don’t like Camoron either?

  4. Chris Lovett says:

    NOT what I’d hoped after 68 years as a victim of Tory Britain. You have nothing to lose but your chains, comrades. Honestly.

  5. John says:

    Rod Blairites abstention campaign? Lord paul, who backed Livingstone as an independent in 2000′ said Ken was past it,a lord Sugar a Brownitie said he’d abstain, an ex Labour Party member Dan hodges voted Boris,

    Denis mcshane, David Lammy and Tessa Jowell all Blairites were Kens biggest backers, who was it who voted against Blairs wishes too not let Livingstone be re admitted into the party in 2004′ The Kinnocks, Dennis Skinner, Gordon Brown ,Michael cashman and Prescott,

    And labours left don’t keep voting labour Livingstone, twice backed the Non labour man for mayor of Tower hamlets

  6. James Martin says:

    “…the pressure for a radical bold programme comes not from ‘union barons’ but from party activists.”

    Yes, but only a small number of us, given that in many (if not most) areas the Party is a hollowed out shell with very sparsely attended branch meetings.

    Not that things are any better outside the Party mind you. The number of organised socialists in other socialist/communist groups is probably the lowest in generations, and it is predominately an ageing layer of activists that have been around for quite some time.

    That leaves the unions, where membership levels are still historically low but reasonably stable (although take away the public sector, or recently privatised industries, and the picture is actually very grim indeed).

    I suspect that more discussions about politics (big or small p), government and strategy take place at the average union branch meeting than at a Party meeting. And in that sense the unions have very much kept the labour movement alive in the political sense. However, you then need to distinguish what happens in a union branch committee, or at the lower levels of union full time officialdom, with what happens at the General Secretary level. And this is where it relates back to the article and the comment about the affiliated union delegates being far more moderate and supportive of the leadership than those from the Party constituency membership. Because – and this is the key point to grasp – historically and sociologically the Labour Party and trade union leaders have been broadly two sides of the same coin, with the same interests and the same separation from the rank and file beneath them. So when we talk of the trade union influence on the NEC it is not the influence of affiliated members, but the influence of the union tops – and that is usually a very different thing indeed.

    1. Chris Lovett says:

      Given the rapid rise of Podemos and Syriza, it’s obvious that we need a left party. We simply don’t have one now.

      1. James Martin says:

        And how do you propose this happens Chris?

        1. Chris Lovett says:

          In the same way this has always happened. The electorate will eventually realise that they have three Tory parties to vote for. The risk is that the right is where they turn – and as long as I hear the blandishments of Milibean that’s a real possibility. Sadly, it’s the right that now take the risks.

          1. James Martin says:

            But waiting until people decide to support socialist ideas isn’t really a strategy is it? After all, the old boys in the SPGB have been doing that for over a hundred years now and are still no bigger than at the start, and there has never been a left to labour group that has gained mass support in this country, never…

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