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

Luke Akehurst

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.

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