I have noticed over the years a general rule of thumb that governs part of the historic relationship between the trade unions – and the party they founded. It is that over the decades millions of workers have paid into and voted for their union’s political levy. In the case of most of the unions, a great deal of that money goes into affiliation fees paid to the Labour Party. It has been paid through thick and thin, when the party was seemingly in endless opposition, to when it seemed to prefer the money it was getting from ‘high value donors’ . Over those decades, hundreds of thousands of trades unionists will have worked for Labour Party candidates at local and at national level. Until fairly recently, a reasonable number of those same trades unionists, experienced in the real World of work, became members of parliament themselves.
I have also noticed over the same period that many of those who become the loudest critics of the trade unions would never have been in any position to become so without the support of the trade unions in getting them into Parliament in the first place. I have also noticed that many of the loudest and persistent critics of the unions ended up setting up their own parties or crossing over to others. I have also watched as many end up going to the House of Lords, being rewarded with assorted honours and like Peter Mandelson draped in his ermine robes, becoming latter day corporate oligarchs into the bargain.
Lord Mandelson of Foy, Sherriff Garter of the City of Hull etc, has today grandly set aside higher things and waded into the row over who the Labour Party might be allowed to select as a candidate at the next election in Falkirk. The selection is taking place because the sitting MP, who was parachuted into the Falkirk seat in a classic act of chicanery over a first rate sitting Labour MP, Dennis Canavan , has persistently been found to be drunk and disorderly. This particular paragon of virtue also appears to making a great deal of running in various newspapers over the Falkirk row.
The Falkirk row has now become extremely serious. But unless Lord Mandelson has seen a copy of the investigation into the selection of the candidate – something I understand that Unite the union has not, it would be very wise of him to follow the advice famously given by Clement Atlee to Harold Laski, when he said; ‘A period of silence from you would be most welcome’.
Last week a Parliamentary selection took place in Enfield North, London. The victor was former MP and Labour whip, Joan Ryan, who had earned herself the title of ‘the expenses queen’ in the previous Parliament. In the weeks running up that selection, there were repeated efforts by local party members and elected officers to try and get the party nationally to investigate claims of mass membership recruitment – and not by affiliated organisations such as Unite who are entitled under party rules to do so. There were claims – as there have been in other places – that an outside private consultancy had been hired to help organise the vote for one candidate. These were all very serious allegations, but no one in Enfield seems to think that anything has been done to investigate them. In fact, when a member of the Unite union turned up to observe the Enfield North vote, she was barred from attending.
Selections aside, in a party short of activists and members, and in a party where American recruitment techniques have yet to prove themselves, renewed efforts by some unions to recruit members to the party must on the whole surely be seen as a good thing. Equally as good would be to see fewer professional politicians, and more nurses, teachers, firefighters and train drivers.
It is also high time that the trade unions were treated with a little more respect and dare I say it, gratitude. Only in Britain and America in the democratic World are union as demonised in the media and by the political establishment to such a degree. Their loss of influence and confidence has manifested itself in the increased polarisation, pauperisation and privatisation of Britain. In the past the unions were often seen as valuable whipping boys for some in New Labour to prove their political virility and for a while there were even plans by some in the party to break the link altogether.
The relationship between the unions and the party has withstood all of this, and I don’t expect a row, serious as it is over Falkirk, to necessarily change it. But something is afoot and unless handled with due care and diligence, could yet turn a fissure into potential rupture.