by John Woodcock
All of us need to address how we change to meet Ed Miliband’s critically important challenge to reach out rather than look inwards.
His call to action is rightly pitched to all parts of our diverse Labour and Co-operative movement – constituency activists, MPs, frontbenchers, members of affiliated groups and trade unionists alike. As we seek to do more to talk to the public rather than just talk amongst ourselves, we need to remember that most of us need to combine more than one of those roles simultaneously; we know we cannot be at our best as Labour MPs serving the public unless we remain committed local campaigners and trade union members.
There will rightly be difficult and spirited debates about how a more open party should operate and how its structures should change. But we should keep in mind our leader’s other message of recent weeks – that united parties win and divided parties lose.
The relationship between the Labour party and Britain’s trade unions should remain as strong and vibrant through the twenty-first century as it was in the last century in which the party was founded. When functioning well as part of a broad and progressive coalition of support, the trade union link is a sign that Labour at its best can govern for the whole country in a way that can never be achieved by the Tories, whose basic antipathy to unions continues to colour all they do.
That is why I will have no truck with anyone who suggests breaking the link. And it is also why I was disappointed to hear one general secretary, Dave Prentis, suggesting last week that his Labour-affiliated union would start cherry picking which Labour candidates were worth supporting and which were not.
I was delighted when Unison supported me in the Barrow and Furness selection race before the last general election. In the year since I have been elected I have been proud to help lead a high profile local campaign to get a fairer deal for Cumbria teaching assistants, many of whom are Unison members.
I hope we will often campaign together, just as I know there will often be times when Dave and Labour’s frontbenchers will disagree. We cannot accept, for example, that the direction of public service reform set by the last Labour government was wrong because it apparently provided a bridge for the Tories to march over and inflict the chaos that is now blighting key areas. We will remain proud of New Labour’s record in government: in 13 years, during which we reversed decades of under-investment, improved the quality and scope of services and employed many more public servants. By 2010, the British people were being served by 85,000 more nurses, 36,000 more teachers, and 274,000 more support staff and teaching assistants.
Through all those arguments, we should keep in mind that there never has been a time when the Labour party was completely in line with any one group who supports it – nor will there ever be. But it has always been the case, and always will be, that a Labour government is better for those who rely on public services and those who work in them than its Conservative opponents.
And whatever views any supporter may have about an individual candidate at a general election, each one stands on a shared platform with an agreed manifesto. We all share the values that Labour-affiliated unions stand for. Basic maths tells us that the more Labour candidates that win, the better chance we have of forming a government and implementing that manifesto.
So an organisation that wants Labour to win but refuses to support some of the candidates surely risks shooting itself in the foot. And, to extend the metaphor, it risks shooting in the foot the millions of working people it represents.
There will be many differences of view as we seek to create a more open, more responsive party that is a credible force for the many who rely on a Labour government to stand up for them. There may even be the odd blazing row.
But we are stronger together. Whatever happens, let’s remember that.
John Woodcock is Labour and Cooperative MP for Barrow and Furness and a shadow transport minister.