by Atul Hatwal
This morning, over at the Telegraph, Dan Hodges reports on Unite’s moves to create a distinct party within the Labour party. At the heart of the union’s plans is a political strategy document. Labour Uncut has managed to get a copy of this strategy and it makes for uncomfortable reading.
Few would claim the last Labour government to be perfect, but much good was achieved. The minimum wage, the social chapter and unprecedented investment in schools and hospitals are just a few of the positives of which the party can be proud.
But these are all dismissed by Unite in their political strategy. Instead, for them, “the record of the last Labour government was, for the most part, a bitter disappointment”.
It’s worth pausing a moment to reflect on that statement.
These aren’t the words of a fringe group within the union. This document was adopted by the union’s highest decision-making body, the Executive Council. It is the settled view of Labour’s largest donor and affiliate.
The question is: if the spending of the last Labour government on public services was a “bitter disappointment”, what does Unite have in mind?
The strategy is a powerful statement of intent. It’s clear that Unite intend to fundamentally change Labour. The authors review Unite’s past approach to engaging with the party and emphatically point out,
“…for all the talk of ‘reclaiming’ the party, little progress was made. This has led to great frustration within the union, the more so since the party’s requests for financial support from our union and others have continued unabated. So its time for a change.”
In one passage, plans are set out to recruit 5000 new members from Unite into the Labour party. But this is no altruistic membership drive; the purpose of this influx of activists is to control local constituency parties. The strategy baldly states,
“This is emphatically not just a recruitment offensive to benefit the Labour party with passive financial contributors – it is vital if we are to impact on constituency parties”.
The document goes on to outline how these new activists will be marshalled by Unite’s political structures to act as a bloc within CLPs. There will be, “Early meetings of Unite Labour party members in CLPs – an RPC and RPO responsibility”.
RPC stands for Regional Political Committee which brings together Unite’s regional political leadership while RPO refers to the Regional Political Officer, who is responsible for delivering the union’s political plan on the ground.
The strategy is explicit that the Regional Political Committees and Regional Political Officers will ultimately be held accountable by the Executive Council to deliver Unite’s political plans for Labour.
Although unions have always had their own political structures, this marks a radical departure in approach. For the first time, a union will explicitly be building a political hierarchy from the ground up within the Labour party, but directed from outside the party.
Central command and control of this new cadre of Labour activists by Unite, to deliver Unite’s agenda, will create a situation not seen in the Labour party since the mid-1980s.
It’s no coincidence that as the union witchhunt against Progress gathers pace, and the eyes of the party and media are looking to the right, on the left, unnoticed, the Unite political strategy is being put into practice.
The 5000 activists are due to be in place by December 2012.
In one sense, what Unite is doing is perfectly understandable. This organisation gives several million pounds to the Labour party each year. It supplies resources such as phone banks and meeting rooms as well footsoldiers to knock doors and make phone calls. Why shouldn’t the union demand Labour do its bidding?
In every other walk of life, the level of contribution made by Unite would be accompanied by very clear deliverables, enforceable through contract.
Only in politics can this charade persist: where Labour maintains that support from the unions is largesse without strings attached while the Tories persist in their fiction that hard headed businessman are happy to part with millions for nothing in return.
The Unite political strategy shows beyond all doubt that, for Labour, they are moving to end this pretence.
At the moment, the Labour leadership seem to be wilfully ignorant of the shift. But as Unite and the other unions grow in influence, expectations will rise. Power is addictive. Once wielded, its use comes more easily.
Today it is Progress. Easy to look the other way for Labour’s leaders. Convenient even for union ire to be directed at the Blairites. But tomorrow, if and when either Ed Miliband or Ed Balls wanted to repeat their speeches backing public sector pay restraint, what would be the reaction?
If anything, this is the real revelation from the strategy document. That the old settlement is being ripped up by Unite. The political terms of engagement are being re-written. Money and resources will now directly equate to control.
Where Unite lead the other unions are likely to follow. How Labour’s leaders react will determine whether the party has a viable future in the centre ground of British politics.
Atul Hatwal is editor at Uncut