Labour and the unions: much more threat than opportunity

Submitted by Matthew on 7 August, 2013 - 4:05

On 24 July Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey told an emergency meeting of all members of the union’s Regional Political Committees and the union’s National Executive Committee that Ed Miliband’s new proposals for Labour Party structure are “not a threat but an opportunity”.

“Ed Miliband has made some bold and far-reaching proposals for recasting the trade union relationship with the Labour Party. Some pundits were expecting me to reject them outright. When Ed made his speech, I saw it as an opportunity not as a threat”.

Miliband’s main idea (9 July) was that trade unionists should be required to “opt in” individually to the political levy paid to Labour, rather than paying so long as they do not “opt out”.

This will lead to:

• A big fall in payments (maybe balanced by union leaders making more donations to Labour out of their non-levy funds)

• Inevitable pressure to cut drastically, or even abolish, collective trade-union input to Labour Party conference and Labour Party committees

• Given the current condition of CLPs, a further elevation of the Labour leadership out of democratic control.

”The details have yet to become clear”, said McCluskey, ”but they offer the prospect of tens of thousands of Unite members playing a more active role within the Labour Party.”

Members of affiliated unions can already join the Labour Party cheaply. Unite levy-payers can join for £19.50 a year, rather than the standard £45.

Unite leaders have been campaigning to recruit them to Labour, but with little success, signing up only a fraction of their modest target of 5000 new Labour Party members (0.35% of the union’s membership).

That is not because workers lack the chance to “opt in”. It is because the Unite union machine is not good at campaigning among its members; because the Labour leaders’ current message is unattractive; and because Unite cannot show its members a strong union drive to change Labour policies which they could join by joining the Labour Party. Those things need to be changed — not the opting-out rule.

Miliband offered those who “opt in” no individual rights or powers in the Labour Party beyond those which levy-payers already have (the chance to vote once every several years in Labour leadership contests). Making the levy-payers opt in, rather than giving them the option to opt out, will not make them more active. It will not increase the numbers who opt to pay more and do more by becoming individual members.

Falkirk West was the exception among the generally poor results of Unite’s drive to get its union members to join Labour. There, Unite activists in a big local factory convinced a hundred-plus fellow trade unionists to join the local Labour Party.

The result? A witch-hunt was launched against the union. The leading union activist involved, and the constituency Labour Party (CLP), were both suspended.

That will not encourage others.

Miliband’s other 9 July proposals cut against trade unionists becoming more active in the Labour Party.

“Standard constituency agreements with each trade union so that nobody can allege that individuals are being put under pressure at local level”? But if Labour councillors and MPs can evade all pressure from the rank and file — i.e. pay no attention to rank and file views and decisions — that discourages people from joining.

Labour candidates – initially for London mayor – to be selected in US-style primaries? That would mean that if tens of thousands of Unite members do become more active in the Labour Party, they will find that in selection contests their votes will be dwarfed by those of people who are not even party members and who have paid no or only a minimal subscription.

McCluskey said: ”The offer [from Labour to the trade unionists it wants to “opt in”] has to be an attractive one. Above all, that means a Labour Party that (is) not a party that is a pinkish shadow of the present coalition that gives the City a veto over economic decisions and embraces the austerity agenda. I believe that Labour under Ed Miliband can be that party – a party that our members want to support because it feels like their party.”

Labour’s right wing has long wanted and worked to cut the potential influence of the affiliated unions in the Labour Party, so as to make it easier for a future Labour government to continue with austerity.

McCluskey argues that a cut in the potential influence of the affiliated unions would result in a future Labour government being more likely to... serve workers’ interests.

Imagine an employer who announces:

”I’ve read about the scandal in our Falkirk factory in that well known organ of journalistic honesty, the Daily Mail, and have decided to re-cast my company’s relations with the trade union.

“Henceforth, there will be a cut in the number of recognised reps, a cut in their facility time, and every member of our scattered workforce will automatically lapse from the union from next month unless she or he signs a form opting in to it.

“We will make sure union members can apply no pressure to union reps. Passing members of the public will be given the same right to vote on pay offers as union members.”

Imagine a union rep who then responds:

”Some pundits were expecting me to reject this proposal outright. But I see it as an opportunity, not a threat.

“Could I continue to go before the media and pretend to speak on behalf of the entire workforce? No, half of them are not even in the union. It’s indefensible, and I don’t want to defend it.

“But the offer has to be an attractive one. The employer will continue to attract staff only if he offers the terms and conditions the union wants. And I believe Mr. Grindgrad can be that employer.”

Exaggeration apart, that pretty much up sums up the logic of the position taken by McCluskey.

Miliband’s proposals point to a reduction in trade union influence in the Labour Party. They are the latest step in a consistent drive stretching over three decades. And that is why the proposals have been greeted with enthusiasm by the anti-union Blairites.

McCluskey: ”The relationship between the unions and Labour has not always worked for working people. Too often in the past the party has favoured establishment interests over improving the lives of ordinary people.”

Until Neil Kinnock started the counter-reforms in the mid-1980s affiliated unions had 90% of the votes at Labour Party conference and a majority on Labour’s National Executive Committee.

Often the General Management Committees of local Labour Parties were dominated by delegates from affiliated trade union branches.

Yet, as McCluskey indicates, the union leaders backed right-wingers such as MacDonald and Henderson in the 1920s, and in the 1950s union barons such as Lawther, Deakin and Williamson used the block vote to crush left-wing opposition based in the local Labour Parties.

As the author of a Fabian pamphlet on the union-labour link published in 2005 put it:

“Unions... protected the party against extremism, the political obsessions of the ‘chattering classes’ and a focus on cultural politics.”

The real problem lay in the lack of democracy within the affiliated trade unions, and their domination by privileged officials whose vision never extended beyond getting a slightly better compromise deal with “establishment interests”. Lack of rank-and-file control over the union leaders allowed them to serve the Labour Party leadership rather than in the interests of their own members.

The answer is not to cut union voting rights in the party, but to increase membership involvement and accountability within the trade unions.

To reduce the role which unions play in the Labour Party, and maybe seal off that role from rank-and-file influence even more, by making the main relationship between the unions and the Labour Party lump-sum donations from political funds, with their terms negotiated between closed doors between union and Labour leaders, would take us backwards.

McCluskey again: ”The experience of the last generation on this issue [of party reform] was: the party leader says something, the unions reject it and have no positive proposals of our own, the first plan goes through anyway and we look like not just losers, but conservative losers.”

All six-hundred-plus local Labour Parties and all affiliated unions used to be entitled to submit motions to party conferences. But now a maximum of just four “contemporary” motions from local Labour Parties and four from affiliated unions can be debated at party conferences.

Labour Party leaders have always been quietly dismissive of defeats at party conferences. But under Blair this escalated into brazen contempt for conference decisions.

Trade unions used to control 90% of the votes at party conferences. Successive cuts have seen that fall to 49%. Unions used to have a majority of seats on the party’s National Executive Committee. Now they have 12 out of 32. On the National Policy Forum, an invention of the Blair years, trade unions have just 30 out of 186 seats.

And real decision-making powers about party policy have been moved away from conference, the National Executive Committee, or the National Policy Forum, to a Labour Party leadership sealed off from rank-and-file pressure.

Those were the “plans” which “went through”. The unions sometimes complained about the plans at first, but then voted them through because they thought it “divisive” or “helping the Tories” not to.

Union leaders deferred to the Labour parliamentary leaders again and again because they aspired to no more than getting the Tories out (before 1997) and keeping them out (after 1997).

After the Labour Party swung to the left in the early 1980s, 17 trade union leaders in the so-called St Ermin’s Group – including the general secretaries of the engineering, rail, electricians’, postal workers’, steelworkers’ and shopworkers’ trade unions – took the initiative to win control of the National Executive Committee and reverse the swing to the left.

The main tool they used was the trade union block vote.

At the 1993 Labour Party conference – where unions still had 90% of the votes – John Smith was able to win sufficient trade union support to secure a reduction in the union block vote from 90% to 70%, and the introduction of one member, one vote in leadership elections and parliamentary selections.

Ironically, in the light of more recent developments, the Labour Party leadership sold these cuts in union influence to the unions by introducing the “levy plus” scheme – members of affiliated unions could join the Labour Party for just £3 a year.

After Blair took over as party leader following Smith’s death in 1994, the pace accelerated. The trade union leaderships acquiesced.

In 2011 TULO (the unions affiliated to the Labour Party) produced “positive proposals” (though small ones) on Labour Party democracy, in response to the Labour leadership’s “Refounding Labour” consultation. The Labour leadership ignored the union proposals, and bounced an undemocratic package through Labour conference 2011. Again, the unions acquiesced.

The answer here cannot be to move from complaining, then acquiescing, to... acquiescing straight away.

McCluskey: ”Strains in the Labour-union link have been fuelled by the failures and disappointments of Labour in office. The block vote didn’t stop a Labour government invading Iraq. Affiliation didn’t keep Labour out of the clutches of the banks and the City. Our special relationship didn’t get the union laws repealed.”

This is rather like arguing that because mass demonstrations of a million or more did not prevent the invasion of Iraq, small demonstrations are better.

Although denunciation of the failure of New Labour to repeal the Tories’ anti-union laws has now become a stock-in-trade of union leaders’ platform speeches, the union leaders themselves failed to campaign for repeal when New Labour was in office.

In the Warwick Agreement of 2004 — the “deal” the union leaders struck with Labour for the 2005 general election — repeal of the anti-union laws got no mention.

Union proposals for a Warwick Agreement Two for the 2010 general election were ignored by the party leaders, and included only minor changes to the anti-strike laws.

Only once in the Blair-Brown years — at the 2005 party conference — did the unions submit a motion advocating change in the Thatcher-Blair anti-strike laws, though that motion called for only modest reforms rather than outright abolition. In 2005 Blair suffered five straight defeats on the five conference motions debated. It could be done. But once the motions were passed, the union leaders let them slip into the archives with not even a murmur of pressure on the Labour leaders to respect them.

It was a similar story with the Iraq war.

In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq all union representatives on the party’s National Executive Committee voted — in breach of their own unions’ policies — against a left-wing motion opposing the invasion of Iraq. They backed a vague motion which functioned as a licence for war.

After the invasion union delegates again ignored their unions’ policies and unanimously agreed to “move to next business” when the issue of the invasion was raised on the National Executive Committee.

At the 2003 party conference motions on Iraq did not even win sufficient union support to be prioritised for debate.

At the following year’s conference 90% of the union votes backed a bland platform statement uncritical of the invasion and proposing a vague and conditional timetable for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq. The same proportion of union votes was cast against a more critical RMT motion calling for an early date for troop withdrawal.

The basic problem was not that the block vote and affiliation held back unions. It was that the unions chose not to fight for their policies in the Labour Party, and failed to follow up their successes when they did vote down Blair at conference.

McCluskey: ”Could I go before the television cameras and pretend to speak on behalf of one million Unite members who pay the political fund, wanting to affiliate to the Labour Party? No, half of them don’t even vote Labour. It was indefensible, and I don’t want to be defending it.”

The Labour Party was established in order to provide a political voice for the working class, to give individual workers the chance to vote for representatives from their own organisations rather than for the lesser evil among the candidates of the rich.

Prior to 1909, when it was made illegal by a court ruling, unions simply took a collective decision about whether to affiliate to the Labour Party. If the union voted in favour of affiliation, it paid an affiliation fee and was given collective representation in the Labour Party. Until 1918 there was no individual membership. The local Labour Party organisation in most areas was the Trades Council.

Only 63,000 people voted Labour in 1900, when Labour’s affiliated membership was 570,000 and the TUC’s 1.2 million. Only 254,000 voted Labour in 1906, when Labour’s affiliated membership was 900,000 and the TUC’s 1.7 million.

The vote was low partly because Labour stood in few seats. It stood in few seats because it had done a deal with the Liberal Party, in force until 1916, to run only where the Liberals stood aside for Labour. If workers had been asked individually to “opt” Labour or Liberal, a majority at that stage would have opted Liberal.

But by setting up the Labour Party the trade unions had created a new political opening for workers.

No-one would suggest that trade union affiliation to CND or War on Want should be based only on the number of members who individually sign a piece of paper authorising a proportion of their dues being handed over to such campaigns.

Historically, the same outlook has governed trade union affiliation to the Labour Party: affiliation is a collective input from a collective organisation.

Falkirk: the dodgy dossier

The police have now confirmed that nothing in the Labour Party dossier on alleged irregularities in the recruitment of Labour Party members in Falkirk justifies a police investigation, never mind arrests.

Although the dossier remains “confidential” — it has not been seen by members of the party’s National Executive Committee, by Unite, by Falkirk Labour Party officers, or by the two party members suspended on the basis of the dossier’s accusations — more and more of its contents have leaked.

The dossier’s Executive Summary claims:

“Members were recruited without their knowledge, members were pressurised into completing direct debit forms... signatures were forged on either application forms or direct debit mandates... members were recruited in an attempt to manipulate party processes.”


• The main body of the dossier does not support the contents of the Executive Summary.

• Only a handful of people, in just one or two families, were supposedly recruited without their knowledge (i.e. by other family members signing for them).

• Some of those who were supposedly unknowingly recruited are quoted as saying that they had been asked if they wished to join and had said that they did.

• None of the disputed party recruits were Unite members, none of them had been signed up under the ”Union Join” scheme, and none of them had had their membership fees paid by Unite.

• No-one accused of wrongdoing was given an opportunity to answer the allegations before the dossier’s authors set out their conclusions.

Yet it has come to light that one of the Labour Party’s executive directors even suggested, on the basis of the dossier, that the Labour Party affiliation of Unite at a national level should be suspended.

Demands by Unite that there should be an independent inquiry into Falkirk have previously been rejected by Labour Party officials on the grounds that “there is an independent inquiry — by the police.” Those officials are still refusing to accept an independent inquiry.

Instead, a spokesperson has announced: “As a result of the police decision, we will now pursue disciplinary action as a matter of urgency.”

Labour officials say nothing about the “Progress” contender for nomination for the seat paying £130 by cheque for the membership fees of eleven new members he had recruited.

• Lift the suspensions and restore control over the selection process to the local Labour Party!

• Scrap the 2012 cut-off date for participation in the selection process!

• An independent labour movement inquiry into Falkirk and the falsehoods in the dossier!

Speeding the campaign

Speeding the campaign

A campaign to defend the Labour-union link was initiated by some activists at the Tolpuddle Festival in late July, and discussions are in progress about a broader organising committee for it.

Union branches, Labour Party bodies, and individual activists can add their support to the campaign’s statement. The statement has already been endorsed by the Labour Representation Committee and the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy.

It’s a slow start, partly because Ed Miliband chose a time for his announcement when little more than the July-August holiday period stood between it and Labour Party conference starting 22 September. But we have to move quickly.

Miliband’s plan is for a “consultation document” written by Ray Collins to be put to the September conference. Possibly, probably, Collins will aim to bounce it through in the same way “Refounding Labour” was in 2011 — a long document voted as take-it-or-leave-it after delegates had had only a few days or hours to read it, and with no speeches against.

Final proposals will be put to a special Labour conference around March 2014.

Best reports are that the unions are divided, with Unite, Community, and Usdaw broadly favouring Miliband’s proposals, and all the other unions opposing, but not yet campaigning against, them.

Exactly what the Unite leaders understand they are welcoming when they welcome Miliband’s plans is not clear, and may be quite different from what Miliband’s office thinks the plans are. There are discussions in Unite about schemes which could help what the Unite leaders see as good — getting more individual trade unionists active in the Labour Party — without hurting the collective trade-union voice in Labour.

Unite’s Executive Committee meets to discuss the issues early in September.

Every socialist can contribute by canvassing individuals; promoting model motions; inviting speakers; circulating campaign materials; and organising local campaign meetings and networks.

Within the broader campaign to defend the link, socialists will argue for union democracy and for unions to use the link to promote working-class policies.

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