Miliband, Labour and Falkirk: the real problem is unions aren’t influential enough
If Falkirk is used to weaken trade unionists’ role in politics it can only entrench the closed circle of corporate power
We’ve had one political scandal after another. David Cameron’s election adviser has been revealed as a lobbyist for tobacco, oil and gas companies. Ministers and civil servants are locked in a whirligig of revolving door corruption. Fifteen families or “donor groups” now account for a third of Tory funding.
But instead of turning its fire on the sleaze at the heart of the country’s establishment, media and politicians have united in horror at the discovery that trade unions have been trying to influence the direction of the Labour party – as they have, with greater or usually less success, since they founded it 113 years ago.
By any honest measure, union funding is the cleanest, most transparent and accountable money in British politics, while the unions now constitute the last significant element of working class participation in British public life.
But for the past week, every clapped out cliche of anti-union propaganda – from union “barons” and “bosses” to industrial “thugs” and “dinosaurs” – has been dredged up to damn what the Sun calls Labour’s “ruinous relationship” with organised labour.
The trigger for this latest outpouring of class contempt was the internal Labour row over its parliamentary selection in Falkirk, which led the national party to call in the police amid claims that Unite had been bending the rules to install its favoured candidate.
I’ve just read the “strictly private and confidential” report on the affair which Labour has refused to publish – and given the thin gruel offered up by way of evidence, it’s perhaps not hard to see why. The most significant allegations are that a handful of members were signed up without their knowledge (by family members), and that “there are discrepancies in the signatures” of four others (suggesting some may have been forged).
Unite had been running a successful recruitment campaign – notably at the Ineos oil refinery and Alexander Dennis bus-building plant – and backed one of the main candidates, but the union isn’t held directly responsible in the report. Nor is the Blairite candidate , who paid the subscriptions for 11 new members, a transgression that has largely escaped media and Westminster outrage.
Miliband yesterday denounced Falkirk as the “death-throes” of a “hated machine politics”. In reality, it was New Labour which deployed machine politics over two decades to parachute in croney candidates, often with the collaboration of pliant union officials.
One consequence is the hopelessly unrepresentative nature of the parliamentary Labour party, only 9% of whose members are now from a manual occupation, compared with 40% in 1979 and 4% in parliament as a whole. Unite and other unions have been trying to change that, elect more MPs who reflect public opinion rather than the elite consensus, and counter the Lord Sainsbury-funded “Progress” machine to select yet more Blairite candidates.
The right response by Labour’s leadership to Falkirk would have been to freeze the contested memberships, investigate the shenanigans and continue the selection under supervision (as Labour’s report comments, “it is not unusual” for such complaints to be made in selections).
Instead, there was a determined drive by Labour’s resurgent Blairite diehards the Conservatives, and a relentlessly anti-union media to bounce Miliband – elected on the back of union political levy-payers’ votes – into taking a self-destructive axe to Labour’s union links.
Yesterday, Miliband drew back from the most damaging moves that had been pressed on him over the weekend – including any reprise of the Tories’ post-1926 general strike scheme to force trade unionists to “opt in” to the political levy used to finance Labour. And he made clear he understands that it would be folly not to give more rein to the 3 million affiliated “shopworkers, nurses, engineers, bus drivers, construction workers” currently affiliated to the party.
But he now wants them to affiliate as individuals, rather than as part of a collective union relationship, along with plans for caps on spending and the introduction of primaries. That can be expected to slash Labour’s affiliation income and give unions more discretion as to how they spend their political funds – one reason why Unite’s Len McCluskey was relaxed about the proposals yesterday.
But they also risk laying the ground for a further hollowing out of the unions’ role, which is why Tony Blair and his friends were so enthusiastic. The arcane details are going to matter.
The truth is that not only do the unions not run the Labour party, they have precious little influence in it, despite their 49% of conference votes and regular pay cheques. If Miliband were really in the unions’ pockets, he would treat McCluskey with the kind of deference reserved for bankers and corporate barons, and Labour would certainly not be signing up to George Osborne’s ruinous spending plans. No wonder many trade unionists think they should take their bat and ball elsewhere.
The real problem is that trade unions – by far the largest voluntary organisations in the country – aren’t influential enough. Their weakness has fuelled inequality and insecurity. Far from promoting some kind of outlandish or sectarian agenda, their policies – from rights at work to opposition to privatisation – are mainstream and popular. You’d never know it from the media’s Orwellian babble, but 69% of the population support the Labour-union link.
No amount of reform will ever satisfy those who want to break that link or drive unions out of politics. The real test for Miliband’s plans to recast his party for the 21st century is whether they help to build a political counterweight to the closed circle of corporate power that constitutes today’s political establishment – or entrench it still further.