Such is the increasing unthinking, banality of much of the Metropolitan media, that two significant contributions to the debate over Labour’s links with the unions were lost over the weekend.
The first came from former MP, Minister and Diarist, Chris Mullin, who warned that the proposed changes to union affiliations could lead to ‘a decade of one party rule’, with Labour starved of cash, out of office.
He also said that it was high time that we began to hear many of the positive arguments for trades unions, since what they have achieved over decades in terms of holidays, maternity rights, equal pay and much more makes up what we might like to describe as our ‘civilised society’ – albeit one that the Tories seem determined to sweep away.
Mullin might have mentioned that all too often the anti union rhetoric has been most damaging and noxious when it has emanated from super-annuated ex Labour Cabinet Ministers, such as Messrs Mandelson, Blunkett, Reid and Howells. Most of these are now taking the corporate shilling, and each appearance by any of the above often serves to remind many voters why they turned against Labour last time around.
The second came in the shape of wise counsel from Professor Keith Ewing of the UK Constitutional Law Group and a long standing Labour Party member. Writing in Tribune and on Unison Active, Keith Ewing warned of another imminent political attack on free speech – and the unions.
It came in the Government’s recent announcement on political lobbying, which in a quite great breathtaking assault on the unions had the audacity to compare these great democratic and voluntary organisations to private corporations.
The intent is quite clear – any money spent by an affiliated union campaigning at a general election will be declared as Labour Party spending and not as ‘third party expenditure’ as it is at the moment. This legislation has its origins in what has recently been instituted in New South Wales, and bares all the sticky finger prints of the Prime Minister’s spin-meister, Lynton Crosby.
If this goes through, at a stroke the voice of the unions during election time will be silenced unless the Labour Party agrees to what the unions are doing or saying, for fear that it will cut into party election spending. It is as Keith Ewing says, nothing more than a blatant attack on free speech.
If this legislation does succeed it begs the question; where will Labour find the £20 million it will need for the General Election?
In different circumstances, Ed Miliband would be able to call upon the unions to help, even if it did mean that they had little or nothing to spend on their own campaigns. But he has managed to throw a serious spanner in the works with his proposals that trade unionists should ‘opt in’ to the political levy for Labour.
For the real problem in advance of this possible legislation – and in advance of any rule changes on the party union relationship, the hare has been set running. Although Ed Miliband has been told that many of those on the Executives of affiliated unions have been seeking to move away from a link they believe has brought them precious little over the years, the recent storm around Falkirk and the attacks on the unions often from within the party have persuaded still others that the relationship is all but over. It is therefore possible that some unions may disaffiliate from the Labour Party before the next General Election is even called.
It is staggering to think that so little of this has been thought through and just how vulnerable Labour as a party has now become. It is astonishing that no attempt has been made to speak in advance to people such as Keith Ewing, or indeed any of the union general secretaries, before the die was cast.
If I were Ed Miliband, I think I might be tempted to put the planned Trade Union Review by Lord Ray Collins into the deep-freeze, take what the Tories say on the chin – after all they will never call for individual shareholders to ‘opt in’ to the Conservative Party – and sit down with the unions to resolve the differences that have emerged since the utterly unnecessary and overblown Falkirk affair.