By Ben Fox
As we look at the ‘new model’ Labour party we want to create to win the next election, the party’s link with the trade unions has to be examined again. Even when Labour was raking in multi-million pound donations from business tycoons in the early 2000s, the unions still provided the party with about 40% of its cash. After the ‘cash for peerages’ scandal, with the exception of the likes of J K Rowling, the unions were the ones who put their hands in their pockets, paid for the phone-banks and the leaflets and helped prevent a Tory majority and return over 250 MPs.
Of course, as a GMB activist (although one who put Andy Burnham before Ed Miliband), I have a vested interest, but even the most cursory understanding of labour history is that trade unions have been and are the life-blood of the party. They provide the cash that pays the wages of party staff, and it’s no exaggeration to say that if they gave up on the party, it would cease to exist. But, sadly, many seem to have forgotten that the Labour Party created in 1906 was the product of generations of trade union activism, that unions campaigned to extend the right to vote as well as for work-place rights, and that the likes of Ernie Bevin, Nye Bevan, Jim Callaghan and, most recently, Alan Johnson, were union leaders before they became Labour politicians.
We cannot ignore our history, nor can we have a situation where the party takes union money but gives little back. Although it would be remiss to ignore the introduction of the minimum wage, four weeks paid holiday, guaranteed paid maternity and paternity leave, we simply didn’t do enough for the standard of living and life chances of working people when we were in government. And far too often, the party treated its unions like an aged, embarrassing relative, while it was, as Peter Mandelson said, ‘intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich’.
The Warwick Agreements of 2004 and 2008 were a case in point. They were hardly militant left-wing manifestoes, but Labour ministers reneged on them when they consistently opposed equal treatment for agency workers at EU level and then dragged their feet in implementing the legislation, and when they threatened to part-privatise the Post Office. Elsewhere, I don’t think our manufacturing sector was helped by the fact that interest rates continued to be tailored to the needs of London and the South-East rather than to assist our manufacturing heartlands.
That being said, the leadership election did expose a democratic deficit in the party, and there has been much talk about the low turn-out among trade unions and multiple voting. It is simply not right that one person can have multiple votes (I had four and know other people who had a much larger collection) and another just the one. So what’s the solution? Do we just elect our leader on the basis of ‘one member one vote’?
In principle, I like the idea of ‘One Member One Vote’. Firstly, I don’t think it’s right that an MP’s vote is worth a few hundred party member votes. Even the Tory party gives equal weighting for elected representatives and party members in the final leadership run-off. Secondly, I think any union member who pays the political levy is effectively a party member. Maybe a simple logistical solution is to allow union members to become party members for free or for £1? This would be much better than disenfranchising them and besides, having been to many a GMB meeting and GMB conference, I can’t remember that many people who weren’t also party members.
As Ed Miliband said recently, the union levy payers are a direct ‘link to working people in this country and we have got to be linked to them’. This link should not be broken – rather it needs to be made stronger. After all, we lost the last election not because the middle-classes decided we were unelectable, but because working people felt our government had deserted and no longer cared about them. The six million votes we have lost since 1997 were predominantly not living in leafy suburbia, they were the people who stuck by us in the 1980s and 1990s. We should be building rather than burning bridges with our core supporters.