A Very Blairite Coup

July 10, 2013 9:48 am

Britain’s increasingly hysterical media caravan pitched on to new territory, hoping that the Falkirk row, and Ed Miliband’s ‘mend it – don’t break it’ speech would presage an incipient Labour civil war.  It hasn’t, so far, and I suspect that Len McCluskey’s generous response to Ed Miliband’s speech on Labour’s relations with the trade unions has something to do with that.  But if there is more smoke than fire it is also because I suspect that the heart for yet another fight with the Labour leadership has gone. Instead, and as a result, I suspect that we will see substantial moves in unions such as Unite and the GMB to disaffiliate from the Labour Party – to up sticks before they are pushed.

Trade Union officials will tell you that they have had a harder and harder job to persuade their unions’ rank and file to remain affiliated to the party in recent years. They may also tell you that they have spent thousands attempting to get their members to join Labour, but to little avail. Listening to the political and media establishment in full spate today will have done little to assure many trades unionists  that they are wanted. Ed Miliband’s speech may have been aimed at encouraging the idea of more ordinary working people active in the party, but the idea that tens of thousands will do so seems fanciful, when the language of the Blairites and sections for the media has been so harsh and more importantly, at a time when Labour – two years away from an election – still does not have the sort of policies in place to present a real alternative.

Nor does the whole issue of Labour’s relations with the unions sound remotely relevant or interesting to many outside, aside from the vultures. I remember being transfixed some years ago by Neil Kinnock’s masterful demolition of the Militant Tendency at a Labour Party conference. But voters were more interested in what Labour was going to do about mass unemployment, so Neil’s punishment for focussing on internal Labour issues was to go on to lose the General Election.  Right now, Labour should be working with the unions to present alternatives to austerity, poverty and unemployment not getting caught up in a bout of intense navel gazing.

The devil, as they say is in the detail. The trouble is that there isn’t much of it, which gives the impression of the leadership allowing itself to be bounced.  How will the party for instance try and recruit affiliated trades unionists, when it now doesn’t want trade unions to recruit Labour Party members? In the absence of a significant expansion of state funding, how does the party expect to make up the massive shortfall in funding it now potentially faces, and where will the election war chest – that might be expected to add up to some £20 million come from? Is ‘Lord Sainsbury of Progress’ going to be asked to write some cheques? Will wealthy individuals and companies fill the union void? And what of the hundreds of constituency parties, often heavily dependent on local union affiliations? Where are they supposed to raise funds for fighting elections from? If unions will no longer be affiliated, does this mean yet more central control of the Labour Party conference, and what of the National Policy Forum and the National Executive Committee? Who will elect the union representatives, or will there be any union representatives?  From the outside looking in this doesn’t look like a bunch of proposals that simply reduces union influence on selections, but also any remaining union influence over policy.

Perhaps in the advocacy of a Primary for Labour’s London Mayoral hopeful, the party leadership has let the cat out of the bag, since it obviously doesn’t envisage a great surge in membership. Suddenly there are a number of experts urging Primaries on Labour who have never set foot in the United States to experience one. We should be clear; Labour’s London Primary is likely to be largely decided by the London Evening Standard, with the candidate who emerges backed by extremely rich individuals, or perhaps in the guise of someone Lord Alan Sugar, a very wealthy individual.

Here for instance is Ian Williams, ex officio Chair of the newly re-constituted New York Labour Party Branch, also my old branch, writing on Primaries:

‘Registration does not involve any payment of dues, or commitment to ideologies, nor give any say in framing policies, but it does allow voting in the primary elections to select the parties’ candidates – be it councillor, state or national representatives – or Mayor.

The candidates run in their own right, without party support. That means that the individuals who run – which can be anyone – have to raise their own cash. Bloomberg of New York, previously registered as a Democrat, decided to run on a Republican line because there were so few registered Republican voters in New York, it was easier for him to buy the nomination.’

So if there is any real Labour devolution, the London Party should put its foot down firmly on the idea of a Primary for the Mayoral candidate.

As a supporter of Ed Miliband, and as one who campaigned for him, I think that he has done a great deal to move Labour away from the control freakery of the New Labour years. I believe that he is quite genuine about opening the party up to more members; I applaud his decision to put spending caps on selection contests and I think that his idea of restricting MPs to their day jobs is not just right, it is potentially popular.

But my real concern is that he has allowed all of the blame for any problems selecting Labour Party candidates at the door of Unite, and driven by the media and many of those Blairites who have never forgiven him for winning, has now embarked on a course mapped out by Progress, the Blairites and the union bashers.

Let us not forget how this began; with an internal report into a selection in Falkirk, which still, no one has seen.

With apologies to Chris Mullin, this looks and sounds very much like ‘A Very Blairite Coup’.

  • Mike Homfray

    But nearly all the above is speculation.

    What has actually been proposed is that all unions move to the Unison model. The political fund will not be affected at all, but affiliations will be named individuals. That means that there is no reason why the party shouldn’t have access to those names -which has not been possible before. It will in turn expand the number of people able to partake in the party activity

    Nothing at all has been said about the remainder of the political fund. If unions which to use that to help local parties then they can do so. Its purely about the block payment to the party based on affiliation.

    It also gives an opportunity to downsize political spending – and if the Tories don’t agree to it, then they will look like the ones in the wrong.

    The proposals regarding transparency and openness will hit Progress harder than anyone else as they are the people doing most of the underhand plotting

    I too am iffy about the use of primaries but its a closed not open primary which is being suggested, as the people concerned will have to either be members, affiliated individuals or registered supporters. And the London mayoralty is about celebrity in any case. No real power. Glorified police commissioner with some influence on transport and tourism.

    Look at what has actually been proposed – rather than what the Blairites hoped would be the outcome, which was the breaking of the union link. This cements and institutionalises it

    • Daniel Speight

      Mike I suspect you are looking for a silver lining that isn’t there.

      • Mike Homfray

        No, I think you haven’t read the proposals. Or do you really want politics based on large amounts of spending from any interest group?

        • rekrab

          It’s nothing like a big business group spending large amounts to secure more profits? It’s an interest group that puts fairness and decency at it’s core. I’m pretty offended if you think the history of the trade union movement is about self interest?

    • rekrab

      Do you think it’s advisable to move to the unison model when the NHS is in such a mess?
      Cements and institutionalises it? not according to it’s members who are saying that they’ll only get a partial political cover if they agree with new labour and join their party, so someone like Pat McFadden can call to privatise their jobs?

      • http://twitter.com/waterwards dave stone

        “Pat McFadden can call to privatise their jobs?”

        That’s an interesting point and leads me to wonder if it’s possible to prevent the LP from acting against the interests of those who vote for it and those who, through unions, fund it.

        That this concern arises indicates the extent of the takeover of the LP by those supporting neo-liberal Blairite policies (as recognised by Sainsbury in his recent book). But existing arrangements weren’t able to prevent the madness of New Labour – though there were some very useful ameliorating moments (e.g. Hayes Vs Mandelson over Royal Mail privatisation).

        So even if arrangements remain unchanged there is nothing to stop the likes of McFadden and other Labour politicians privatising public services – just think, Andy Burnham was an enthusiastic privatiser when Health Secretary and now he’s shadow health secretary probably looking forward to doing more of the same…

        An uprising at Conference this year would be useful.

        • rekrab

          Isn’t it ironic that the LP are reforming the unions while the majority of CLP’s and union members think it’s the LP that’s out of touch.

          At PMQ’s today, Ed was like the kid with the new shiny bike, thinking he’d secured some positive not on party funding, he asked the question, would Cameron agree to cap party funding? only for Cameron to deflate the wheels of his new bike.
          Jeez! did he really set in motion the start of the ending to ask one question that was batted away like a bad bowled ball.

          Conference has got to deal with the outstanding questions, who are labour and where is it going in terms of a political movement.
          Unfortunately, I think they’ll lock down conference, in the way the suits them best.

          • http://twitter.com/waterwards dave stone

            “will all trade unions voting rights be suspended”

            A pre-conference conference will be needed if this is to happen!

            Worst aspect of this is the shutting down of the opening up (if that makes sense) of selection processes for PPCs. Any selections that fail to produce a result favourable to the Progress Tendency is liable provoke an outcry from their friends in the Tory media.

            So looks like we’re now lumbered with a talentless and unrepresentative bunch of incompetents in Westminster, at least until after the G.E.

      • Mike Homfray

        Yes. I think we have got to do something, simply because the Tories will keep on and on about it unless we do. Remember they really don’t want to do anything at all about their reliance on big business and wealthy individuals. This was puts us in the position of willing reformers with the Tories reliant on the fat cats.
        Also, while it was our OWN right wing who pushed this one – they publicised the Falkirk issue not our opponents – its they who will be hardest hit because the transparency proposals will put paid to Progress’ activities. And they know it, too. Where are the Blairite journalists who reported Falkirk with so much glee?

        • rekrab

          But we’re not in government? and we could now face the reckless adventure of legislating against trade union funding, where as we should be focusing on legislation to ensure big business stops abusing employees.

          If we do reach the likely event that unions will dis-affiliate then that’s another feather in the cap for progress.

          Mike, we’ve allowed Cameron to dictate the terms? we got ourself into a destructive situation, Ed pressed the destructive button, when we have all the ammunition we need to press this coalitions failures on the economy, jobs, health care, education, and so on.We’ll now spend the next few years battling over internal labour party constitutional matters, while Britain burns in austerity.

  • Dave_Costa

    “And what of the hundreds of constituency parties, often heavily dependent on local union affiliations?” Most union affiliations to CLPs are tiny (the minimum £6 per branch affiliation fee) and their numbers have declined – largely because it’s so easy to become a branch delegate to a GC these days (or GCs have been replaced by All Member Meetings) so union workplace reps like myself aren’t asking the union to affiliate to our CLPs so that we can be union delegates. Constituency Development Plans are rather more important but are not huge and come from the national union rather than local branches. There are arguments to be had, but let’s get the facts straight.

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