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’.