Labour’s relationship with the unions is not set in stone, says Peter Watt

As Tony Blair once said, “I didn’t come into politics to change the Labour party. I came into politics to change the country.”

And that is why opposition sucks.  We all joined the party so that we could play our part in turning our values into practical policies. We want to actually be able to improve the lives of people and their families, raise aspiration, work to strengthen the economy and so on. And you can only actually do that in government. For 13 years we felt that we were making a difference – making a difference at our local party meetings, making a difference at national policy forums and making a difference at party conference.

Oh I know that we complained that we were ignored (and probably we were, although not as much we claimed) but ministers of the crown came to our fundraising dinners, spoke at our events and circulated around the policy discussions and fringe at our conferences. It felt that we were both important and that we were involved in doing something important. And I guess that we can admit this now – we enjoyed it. Even the wine was better at conference when we were in government.

But all that changed in May. A lot has already been written about how we need to adapt to no longer being in opposition.  Of course we will provide a responsible opposition to the Tory-Lib Dem government; and of course we will spend time developing strategy and policy that will hopefully put us in good stead for an election in 2015. But if we’re honest there’s not much that you can really say that is actually positive about being in opposition.

There is one thing though – the thing that Tony Blair didn’t come into politics to do. In opposition we have the opportunity to spend some time and energy trying to reform the party. In reality, all of our most recent significant party reforms happened in opposition – expelling militant, OMOV, clause four, and partnership into power. And then when we entered government in 1997 it all stopped. It’s not surprising of course; there was a country to run and after 18 years of the Tories it’s not as if there wasn’t plenty to do.

But imagine if those reforms hadn’t happened. Would we have won in 1997 if Neil Kinnock hadn’t taken on and beaten militant? Can anyone really imagine reversing the OMOV reforms or reintroducing the old clause four?  And partnership in power may not be perfect but how many thousands of people have been involved in detailed policy discussions as a result – who otherwise wouldn’t have been?

So Ed has an opportunity to reform and he should take it. It has to be the leader that sets the tone, direction and pace of change. Others can support him, but no one else can actually make it happen. After 1997 it wasn’t that there weren’t still plenty of ideas for further reform – it’s just that the political leadership required for reform wasn’t there. When Tony Blair suggested further reform towards the end of his term he was then too weak to pursue it. When Gordon Brown became leader he suggested further reforming partnership in power but his reforms were ultimately watered down and then scrapped by the unions. History would suggest that it if Ed wants to make changes then he has a small window.

If he does decide to reform the party then he should do it in a way that helps to reinforce his developing story of change, Labour’s new generation and renewed optimism. First, he should announce that while the party’s relationship with the affiliated trade unions has been and remains a source of huge strength it is not set in stone. Ensuring that millions of working people across the country are represented collectively within the party remains a political imperative.

But it is not an excuse for the maintenance of the current flawed system of “affiliation fees” with its negative associations of influence and patronage. It will be a bold move that says that Ed’s talk of a new generation is real. That his excitement and optimism about the way that his campaign reached out with thousands of new and younger members will extend beyond his election as leader.

Change is coming anyway. The government is going to introduce legislation that will reform the funding of all political parties. Are we really going to argue that a £50,000 donation cap should apply to everyone else and to every other type of organisation but not to trade unions? Let’s hope not, because the public won’t buy it. Instead, we should be ahead of the game ensuring that the historic relationship with the trade unions develops so that it is an even stronger electoral asset. To do that will require the relationship to be re-crafted with a better balance between working with trade unions and working with individual trade unionists.  It will also need to recognise that the trade unions represent a significant proportion of the workforce – but by no means all.

So the first party reform that Ed should consider is an open, honest and time-limited consultation on the future of the way that working people achieve influence within the party and the nature of the affiliated relationship. Yes, it will be uncomfortable and even divisive in the short term. But the outcome should be fundamental reforms that secure the party’s relationship with the trade unions, but that also accepts that the status quo is unsustainable. And, most of all, the reforms must put centre stage organisationally and politically the reaching out to those both in trade unions and those who are not, who share our values and who could help us shape the sort of future that we all want.

Peter Watt was general secretary of the Labour party.

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4 Responses to “Labour’s relationship with the unions is not set in stone, says Peter Watt”

  1. Gary says:

    “Are we really going to argue that a £50,000 donation cap should apply to everyone else and to every other type of organisation but not to trade unions?”

    Let us remember that the unions might give millions, but it is not a single person giving a large sum. Rather, it is millions of individuals contributing a small amount. As far as I am aware, most unions give their members a form when they sign up to opt in or out of the political levy. Depressingly enough, most members are currently ‘opt-ing out’ of donating to the Labour Party. This is what needs to be addressed – not whether the combined donations of millions of working people somehow equate to the millions given by Lord Ashcroft.

  2. Dave Collins says:

    Gary – but what these donors have in common is that one guy (or EC) CAN CUT THEM OFF AT A STROKE!

    Although neither Ashcroft nor Unite have ever done so, it is the ever present threat that gives them their influence. It’s like mutual assured destruction.

    Peter is correct to say the current system is bust and must be replaced by one that incentivises member recruitment and other avenues for small, individual, donations.

    The link with the Unions is important to me, but regrettably they are no longer so representative of the ‘working class’ as once they were, and union membership is becoming concentrated in the public sector, posing delicate problems for any Labour government. There has to be a better way to manage relations with the unions, including those currently outside the Labour familly!

  3. Speedy says:

    Labour should maintain the link with the unions. The idea that the Tories are going to sacrifice their links with business for a cap is ridiculous. They will find a way around it and we need a way to compete. If we don’t like money in politics the solution is simple. Just make spending caps stronger.

    (this comment has been edited)

  4. Mike Homfray says:

    Far too much is spent on politics. Impose stringent caps on spending and control of the political propaganda allowed in the press – the rules should be the same as for broadcasting

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