If the union link ends, so might the Labour Party

There will have been a collective intake of breath across the Labour Party – and the trade unions – this morning at the Guardian’s headline “Ed Miliband to explore historic break with trade unions”. After the past week, that would have been the latest and most damaging escalation of hostilities between the party and the union and a vast over-reaction to what is still confined to a debate about one party selection (or at most, a handful of selections). The Labour Party and the unions have worked together for over 100 years since the latter created the former. A row over a party selection – however serious, and this is very serious indeed – will not be cause for the end of the Labour-Union link.

Fortunately Ed Miliband agrees. A senior Labour source told us this morning:

“It’s nonsense. Ed will speak about the way he wants to lead party in future but we are proud of the link with 3 million people.”

Now that’s a carefully worded statement, because by referring to “3 million people” rather than “the trade unions”, there’s some credence given to the substance of the Guardian story. Because despite the headline, what the mysterious “former cabinet minister” suggests in the Guardian is that there should be one category of union members. That could just as easily mean bringing affiliated, levy paying trade unionists into the party as full members – which although controversial and radical, would not constitute a break with the unions, far from it. Another alternative would be to reintroduce the affiliated membership status for affiliated trade unionists. That appears to be a position that has support amongst the unions, as TULO (the body that brings together Labour’s affiliated trade unions) recommended in their “Refounding Labur” submission that:

“The time has come to restate the federal structure of the Labour Party within our rules through an explicit definition of affiliated membership as per the original Clause 2 of the rulebook”

So there are options out there if Miliband wants to alter the precise relationship between the party and the unions – although it’s not clear how that wold be a proportionate response to the Falkirk farrago. Rather, it would be seen as a response to the agenda of the right wing press and the Tory Party.

Yet what is becoming clear – and perhaps this is what the Guardian’s headline writer was reflecting this morning – that there are those in the Labour Party – although not Miliband himself – who are agitating for a wholesale end to Labour’s link with the trade unions. To do so would quite possibly be the end of the Labour Party as we know it. From a purely financial point of view, the Labour Party receives a large proportion of its income in affiliation fees from affiliated unions (note – these aren’t donations, they’re not negotiable, if the union is affiliated these fees must be paid). Without money coming in from millions of union members, the already tightly squeezed Labour Party budget becomes unsustainable. The Party couldn’t run an election campaign. Basic administration would prove difficult. The only alternative would be to rely on a small number of wealthy donors, rapidly scale up small donors or revisit public funding of political parties. Neither looks likely in the short term. End result? Bankruptcy and the end of the Labour Party.

But let’s say that – somehow – the party managed to break the link without a complete financial meltdown. Can a party that has broken from organised Labour and removed a direct link between itself and millions of working people really call itself the “Labour” Party? Instead we’d become a European Social Democractic Party – and for some that would be ok. But that kind of rootless, vague, metropolitan type of politics doesn’t really do it for me. The Labour Party’s politics have never been truly socialist or social democractic, but workerist – Labourist – and ending the link would quite probably shatter that forever.

If Ed Miliband wants to make the case for “reforming” the union link, he’ll need to make the case for what justifies such a change – besides right wing rhetoric – and how such reform might benefit the party.

But if he – or anyone else – wants to make the case for ending the union link, they can do it over my dead body. And quite possibly the dead body of the Labour party.

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