Let’s get a couple of things straight first. This is not a post somehow arguing to somehow “break the link” between Labour and its affiliated unions (a thing, by the way, which no sane activist would want – the party would self-evidently collapse without it). So, whoa there, those standing ready to defend it.
It is entirely right and proper that unions should defend their members’ interests, even where this means unpopular industrial action. In particular, it’s obvious they should be fighting tooth and nail the reductions in employment rights currently coming out of the government. It’s their job, after all.
My point, as always, is that unions represent their members, and the Labour Party represents its members. The interests of the two groups overlap some or even most of the time, on which occasions it is sensible for them to work together. On others they do not and, where that is the case, it is not necessary or constructive for either group to spend their emotions guilt-tripping the other into supporting it. Furthermore, it is particularly unhelpful to transform every discussion about our relationship with unions into “you’re either for us or against us”. The frustrating thing is that it is sometimes precisely our fine traditions of loyalty and solidarity that lead us to this daft emotional standoff. We need to accept that we are linked, but different.
And so we come to a little story noted at both Labour Uncut and Left Futures, that Unite is considering a resolution to cut to its funding for Labour by 10%, unless it chooses policies more in keeping with those of the union. Now, while it’s not exactly news for unions to be rattling the party’s cage in time-honoured fashion, there are two important questions this time which should give us pause, before we dismiss this as unimportant.
The first is: why now? Surely if our union leaders had put up with sixteen years of New Labour (or, as they might well have seen it, hard labour) without explicitly holding a gun to the party’s head, it seems strange that they should do so now, given that the party has already taken a visible turn to the left.
And the answer is simple: because they can. This generation of leaders, at least of the affiliated unions, have not yet suffered the infestation of a critical mass of far left activists. But they are a bit more left and a bit more grumpy; they sense uncertainty in setting party direction and, of course, they have the party over a barrel financially. If you don’t believe this is the case, check out the Electoral Commission’s website, which show around 90% of funding coming from unions. It never used to.
If Unite, Britain’s largest union, should pass this motion, the party would be hit, if relatively lightly. But, of course, it would be unlikely to be the only union with such a motion, should it pass. It would be one of many, some of whom might go further than 10%. In short, what union bosses sense is weakness. This is their moment, and it may not come again.
The second question is: is this any way to run a railroad? It’d be interesting to see whether there has ever been such an open attempt to link cash and policies in British political history. Imagine if, for example, Michael Ashcroft had said publicly to the Tories: I will give you X million pounds, in return for policy position Y. We ‘d have thought there was something fairly unethical about that, wouldn’t we? Well, welcome to realpolitik, because that’s the door that’s just been opened.
Irrespective of your view about the left-right politics involved, you’ve got to ask yourself: if Ed Miliband concedes to this kind of transaction, what opinion is the public likely to have of him? And I’m not saying this is an easy choice: it isn’t. Saying no to Unite may well mean sacking staff or cutting campaigns on an already reduced-size operation. But saying yes, in the longer term, could not only cause untold political damage in terms of credibility and diverting the policy agenda, but might eventually lead to an even worse financial situation. Give in once, and the price may be higher next time.
Ed, I know I’m just a blogger, and we might not see eye-to-eye on a lot of things, but you showed with News International that you can have a bit of steel when you need to. And this is starting to shape up as being one of those times: giving in to Unite now would open the floodgates to any union leader with a hobby-horse. I know that with the locals, Scotland, London and fighting the Tories this may seem a rather trivial party matter, but it needs your attention. I suspect you know this, and that may be why Tom Watson made a pre-emptive mea culpa on behalf of the party last weekend.
It may of course fall, but if that Unite resolution is passed in two months’ time, you will be faced with a battle that you must win, for everyone’s sake.
Please, stand firm, Ed.
Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left