The Executive Council of the big trade union Unite has agreed to cut its affiliation to the Labour Party by 10% or 50,000 members, in what is generally seen as a protest against Keir Starmer’s leadership.
It is not a good or effective protest, if the aim is to promote left-wing policies, Labour democracy, and a working-class voice in politics.
Unite’s official statement is cryptic. It does not refer to Starmer’s leadership or the direction it is taking Labour, except in the vaguest of hints, instead talking about support for “emerging talent”, “talented thinkers” and “energetic organisations”.
It says this will promote “a collective voice from the shop floor to the grassroots, helping to ensure the party listens to and genuinely reflects the aspirations of the many for a Labour Party and Labour movement that will truly deliver on our shared vision and values”.
Rather than clarifying what this mother-and-apple-pie stuff means, repeated and widely-circulated comments from Len McCluskey have focused on Starmer et al’s decision to settle the legal cases brought by former party officials who complained about antisemitism.
There are reasonable arguments the decision was wrong, but wanting to put the matter to bed and move on has sense too. The problem is why McCluskey has chosen to focus on this issue rather than numerous clearer and more important ones, and rather than making arguments for working-class and socialist politics.
None of this does anything to promote the kind of left-wing, pro-working class policies Starmer is quietly abandoning, democratic control over policy-making, or party democracy more broadly. More generally the Unite hierarchy does very little to fight for these things.
Unite is associated with a kind of generic “leftism” in the Labour Party. But in terms of actual, concrete policies, the main noise it has made since 2015 has been to block left-wing stances on issues like nuclear weapons and airport expansion.
The policies Unite has submitted to Labour’s conference have in general been extremely bland. Left policies agreed by the union’s democratic structures have remained on paper. Unite has never submitted or done anything to promote the demand to repeal the anti-trade union laws, though this was clearly agreed by the union’s last policy conference in 2018.
When Labour and trade union activists fought for fully democratic (“open”) selections for parliamentary candidates in 2018, the Unite leaders opposed the demand — in violation of the union’s conference policy.
Posing things in terms of financial give-and-take promotes not collective working-class political representation but a US-style, business-unionist conception of politics. It allows the Unite leadership to posture as critical without engaging in any actual struggle within the party.
With this approach, it seems unlikely that money saved from affiliation will be used to promote a serious fight in the Labour Party. It seems likely it will be used to create jobs for Stalinist-influenced careerists, many of whom are Unite members.
A necessary lever for turning things around in the party is to turn things round in the unions, too: members should organise for democratic control over policy, and in particularly for the many left-wing policies agreed by Labour and union conferences to be campaigned for.