My biggest worry about Labour’s future

Luke Akehurst

Recently I was asked what my biggest worry about Labour’s future was as an NEC member.

This may seem a quirky answer, but I get very nervous about the future health of the Labour Party’s link with the trade union movement.

I’m not so worried about the obvious threat, a change by the Coalition Government to rules on donations to put an upper limit on donations by a single organisation. That would cause catastrophic damage to Labour’s finances but it might leave the political connection between the two wings of the Labour movement – industrial and political- intact.

Nor am I worried by an unrepresentative and small minority who actively want to sever the link. They don’t represent wider opinion in the party.

What worries me is a gradual, insidious, cultural and political growing apart of the party and its affiliates.

At the top level, there is a robust relationship, with a strong block of union representation on the NEC, active participation by union delegations in Annual Conference and the NPF, and unions providing funding and directing activists to help in marginal seats at election times.

But since Sir Ken Jackson’s defeat as General Secretary of Amicus by Derek Simpson in 2002, all the biggest affiliates have been led by left(-ish) General Secretaries, even if some of them are more rhetorically than actually leftwing. This makes for a lop-sided relationship, with the unions all stacked up to the left even of Ed Miliband who was the leader they overwhelmingly backed. Only two mid-sized unions, USDAW and Community, buck this trend. You therefore get an appearance in the media of unions in conflict with the party leadership which must be very disconcerting for rank-and-file union members, who can’t all be to the left of Ed Miliband given that trade union members aren’t even overwhelmingly Labour voters.

In most of the main unions elections for national level posts have become a contest between candidates from the Labour left and insurgents from even further left forces like the SWP. This distorts General Secretaries’ perceptions of the political spectrum: instead of worrying about how Labour can win over swing voters, who are probably not unrepresentative of their members, they worry about fending off (or in the worst cases appeasing) ultra-left activists who can give them a hard time at conference.

This phenomenon, known in France as glissement, “sliding” towards the left, has also occurred at a regional level in some unions, but with a time lag as centrist regional bastions created by previous generations of union leader have taken a while to erode.

It prospers because of low turnout both in internal union elections and in union participation in Labour elections. In the Labour leadership election turnout was only 7.8% in the GMB, 6.7% in UNISON and 10.5% in Unite. In the Unite General Secretary election the turnout was just 16%.

A negative feedback loop is being created where Labour moderates (defined in this context as anyone who broadly supports the leadership) get the impression they are not going to fit in politically in the structures of their union so don’t engage in them. It then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Similarly some of the most talented potential parliamentary candidates get the impression they won’t get union support so don’t seek it.

When it comes to ordinary Labour Party and trade union activists, the cultural dissonance that is just jarring at national level is at risk of becoming a chasm. This isn’t universal – in many CLPs union members are very active in the party and vice versa. But in some CLPs an alarming situation has arisen where not many trade unionists are active in the party, and not many of the key party activists are trade union members, let alone activists. It has become politically acceptable, when once it was anathema, for Labour Party members to question the price of the union link, and trade union members to question its value.

The new intake of members since May 2010, whilst welcome, have been disproportionately not from trade union backgrounds, perhaps because membership fees have deterred people already paying monthly subs to a union, or perhaps because in some CLPs the middle class liberal culture of the party doesn’t make it look welcoming.

In my CLP 41% of the members who joined before 2000 are in a union, but only 16% of those who joined between 2000 and 2009 are union members. For the nearly half of our members who joined since the start of 2010, only 8% are union members. I find that figure shocking and deeply disturbing. This is in a party that within the last 20 years still had a national policy of compulsory union membership – you couldn’t join Labour without joining a union.
You can’t be mad at the unions for only getting a 10% turnout in Labour elections when only a similar percentage of our new members even join a union.

It’s shocking because this looks like Labour losing touch with its roots as a party founded by the unions to advance working class interests in Parliament.

It’s also shocking because this is a cohort of people politicised enough to join a party, yet not signed up to the most basic collective protection in their workplace from whatever their employer might try to do to them. This implies they don’t know what unions are for in the workplace, because anyone that did, would join one just to get the legal support and advice unions offer. A major factor in this is the complete invisibility of unions in many workplaces – if no one comes round and tries to recruit you, you wouldn’t hear what the advantages were.

This growing political gap was reflected in the debate about Refounding Labour. The new members are not particularly hostile to the unions keeping a strong voice in the party, even if not trade unionists themselves they seem to buy into that on idealistic grounds. But culturally as free-thinking liberals they expected a very public and open debate about the proposals, and ran into a cultural brick wall when they encountered trade unions nationally who wanted a private, behind-closed-doors negotiation to arrive at a consensus deal – as you would expect from people who negotiate every day with employers, and a collectivist and disciplined, rather than individualist, approach to decision making.

I think the time has come for an urgent renewal of the link if it is going to survive and thrive.

I don’t mean a fight over the voting power of the unions.

I mean a joint push by Labour and its affiliates to make the link an organic reality in every constituency and see off its enemies on the far left (who want the political funds currently allocated to Labour for whichever Trot party they are in) and the far right (who want Labour to lose its identity as a class party).

This would need to involve:

  • A national audit of the health of the link, CLP by CLP, and joint work to get greater union involvement in Labour campaigning (and vice versa) and the party’s democratic structures where this is weakest.
  • A massive push to get union members to join the party on the £15 union levy payers’ rate.
  • A corresponding push to get every party member not in a union to join the appropriate one.
  • Education and information for union members to explain the value of the link and how they can input into Labour.
  • Education and information for party members about how unions work and what they do.
  • A drive by the unions to increase turnout in their own elections and when they vote in party elections.
  • Acceptance by union leaders that Labour loyalists who back their party leadership have a legitimate role to play in the political life of the unions.

Outside of these official channels of work, Labour moderates need to re-engage with union political structures in a systematic way. It’s no use complaining that the unions don’t reflect your views if you don’t engage in their structures.

I think the link is at the heart of what Labour is. Let it atrophy or be severed and we would have no organisational roots in working class communities and would soon, deservedly, suffer the fate that befell the last attempt at a non-union-based centre-left party in the UK, the SDP, dead within a decade and with its key players so deracinated many of them have ended up in a Tory-led government.

More from LabourList


We provide our content free, but providing daily Labour news, comment and analysis costs money. Small monthly donations from readers like you keep us going. To those already donating: thank you.

If you can afford it, can you join our supporters giving £10 a month?

And if you’re not already reading the best daily round-up of Labour news, analysis and comment…