Unite’s confused kulturkampf

by Jonathan Todd

Len McCluskey began his article in the Mirror over the weekend by stating:

“If your son or daughter fancies becoming a Labour MP, forget it. They have more chance of cleaning in the Commons than being elected to it.”

Who is he addressing?

The mother who has worked in the NHS all her life and the father who served his time as an electrician? They’ve never been active in politics or known any university besides the Open University. They have no friends in high places, whether in the “posh part of Stockport” or elsewhere.

Or is McCluskey warning off Oxbridge educated, ex-ministerial advisors and Demos associates? The thing is: Those are my parents and this is my life.

Perhaps my background is working class enough to get over the Unite acceptability threshold. But having checked my privilege, I’ve damned myself by having the temerity to get as good an education as I could and make the most of the opportunities this created.

It seems to me ever harder to be sure what class you are. By most measures, I’m probably becoming more middle class as I get older. But life isn’t a bowl of strawberries. Property prices, childcare costs, pension saving. They worry me as much as the next dad to a young family. I believe there is a term for this: the squeezed middle.

I don’t feel that any superior virtue or wisdom attaches to me through membership of the squeezed middle. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, whatever our class. While class membership seems to me more perplexing than ever, all Labour members can agree with the famous Neil Kinnock line: “The real privilege of being strong is to help people who are not strong.” And caring enough about other people to want to help them is a matter of empathy, not class allegiance.

The point of Labour, therefore, should be to build a society of people strong and compassionate enough to support one another. If instead the idea is that we should privilege the working class over others, I’d ask: How do we know who is working class? And what characteristics do they possess that merit this special treatment?

I don’t think we know who the working class really are anymore and even if we did, it is not clear to me that they are more greatly endowed with the qualities that the Labour party exits to cultivate. For both of these reasons, the “class-based politics” that Unite seeks to peddle is a nonsense.

The ideological examination that comes with it is one that Phil Collins writing in The Times on Friday is right to suspect that today’s equivalent of Ernest Bevin would fail. He’d be thought too right-wing and crucially, too unwilling to do whatever McCluskey wants. And it is only in these terms that Unite’s kulturkampf really makes sense. It’s not about class, it’s about control.

What is now necessary is for Ed Miliband to define the problem that our party faces and to be seen to address this problem – not talk about being decisive, not dismiss Falkirk as “one bad apple“. It is a time to show, not tell. Show that he understands how Falkirk is part of a wider problem. Show that he is strong enough to eradicate this problem.

Under the pretence of “class-based politics”, power has been concentrated and abused. This is the link between Falkirk and the wider problem that the party faces. “The events we have seen in Falkirk”, according to Ed Miliband, “have betrayed the values of our party”. These events occurred because an agenda of control was enforced. The concentrations of power that allowed this exertion remain.

These concentrations would be eliminated if those trade unionists who agree to pay the political levy are signed up directly to the party. The Labour Party is rightly proud of the connection to millions of working people that the trade union link provides. We should, though, want this link to be positively chosen and mediated directly and democratically with these millions.

While the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats depend upon shadowy corporate donations, Labour would be a party financed by millions of ordinary people, who are open and clear in their commitment to our cause. This would be a union link free of Unite’s confused kulturkampf and their agenda of control. A movement of millions to fight the power, eager to reopen negotiations with other parties on political funding on this basis.

In future, if your son or daughter fancies becoming a Labour MP, they won’t need to pass an ideological test spewed out by an incoherent bully. They’d just need to secure the support of the local members of a genuinely mass member party.

Jonathan Todd is Labour Uncut’s economic columnist

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11 Responses to “Unite’s confused kulturkampf”

  1. John A Bateson says:

    I’m afraid there are some TU leaders, not all by any means, who simply don’t understand the modern electorate. TU’s, if they are to have an important role in the future – and I really hope they will have one – need to start recruiting in the private sector, and represent people who need the support that TU’s can offer.

  2. Nick says:

    or cut out the middle man. Lets have direct voting on the issues and relegate MPs to being the managers, to be sacked on failure.

  3. southern voter says:

    There are many people in the workplace who are victims of bad bosses.Bullying,
    victimization of vulnerable workers by bosses is happening across the UK.
    Trade unions are organisations which can help the little guys.
    Being a worker especially in the private sector one does feel the whip hand of the bosses and being at their mercy.
    Trade unions must do more to recruit private sector workers.
    Britain needs strong trade unions to support workers.

  4. franwhi says:

    But its the entryism and croneyism most voters are really fed up with and these issues are only partly to do with the trade unions. There,s just as much chicanery going on across sections of the party that have nothing to do with mcclusky. So when Ed talks of values then it should be across the board . For example what about MPs who somehow bequeath their seats to there own children ? How does that happen ?

  5. Allan says:

    To borrow a phrase from the current referendum campaign, balderdash! Complete and utter…

    There wouldn’t be an issue with UNITE had New Labour promoted to safe seats people from diverse backgrounds representative of the people who voted for them. Instead we have had at least a decade and a half of people promoted into seats who follow the narrow Blair/Brown New Labour view of the country rather than any wider point of view. After all, going down this road of narrow recruitment for MSP’s has rather helped “Scottish” Labour hasn’t it?

    To quote the editorial from the Sunday Herald, which is far more damning than Owen Jones “Last Month, Miliband signed up to the Tories spending cuts; this week he has gone one better and donated to their re-election effort by handing over a gift wrapped Labour fiasco. It’s not the opposition the country needs. nor is Johann Lamont’s trappist silence”.

    Better together, aye right!

  6. bob says:

    southern voter: In my bitter experience with a Unison in the NHS, they don’t support their members, merely supporting a management line against staff. One of our representatives told us ‘I can’t go against her, she is my manager’. the regional representatives were even more useless and dismissive.

    Where were the unions supporting staff who were bullied harassed and frightened for their jobs at Stafford East Kent Basildon, and maybe Tameside in the future. There again were they, the unions, complicit with the last government and the DoH about what we have now learnt in the Francis report. I will tell you absolutely not even useless and words that would describe my feelings would have me banned from her.

    The unions only have so many in the public sector because many require professional insurance, are not interested in politics, and just want to get to the end of each month to pay their mortgage or rent. the public sector employees are they only ones who can afford their monthly fees,

  7. LesAbbey says:

    Today’s version Ernie Bevin wouldn’t fail to become an MP because he was too right wing, he would fail because he wouldn’t fit the mold of Oxbridge-PPE-spad-bag-carrier that seems to determine how candidates are selected.

    Public distrust in our political class is not caused by MPs being so different in class and attitudes, it’s caused by them being so similar. Whether it’s looking at the Blair clones of Cameron, Clegg and the Miliband boys, or just looking at the male candidates in the last Labour leadership election, there is very obviously no room for an outsider.

    So MPs go ahead and find some wriggle-room to accept an extra £10,000 a year, but when it does blow up in your faces don’t be surprised.

  8. jo horrocks says:

    Good article, Jonathan. Labour being what it is, you’ve probably just killed off your chances of a parliamentary seat. Great shame, as you’re one of the most intelligent writers on politics at the moment.

  9. PlatoSays says:

    I was with you all the way until ‘shadowy donors’ that pay money to the Tories/LDs – piffle – every donation has to be acknowledged and accepted by the Electoral Commission and published.

    There is nothing *shadowy* about any parties money – until you stop talking such nonsense, I’m less inclined to believe what you write on other subjects when it comes to *facts*.

  10. Danny says:

    Of course there are shadowy aspects with regards to party donations. Sure they have to publish them, but what is not documented by the Electoral Commission is the little “chats” that led to the donation and the motivation behind said donor making the pledge.

    For answers, you need only look at the number of private enterprises now benefitting from the dismantling of the NHS and see the percentage of them who have made donations to the Conservative Party.

    Nothing shadowy? We must have very different definitions of the word. Or dissimilar levels of naivety.

  11. Anne says:

    Jonathan would not be selected as a Labour party candidate in a constituency because of Labour party’s unfair and discriminatory policy of women only candidates – this is not the correct way to select the best person for the job – if the Labour Party want to stand a chance of winning the next election this policy should be ditched asap – also any women selected by this method should be asked to be reselected in an open primary – if they can not win an open selection within their own party they are hardy likely to win in the general election with greater competition.

    I agree with Eds idea of having open primaries for selection as they have in the USA.

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