Labour and Unite: a little time-bomb

by Rob Marchant

This morning, Uncut reported developments in the Falkirk selection fiasco; Labour’s investigation confirmed that there was an attempt by Unite to recruit additional members in order to fix the selection. For a major union to intervene behind the scenes in the running of a selection may not be unheard of, but the careless and obvious entryist manner in which Labour implies it was carried out was, frankly, breath-taking.

Last weekend, further reports surfaced in the Times and the Mail on Sunday regarding the that Labour advisors Blue State Digital were arm-twisted by “a senior Labour figure” to lean on their employee to pull out and make way for a Unite-backed candidate, or risk losing their contract. Whoever the figure turns out to have been certainly has some very awkward questions to answer.

Essentially in denial over what happened, Unite’s woefully inadequate, “er, it was the Blairites wot did it” rebuttal brings to a head a power struggle which has been simmering ever since Miliband took the party’s reins.

But perhaps just as interesting was a less explosive, but not-entirely-unconnected event which happened last weekend, before all this became public.

The People’s Assembly, a new left project developing the anti-cuts argument to anti-austerity in general, had its debut in central London. Its only front-bench Labour attendance was from Diane Abbott, which gave a good indication of its political leanings.

The demo was largely peopled by the usual suspects from the hard left, who were also – as blogger Stephen Bush, in attendance, tweeted – not exactly representative of the ethnically and culturally diverse British electorate. At the moment the Assembly it is not even a party (although this did happen later with Respect).

As a rule, it is much better that such people develop their political ideas outside the Labour party than infiltrate it, and it seems safe to conclude that the Assembly is pretty much an irrelevance in terms of any direct effect on British politics. As, it seems, is the Left Unity project, triggered by filmmaker Ken Loach’s March call for a new left politics. They are the last in a long line of wildly over-optimistic attempts to realign the left.

What does all this mean for Labour? On the one hand, nothing. There is no “people’s army” about to storm the barricades and take Labour out at the next general election – at most there may be a new far-left grouping which might take some votes away in key marginals (and these would be more likely to take votes away from the now-declining Respect than Labour).

In short, the People’s Assembly has shown what “people’s politics” has become reduced to over the last few years: a few hard-left white men and women (and mostly men, we might reasonably conclude).

For the left mainstream, so far, so good.

On the other hand, it also poses a completely different problem for Labour. What is extraordinary, and few seem to have clocked, is the distance that union politics have gravitated to the left, and often cuddled up to the far left, in the last decade. In 2004, Respect was set up with considerably less support from major trade unions – it was a fringe organisation and, when it became a party, it was clear that membership was incompatible with support for Labour.

Last weekend we had what was essentially a comparable meeting of the crankier end of the political spectrum, but this time it was attended by the leaders of the country’s two largest unions and the TUC.

And, within that, the most clear danger was highlighted by a few words tweeted by Diane Abbott: “sponsored by Unite”. The Assembly is a political platform being created on the far left which has Unite and its new putative marriage partner, PCS, at its centre. It was also notable that the Assembly event had as many unions not affiliated to Labour as those affiliated, as evidenced by the motions of support listed here.

Now, the alleged Falkirk intervention, if it proves to be true, indicates that Unite is still very much interested in having its people within Labour, within the PLP. But it seems that there could also be a Plan B.

A few weeks ago, Uncut reported how McCluskey’s rift with Labour might be difficult to repair before the next election. The main thing Unite has to lose by disaffiliation is, self-evidently, any kind of influence in mainstream politics.

In an attempt to ameliorate this and therefore make his threats credible, McCluskey is also visibly taking a close interest in an alternative political power base, albeit a far less effective one than the Labour Party. If at any point he can convince his union that it can influence policy more outside the party than within it, there is no longer any reason to be affiliated.

But think about this: whilst this might be a difficult sell, on the far left, convincing yourself and your peers of something inherently counter-intuitive but which fits your collective worldview is hardly unknown. In fact, the far left could scarcely continue to exist, were it not for the psychological phenomenon of groupthink (lest we forget, McCluskey’s chief of staff is a surviving member of one of the last bastions of groupthink, the Communist Party of Britain).

It still looks unlikely that such a drastic action as disaffiliation could happen before the election but, especially after the events in Falkirk, it is certainly no longer unthinkable.

In the meantime, any perception of increased power in the negotiation for Unite will naturally be used to fuel the ongoing game of brinkmanship with Labour.. After it, and certainly when McCluskey retires, as will surely happen before long, there will surely be a day of reckoning in the Labour-Unite relationship, especially if he is replaced by Respect-supporting Mark Serwotka, of the non-affiliated PCS.

And if Unite should choose to jump ship before 2015, that would be one hell of a stick to put in Labour’s electoral spokes.

Has Miliband the nerve to stand his ground?

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left

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39 Responses to “Labour and Unite: a little time-bomb”

  1. Felix says:

    “exactly representative of the ethnically and culturally diverse British electorate. ”

    Neither is the Labour Party at any level exactly representative. Schoolboy pettiness by Marchant

  2. Felix says:

    “and mostly men, we might reasonably conclude”

    Take a look at Labour Uncut, written almost exclusively by white, mddle class men

  3. Tafia says:

    The Labour Party should remember it is the political wing of the Trades Union movement or it is pointless irrelevance.

  4. aragon says:

    Given the two Ed’s are, as Mary Riddell puts it: Tory Clones, it can hardly surprising if the resulting vacuum is filled.

    “Mr Balls’s feat of simultaneously attacking and emulating Mr Osborne was never going to be easy.”

    The Labour party just lets the Tories set the agenda.

    The two Ed’s have, as expected, just conformed to type.

    The Left needs to put forward it’s own agenda. The country needs an alternative.

  5. swatantra says:

    On the contrary: the TU’s are a special interest group of the Labour Party, and its about time they got used to that fact.

  6. Rob Marchant says:

    @Felix: I was using understatement. The point is that there was practically no-one there from an ethnic minority, except the person who made that very comment.

    @Tafia: I’d be wary of whom I was accusing of being a pointless irrelevance, if I were you. Although I personally wouldn’t agree with either statement, most members of the general public are more likely to say that about unions than about the Labour Party.

  7. Allan says:

    Not really sure what the hatchet job on the People’s Assembly achieved, but i does seem like a spiteful attack on people not willing to toe the New Labour party line.

    Whatever next? A post attacking “The Common Weal” for treason by aspiring to a better roadmap for Scotland that does not include the pink or blue Tories.

  8. Lynne says:

    Having just watched Ken Loach’s “Spirit of 45”. It’s a reminder of what the Labour party once stood for, and what it achieved. I think many people would like to see utilities and railways re-nationalised. They would also like to halt the privatisation of the NHS. How does that make them “hard left”.

  9. Danny says:

    From this article, I have concluded, that, Rob Marchant, loves, a comma.

  10. Tafia says:

    Rob Marchant – You have unwittingly just answered the reason why Labour’s membership has collapsed and why so much of it’s historic core vote can’t be arsed with it anymore. It has forgotten what it was, where it came from and what it is supposed to represent. It has become a party of war-mongering, cuts, austerity and the middle class. It courts bankers, sniffs around the rich and privilaged and preaches neo-liberalist economic poison.

    Soon it will want state funding for parties because without it it will cease to b it has become so irrelevant in ordinary people’s lives.

    Pointless irrelevance is what it has become.

  11. John P Reid says:

    Felix, maybe some white men in the labour party don’t get their voice put elsewhere, how do you know what class the writers are here,

  12. Danny says:

    And just as a quick aside. People on the right of Labour conveniently ignore the fact that trade unions represent 6 million people and rising and some of those unions are the Labour Party’s biggest donors. Dismissing them as a “special interest group of the Labour Party” is folly. Unless you think election campaigns can be run without funds. Then it is not folly. It is naivety.

    And unions are not just some cliquey little pressure group that “welcomes any member of the Labour party” to join for £25 a year. The 6 million people who choose to affiliate with a union pay a significant sum each month to maintain their membership. Now to you right-wing, Tory-in-all-but-name, workers-should-work-while-the-rich-should-rule, peddlers of the disastrous neo-liberal line that Tony Blair endorsed for 10, damaging years, £13 a month might seem a paltry sum. But for the majority of union members, it is a heck of a lot of money to be dishing out. Yet more and more people believe it is worth it to join their respective trade unions.

    I understand why Tories hate the unions. They despise the fact that the common worker can unite with millions like them and collectively become much stronger than they are as an individual. In their ideal world, the worker would work and keep his or her ignorant, grubby little nose out of politics and leave that to the wealthy who are so much more learned.

    But members of the Labour Party? You need to read the constitution of the party you are choosing to support and if you don’t like it, leave.

  13. Julian Ruck says:

    To Felix,

    And no doubt privately educated, middle-class white men.

    The point surely must be, that communism has failed, left-wing socialism has failed and unfettered capitalism has failed.

    To a certain extent Blair’s ‘Third Way’ still enjoys a certain resonance amongst voters, who after all are the final arbiters of who rules and who doesn’t. Those of a leftist persuasion would do well to remember this.

    Beer and sandwiches at No 10?

    Say ‘Goodbye’ to Labour.


  14. Julian Ruck says:

    To Danny,

    6 million people? Half that of the 1970’s.


  15. John P Reid says:

    danny, in 2009 it was revealed that 60% of Unite members were tories!

    what percentage of union members take the opt out,or hteri union sdont fund laobur,again 60%

    the toreis manage to get millions of people who were in unions leave tehm in teh mid 80’s, and were fiancially heavily rewarded ,for doing so,

    Not all tories hate unions, but considering the state they got the country in,in the 80’s who’d blame them,

  16. Julian Ruck says:

    A thought,

    It is all very well for the Labour intelligentsia and the politically aware to spout dreams of ancient Marxist philosophy, fiscal intricacy, structural deficit and global CDO’s, but the fact remains that all this pretty stuff just doesn’t wear with voters.

    As far as they are concerned Brown ballsed things up and that’s that – even after two and a half years, according to the most recent polls anyway.

    So why don’t you all just join the ranks of Sun readers and Corrie viewers and take a reality check.

    ‘Cos at the end of the day, it’s them that calls the shots and quite right too!


  17. Rob Marchant says:

    @Danny: Wake up. Unite have just fixed a selection by recruiting a whole load of members to get the candidate they wanted. Just as another interest group did in Bethnal Green, which is why they are in special measures.

    If you are comfortable that kind of thing happening in your party, you need your head examined. This kind of mass fixing has not happened to any serious extent since Militant in the 1980s and we all know how that ended. It is now coming back.

    Wake up.

    For the record, I am very happy with the constitution and have no intention of leaving the party I love. But it seems that others are not content to play by that same rulebook.

  18. Robin Thorpe says:

    Tafia says:”The Labour Party should remember it is the political wing of the Trades Union movement or it is pointless irrelevance.”

    As Atul and Pete have written about in their histories the Labour Party started out as the Labour Representation Committee. It then developed into a mass membership political party; however membership has since declined. Although the Trade Union movement may have 6 million members the industries that they comprise are no longer representative of the general population. Vast swathes of people in retail, leisure and service industries have no representation and so have little or no sympathy with public sector workers who they perceive as having cushy jobs.

    Yes the PLP has issues with communicating to these people, but so do the unions. They need to do much more to improve dialogue with all workers. [Trade Union density rates have declined from 55% in 1980 to just 30% in 2002; furthermore 47% of union members work in the public sector.

    Various studies have shown that declines in union membership correlate with improved working conditions and job security. While this may be true for manufacturing and public sector workers it is not for those sectors mentioned earlier who are under-represented.

    I think that the unions and the PLP need to focus on how they can best help people rather than who can cling on longest to an illusory power base in Westminster. The Labour Party and the TUC should both be representing the majority of people in the UK; for a majority of people do not receive appropriate remuneration for the value that they create through their labour. We achieve more when we work together then we do alone; unfortunately both the PLP and the TUC have failed to convince people of this fact. Internal disputes of this nature are not going to help either group achieve their stated objectives.

  19. The Tea Boy says:

    Out of interest, what is unconstitutional about Unite encouraging their members to join the Labour Party to ‘fix’ (= vote for the union candidate in) a selection?

    Packing meetings was used extensively in the rise of New Labour. It’s as old as the hills by various factions.

    What is new here, apart from the political leanings of those doing the squealing because they might lose?

  20. Rob Marchant says:

    @TheTeaBoy: A bit disingenuous, I’m afraid. Packing meetings is perfectly legitimate. Signing up members en masse (many of whom were not even aware they had signed up) are two very different things.

    Besides the fact that the applications were back-dated, deliberately circumventing the party’s own rules. You cannot possibly defend this – if you are not well-informed about the facts, I’d suggest you read Atul’s excellent piece on it here at Uncut.

  21. Rob Marchant says:

    @Robin: thanks for your thoughtful comment. Yes, it seems that unions (with a few honourable exceptions, by the way) are not really providing a good service to their members in terms of the nuts-and-bolts things that unions are supposed to do, and instead spending their time on pursuing narrow political agendas which don’t necessarily help.

    My good Uncut colleague Jonathan Todd today flagged an article at Prospect by David Goodhart on this very subject:

  22. Tafia says:

    Robin, The Labour Party in it’s fledgling days was a going nowhere, achieving nothing minority protest party. It wasn’t until the unions stepped in and provided the bulk membership, the grassroots networking and the sheer size of it’s membership coupled with the expansion of the post-Great War voter base that it became a mainstream party.

    Perhaps then Labour should learn to live purely on it’s membership fees ROFL

  23. Danny says:

    @ John P Reid, I think in 2009, with the memory of Tony Blair still fresh in people’s minds, 60% of Labour supporters were Tories.

    There certainly is a perception that the unions are not providing the service they should to members, and I wholeheartedly agree that there are vast improvements to be made. However, as a member of a Unite and a brother to a Unison shop steward, I frequently converse with dozens and dozens of fellow trade unionists and not one of them have any complaints. A small snapshot for sure, but I prefer to base my opinions on empirical, first-hand evidence rather than online articles by agenda-driven authors, or a right-wing written press who perceive trade unions as worse for society than the EDL. Which is one reason why I refuse to accept your claim that many members were not even aware they were being signed up unless you can point me in the direction of some names, Mr Marchant.

    And your Prospect article. Which establishments are currently campaigning hard for the expansion and possible legislation of the Living Wage? I’ll give you a clue. It’s not Progress.

    With British democracy as it is, the only way unions can exert their influence and implement some of the honourable causes they campaign for is through Westminster. I’m not entirely comfortable with the processes that have been carried out in Falkirk, but in some cases the intended ends justify the means. The fact of the matter is, the current makeup of the PLP is a crop of individuals completely out of touch with the population they are supposed to be serving. Very few have worked “proper-jobs” and have very little in common with the voter and zero-empathy with the millions of people who are paying the price for the Westminster-caused hardship.

    You place 325 trade unionists in the House of Commons and there is no way you would see the Bedroom Tax. Retrospective legislation to deny unemployed individuals compensation after they had been wronged by government? No chance. SureStart centre closures, one of the few things post-1997 Labour can actually be proud of? I don’t think so. But the fact of the matter is, the current Labour MPs don’t really give a shit about any of these things because they do not understand the impact that the cuts are having on people. I literally piss myself when I hear the shadow cabinet talking about how out of touch the Conservatives are. They’re not wrong. But by god are they hypocritical.

    By and large, most union backed candidates understand hard-up workers, many of whom don’t claim benefits and have worked hard all their working-lives, but still cannot provide a decent standard of living for their children. Many of them have been in that position. And now the cuts are making it even worse. Dependency on food banks grows, hundreds of thousands of young people’s futures are destroyed, poor families are evicted from their home for the last decade, welfare cuts drive people to suicide. And which political party can they turn to? None, because they don’t give a shit, because they have never been in your shoes and never had to stand close to someone in your shoes.

    Given the underhand tactics deployed by Tony Blair and the right of the party to get their careerist, in-it-for-the-directorship, cronies into safe seats, the vitriol being directed at Unite is laughable.

    Parliament needs people who understand the electorate, who have experienced the pain of austerity and could sit in a local pub and not look out of place and who are representative of our nation’s diversity. You’re not going to get that from the Conservative Party, and you only get white, middle-aged men from the Lib Dems. So it has to be the Labour Party. And the only way you will get candidates that the nation and the party need is through the unions using their influence to prevent Westminster pressure from filling candidacies with SPADs.

    Apologies for the length and language, but I needed to vent.

  24. GSilver says:

    as a member of Unite, McCluskey actually frightens me.
    I joined the union for the usual reasons a sensible person joins a union. I did not join the union to be bombarded with endless communications exhorting me to strike so McCluskey can prove he’s a union hardman.
    I have responsibilities/mortgage etc that require paying and unions should be about keeping people like me in employment maintaining my standard of living as best as can be negotiated…
    … NOT using strikes to tailspin the struggling UK economy OR attempting regime change!

  25. Rob Marchant says:

    STOP PRESS: McCluskey claims Unite victim of “smear campaign”:

    You really couldn’t make it up.

  26. Henrik says:

    Comrades, this is priceless. Thank you from the bottom of my wizened old cynic’s heart for the tears of helpless laughter running down my lined and wrinkled face.

    It’s clear that Labour has now decided that developing policies, holding Government to account and, you know, winning elections and stuff, is just so last year, especially the winning elections bit, that’s what Tony did and we hate Tony, don’t we?

    Let’s hear it for the rise of the hard, well, hard-ish Left and the pure ideological struggle, bring on the vanguard party, celebrate those 21st Century union leaders with their highly tuned antennae to receive the broadcasts of all those millions of people who are SO STUPID THEY DON’T KNOW THEY’RE MEANT TO BE LABOUR!

    I’ve got my popcorn, I’ve got my comfy seat. Please carry on your spat, this is hilarious. Alternatively, stop faffing around and start giving some thought to the obligation to develop an alternative vision, a set of policies, a clear and credible alternative – oh, and fighting an election which is not that far away, now.

    Rob – even though my guess is that we would disagree on around 90% of politics, you do what you do very well. Keep doing it, anything which brings on the sort of mobbing from Lefties you’re picking up is worth doing.

  27. Matt says:

    To me there are two possible solutions to this mess:

    1 – “De-party-politicise” Trades Unions completely, on the German model, and hope that the mad controlling cliques of various TUs go and play their sectarian games somewhere else.
    2 – Properly politicise Trades Unions, and make the “we represent all our members” claim true; allow member to nominate *any* legal political party for support.

    Personally, I was in a Union for roughly a decade, then I went to a National Conference and realised how nasty the politics of the ruling clique was, and there was no reason to stay a member when I was in a workplace with decent people representing the members to counterbalance the national deaadweight.

    This was in the mid-1990s, and I have seen no reason to go back since.

  28. Matt says:


    “was in a workplace with decent people” should read “was not in a workplace with decent people”.

  29. John Reid says:

    Danny 60% of labour voters were Tories?

    If your implying labour were unpopular because of Blair, he’d been gone 2 years and labour were only a couple of points behind in the polls when Blair went, mainly due to cash for peerages, when. Jose accused were cleared, the week after Blair left office, labour. Ere back ahead in the polls,

    Don’t think Blair was responsible for half of unite members being Tories, it’s lays been possible to be in a union and vote Tory,

  30. Simon says:

    The Labour movement and the left in the UK is a joke.

  31. LabourBoy says:

    Surely the NEC should be having a wider, root-and-branch inquiry into Unite and other trade unions’ involvement in parliamentary selections even to the extent that Unite PPCs should ‘reconsider’ their position and the leadership should step in.
    What I admire about the Labour left is that they organise and are active. Surely, Labour right needs to do the same starting with an open letter to the NEC calling for an immediate inquiry into union involvement even to the extent that we lobby like-minded MPs and shadow cabinet ministers.

  32. Rob Marchant says:

    @GSilver: I think you’re not the only one.

    @Henrik: Aw, shucks.

    @Matt: indeed. I think 2. would not be a bad thing. At the moment, the leader of a union effectively controls the release of funds, once the member has signed to political levy. This means that the idea of “individual donations” from union members is largely a euphemism, I’m afraid. And it concentrates huge power in the hands of leaders with scant accountability.

  33. Stuart says:

    Not news, I was at the PCS conference in 2011, and PCS voted to have its own candidates for parliament back then, which the mainstream press were supremely uninterested in as news.

    I fully agree with Matt, going to my unions conference taught me who the really ‘nasty’ party is, and it’s not those in the coalition…

    The hard left activists, UAF, and SWP are in a league of their own when it comes to being nasty…

  34. Danny says:

    Mr Reid, Blair has now been gone for 6 years and Labour are still unpopular because of him among many left-leaning sections of society, so yes, I would imagine that 2 years after his resignation many trade unionists were put off because of him.

    Besides, I don’t believe your claim anyway, nor do I have the slightest clue what the last few words of your comment is trying to say.

    The party’s constitution compels it to work with trade unions to achieve its common goals. Working with them has never meant taking their money and then crying foul when they threaten to impinge on the smooth career progression of another, never-had-a-proper-job, Oxbridge graduate.

  35. John P Reid says:

    Danny – many trade unionists were put off with blair!!

    , so that explains why when the Coalition are having big cuts and Ed just opposes them all,but say’s if he get in ,he’s not going to reverse everything ,is the reason why we’re not so far ahead in thre polls, afterall those who think labour aren’t left wing enough must make up so many people that’s why SWP are riding high on 20% in the polls

  36. steve says:

    “Has Miliband the nerve to stand his ground?”

    There is nothing else he can do.

    He was dealt a useless hand – New Labour lost in 2010 and, still too fearful to emerge from its comfort zone, New Labour will probably lose in 2015.

    2020? Well, that’s a stronger possibility but is there sufficient time for new talent to emerge in the PLP and wipe the soiled slate clean? Probably not.

  37. bob says:

    Now even the BBC is reporting entryism of Unite candidates and potential control of the Labour party.

  38. uglyfatbloke says:

    Falkirk itself is really not that significant. the seat will be lost to the gnats anyway. however if Unite can turn Labour into a socialist party…..

  39. What is clear is that the relationship needs to change but not in the way many seem to think. This whole rather sad episode demonstrates when you get people who have no background of normal life who end up running things. Read my blog entries(particularly on unions and party) to understand precisely what I mean:

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