Keeping the link is not an issue about left and right in the Labour Party

September 10, 2013 11:03 am

There are a few things that we know for certain about the Labour Party’s relationship with its trade union affiliates this TUC conference week.

We are where we are, despite the recent announcements about the Falkirk selection.

Ed Miliband is going to go ahead with a Special Conference on reforming that relationship and he is going to push for an opt-in system to determine which individual members of those unions chose to have a relationship with Labour through their unions and for a closed primary of Labour supporters to select the next Labour candidate for Mayor of London.

He can’t go back on those things because he believes in them and because to do so would be to look so weak as to be electoral suicide and might even precipitate a leadership challenge before the General Election.

Those are his red lines.

The unions also have an important red line, which is that whatever new system emerges must retain a collective voice for them as organisations, not just a series of totally individual relationships between trade unionists and the Party.

That belief in the union link as an expression of Labour’s collectivist rather than individualist values as a party is not exclusively held on the party’s left.

Labour First, the network of Labour moderates committed to the trade union link, argued in our submission to Ray Collins’ review of the link that trade unionists should not just have individual voices in the Labour Party but that Ed Miliband’s reforms should be pursued in a way that is compatible with maintaining what the GMB describes as “collective engagement of trade unions in the party they helped to form”.

Keeping the link is not an issue about left and right in the Labour Party – the unions along with local government have historically been the pillars of the moderate Labour tradition.

The party and the unions have a choice about how we behave between now and the Special Conference in the spring.

We can rip ourselves apart and spend the next six months engaged in internecine warfare. I would recommend we did not. The precedent from 1980-1981 when we had a huge bust-up over approximately the same issues – the internal voting weight held by the Party’s different stakeholders and the selection process (in 1980-1981 it was about the ability to deselect sitting MPs) – is well known. Nothing could be more calculated to turn-off voters than introspection and infighting. It might even lead, as in 1981 with the SDP, to a formal split, with the risk of one or more major affiliates ending their relationship with Labour.

It would be a tragedy for the party but also for many thousands of individual Labour stalwarts if we put people in the situation of having to choose between their loyalties to the union they love and the party they love.

Or we can spend the next six months attacking the Tories and setting out our positive policy agenda and meantime quietly make sensible, thought-through submissions to Ray Collins’ review and negotiating a way forward that has consensus support across the majority of the party.

There are a tiny number of people who genuinely believe there should not be a formal affiliated relationship between trade unions and Labour. That’s an opinion people are entitled to hold but I think they are wrong and would fatally weaken Labour and I think the vast majority of party members would agree.

There are rather more who do believe in a link between Labour and the unions but would promote such radical reductions in the unions’ collective voice at conference, on the NEC and NPF and in the share of the leadership electoral college held by individual trade unionists that they would de facto break the link because any residual voice would be meaningless and the unions themselves would probably feel they were being sent a message it was time to walk away.

On the opposite extreme there are a small number of trade unionists who would be happy to see the link broken or weakened because they want the cash to go to other projects to the left of Labour, either single issue campaigns or far left parties.

And there are rather more, again who believe in a link between Labour and the unions, but who would promote such radical policy demands that Labour’s leadership cannot accede to them without making the party unelectable.

I understand the frustration that led to Paul Kenny and the GMB voting to cut their affiliation levels and funding of Labour. The GMB hasn’t had any grand strategies for refashioning the Party. It has played by the rules and the spirit of the rules in selections and feels not many of its small number of preferred candidates have won. And then it felt the reform proposals were rushed out without it being consulted and it was being collectively punished for Unite’s alleged behaviour in Falkirk. The GMB needs to be brought back on board because the only people who win if Labour has £1 million less to fight the next General Election are the Tories, and the people who will lose are ordinary working people, GMB members included.

I also understand the frustration UNISON feels when they have already had an opt-in Affiliated Political Fund for 20 years and again had nothing to do with Falkirk.

It is not beyond the wit of Ed Miliband and his team and the political teams at the major unions to agree a reform package that will be radical enough to demonstrate to the public a real modernisation and democratisation of the link and our selections, but will not throw the baby of the unions collective voice out with the bathwater, and can be backed by the vast majority of affiliates and CLPs.

The spirit in which this needs to be approached is not one of how we can divide the party and win a toe-to-toe fight with a six month build-up. If I had wanted that, and wanted to jeopardise the union link, I wouldn’t have campaigned for Ed to become leader in 2010, believing him to be the person who could bind the party’s wounds after the years of Brown vs Blair infighting.

No, the spirit we need is one that looks for how we can bring forward proposals that will unite and be welcomed by the whole Party – that as many CLPs and affiliates and their members as possible will feel actually make Labour a more democratic Party.

I don’t think the submission Labour First made to Ray Collins has all the answers but we’ve made a good stab at coming up with something that people could unite around. I hope you’ll read it, promote the bits you agree with in your own organisations, and come up with improvements to it as well.

  • Mike Homfray

    I agree with Luke that its not a left-right issue. In Labour Left most of us are supportive of reform, but we can understand the concerns which Luke expresses. Perhaps this is an area where we can look towards how to fashion a settlement which can incorporate both individually-based funding – necessary given our stance on funding reform more widely – and a collective representation within party structures, which I don’t think anyone has suggested changing (except Progress)

  • rekrab

    How will it work? when Ed left the stage of the TUC conference having failed to answer a delegates call, is labour for or against austerity?
    1/ wants to raise the standards of living/ but wont move from the tory pay restraints?
    2/ wants to build more homes but wants the private sector to build those unaffordable homes?
    3/Wants to partially end zero hour contracts/ which ones does he want to keep?
    4/ wants to create a better relation with the trade unions but quotes one nation conservatives and a Lord Derby?
    5/Seems to me the loudest applause came from the delegates who wanted Ed to answer what labour stood for? surely that’s a damming indictment of the utter confusion from the crowd.

    • RogerMcC

      No – Ed said: “We’re not in favour of austerity. I’m absolutely clear about that.”

      I thought the Lord Derby line fell flat but was a rather clumsy attempt to lead into another peroration about One Nation and how it is Labour and not the Tories that now embody this.

      And historically mid-Victorian Tories were rather more responsive on workers rights than the Whigs/Liberals – it was after all a Whig government (and a supposedly progressive one because it gave the vote to the upper middle classes in the First Reform Act) that sent the Tolpuddle Martyrs off to Australia….

      On pay restraints there was no definitive ‘won’t’ there – just a restatement that creating and protecting jobs must take precedence over pay.

      And on zero hour contracts ‘banning’ is much easier to say than to implement in that there are limited cases where zero hour contracts may be valid – and so what we got was a point by point list of specific abuses that would be legislated against – which on the whole I much prefer to a vague blanket commitment which could all too easily be diluted in power.

      On homes clearly the big announcement is being held back for conference (one hopes) but Ed is not foolish enough to imagine that the private sector will build a million new homes without massive state intervention (and we did in fact get rather a lot of that in the Brown government without which the collapse in construction would have been even more catastrophic).

      • rekrab

        “There will be tough choices and we need to be credible on the economy” sounds like a commitment to tory spending? are you saying Ed wont continue with pay restraints? I think you should read what Ed Balls has already said?

        So your saying Ed believes labour does one nation politics better than the old tries?

        Historically! the trade unions continue to press for better terms and conditions, are you suggesting we should go back to those Whig days of absolute class rule?

        Well, can you tell me the zero hour contracts that are good and set good precedence?

        Again I’d ask you to read what Jack Dromey has said on building new homes.

        • Mike Homfray

          I think you are being too negative.
          A lot of Attlee’s appeal was very much one nation. Many Army officers from middle class backgrounds came back from the war and became involved in the Labour party – such as Major Denis Healey who recognised the need to do something about working class poverty.
          Bevan understood this too. He knew the way to get the middle classes on board with health and social security benefits was universal benefits
          Zero contracts – I am the owner of one, and mine would become illegal. But supply teaching, for example, and some student work, which can fit around their work commitments, might require some sort of zero hours contract, but even they could be fairer to the worker if they restrict them to working solely for the company concerned.
          No financial commitments have been made past the first year, but I think the investment in infrastructure is most important. The NHS increases in funding were at least half given over to increasing salaries. Needed at the time, but it made it difficult to then account for the fact that productivity didn’t go up in line with added spending
          If the priority is pay increases, then what about our other priorities?

        • RogerMcC

          ‘Sounds like’ does not equal actually is.

          The point about such rhetoric is that firstly an electorate which gets what little information it has about politics from the Tory media demands it and secondly that in power it is much easier to offer something when your starting point is nothing than it is to scale down unrealistic expectations.

          Personally I’d prefer gung ho Keynesianism if not a Stalinist 5-year plan – but with the electorate and media we have that is a recipe for disaster.

          Ed certainly does believe that there is mileage in invoking the old Tories and while I am sceptical of that this is only because I have far less faith that the English people have any sense of their real history at all than a romantic son of refugee academics does.

          And intellectually there is a pretty good argument that in an age of neoliberalism it is social democrats like Labour who are now the small c-conservatives while it is the big C-Conservatives who are the crazed utopian radicals bent on ripping up and destroying every value and institution in the name of free markets.

          See for example the work of Christopher Lasch, Jeremy Seabrook and the more cogent of the Blue Labour lot.

          And where the hell do you get ‘should go back to those Whig days of absolute class rule?’?

          How on earth does pointing out that in the Victorian era Whig/Liberal governments were better servants of the industrial bourgeoisie than were Tory ones which at that point still largely served the landed gentry (which I know is an over-generalisation but this is an internet comment and not a history seminar….) but were not above making tactical concessions to the nascent working class in order to ‘dish the Whigs’ constitute a reactionary hankering for the return of dark satanic mills and top hatted Mr Gradgrinds sending children down pits.

          Clearly you are just looking for an argument in the Monty Python sense rather than actually reading anything I’ve said…..

          On zero hour contracts I took much the same view as you until I read this by Paul Cotterill:

          http://thoughcowardsflinch.com/2013/09/06/on-being-a-zero-hours-employer/

          And read Unite’s research on this which does not call for a blanket ban but makes specific demands tailored to specific abuses.

          On Jack Dromey as somebody who has worked as a housing policy analyst I do not need to be lectured on what he has been saying.

          Yes the private sector will have to build those new homes because even at the height of council house building in the late 1940s through to the 1970s it was private contractors who did most of the actual building work.

          Now as a reactionary socialist I would prefer every one of a million new homes to be council homes allocated purely on need.

          However this is not 1945 or even 1975 so that is not going to happen and instead we are going to get a mix of private and social ‘affordable’ homes which best uses the limited resources that will actually be available to reach whatever target is set.

          Its not perfect but given that there is no better way of getting hundreds of thousands of people back into work and a million families into new homes I’ll accept it.

          • rekrab

            Why do you believe it equates to what you say? when there is clearly a pile of written to suggest they have committed to tory spending.

            I think since 2010 there has been a continued call for labour to give some solid policies.

            I wouldn’t argue against a much stronger stimulus.

            I don’t think many would disagree with your small “c” statement, especially after those 13 years of new labour, I’m just concerned we need to break away from that mould and explore what really needs to be done to create a fairer society.

            I believe you raised the historical point of whigs, I merely grouped the current bunch of self servers into the fold.

            Zero hour contracts and day rate pay deals, often feed an outside organisation, like a well serviced bank vault, I’m sure all types of work can be catered for by contracts, it’s just plain daft not to have a cover plan for school teachers ect?

            I really do hope you secure work and an home (affordable one) we had a real problem with the private housing sector using unskilled personnel and eastern europeans to maximise profits, it’s really hard to control that type of misuse unless we use as much local authority staff as possible and create those much needed apprenticeships.

            I glad I’ve lifted your spirit, I not convinced by Ed, I think he’s making a huge mistake and I’m not convinced labour has an alternative plan .I’ve said it before, the trade union movement hasn’t been responsible for the break down of labour values, the PLP has, there the ones that need to reform.

          • RogerMcC

            Wouldn’t go so far as lifted my spirits.

            And while I am on the left side on this argument one has to admit that historically every single step we’ve taken towards the current sorry situation was implemented by trade union block and NEC votes – going back at least to the suppression of the Bevanites in the 1950s and ending with the abolition of the last shreds of inner party democracy with ‘Partnership in Power’.

            Unions also at several historic junctures (particularly In Place of Strife) intervened decisively to ensure that we weren’t able to evolve into the modern German-style corporate state which we are now yet again being told should be the model to aspire to.

            And at the Spring conference those same union block votes will themselves finally end the the union link as we know it.

            So lets abandon all illusions about trade union bureaucrats who as any decent analysis (starting with Ralph Miliband’s Parliamentary Socialism) will tell you have always been the closest allies of the reformists in the PLP.

            The difference now is that the tepid reformists who took us only so far and no further along the road to socialism are now what passes for a left while the Labour right include actual neo-liberal fanatics.

  • RogerMcC

    It is profoundly annoying but again I find myself in general agreement with Luke Akehurst.

    Practically speaking a change is now going to happen and the question is can it be a negotiated one that minimises the real and inevitable damage this will do to Labour’s income and chances of winning the next election.

    And I do believe Ed is playing a longer game where he sees the only option for ending the massive in-built imbalance in party spending and bringing about state funding of political parties is for Labour to commit this act of ritual self-mutilation first.

    But its a huge gamble as all depends on Labour’s poll lead being sustained and not in fact an illusion due to large numbers of Tories pretending that they’d vote UKIP when in every marginal seat that matters they will mostly in fact vote Tory.

    And lose that GE in 2015 and it will be game over for Labour, the NHS, the welfare state and quite possibly the United Kingdom itself.

    • Mike Homfray

      But changing party funding is a must. There will not be wholesale change until we gain power. This is a first step but unions will still be able to give lump sums for elections until the donations rules are changed. Its clear the Tories don;t want to do this – so we will have to do it alone when we are next in power. A cap of 5 thousand will be much fairer and will cut the cost of politics

      • RogerMcC

        Which is what I was saying.

        But Labour is taking a huge risk which can only pay off if we do win the election and can reform party funding.

        But winning that election still needs money and between this and the threat of the lobbying bill (and the Tories and Lib Dems still have an option to hit us on union donations before the election) I can easily see a situation where the Tories outspend us by such a huge margin that they scrape back in.

        • Mike Homfray

          True. But I don’t see any alternative because as you say the ConDems want to have a go in any case.

          However, I think we can exaggerate the impact of spending. At least we do have overall caps in general elections

          • RogerMcC

            Which raises a whole ground vs air war debate.

            But to adapt and invert the old hippie poster about dope, in politics money will get you through a time of having no activists better than having activists can get you through a time of no money.

            So the Tories can basically hire mercenaries (i.e. pay agencies to deliver their leaflets – as I remember New Labour doing at it’s very nadir in the mid-2000s when it was awash with Lord Levy’s money but no one would volunteer to fight by-elections) and buy up every free advertising billboard to compensate for their lack of ground troops.

            Whereas we may have (some) more boots on the ground but could have nothing to supply them with….

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