Why is Ed playing into the Tories hands on the union link?

by Ian Stewart

Before I get flamed here, let me declare two interests – I am a member of both the Labour party and Unite. I am as concerned as anybody else with what may or may not have happened in Falkirk and other places, but am trying to pass comment here only upon what I know.

I believe that having a solid link between organised labour and our party is one of the great strengths we have. At its best, it means that we have to at least consider ordinary peoples’ daily lives, rather than simply what sounds good on telly.

If you were to ask most party members which legislation they would be proudest of over the past century, my guess is that after the foundation of the NHS, the list would include equal pay, anti – discrimination laws, John Wheatleys’ housing act, the wages councils, their successor the minimum wage, the dock labour scheme, the expansion of education, including the open university and health and safety at work.

It is a long list, and by no means exhaustive. What is striking is that in these cases and many others pressure for reform came not from some arid Fabian pamphlet, but from the trades unions affiliated to the Labour party. Hell, even when we had less than 100 Labour MPs back before the great war, the Liberal government passed the national insurance act, in part to head off a rising tide of militancy.

So I have watched the growing fuss over Falkirk with impotent rage. In simplest terms, those shouting loudest for my general secretary’s scalp have their own agenda. It is clear and simple to Msrs Hodges, Murphy et al – the union link must die. It is the major block to a “realignment” of the “progressive” parties in the UK, which, shorn of any link to ordinary people, could then unite and deny the Conservatives any power for a generation.

Of course, the fact that their preferred progressive partners, the Lib Dems, are in government with the Tories, and presiding over the biggest slump in living standards since 1929 may mean that this is utter tripe, but no matter. Never mind that the other parties of the centre left – the Greens, Plaid, SNP and Respect have gained votes from us by outflanking us to the left, and are looking to replace us, rather than do deals.

It matters not one jot that that political chimera, the “progressive Tory” effectively died out in 1987, and that the most prominent one left is err, the prime minister.

So, the holders of this busted flush carry on regardless, yearning for the king over the water, privately predicting a Tory win in 2015, hoping that then we will return to our senses and pick their favourite candidate next time around. The game matters more than the actual outcome. In the real world outside this game, people are hurting from the cuts, from unemployment, from shoddy housing, from the destruction of the welfare state, and are watching as the hope of the future, a decent education, is further beyond their kids and grandkids reach. What do the players offer? More of the same, and proudly too.

So when trades union leaders call for a more robust opposition to austerity, both inside and outside parliament, they are actually doing their jobs properly. Looking out for their members and their families. When trades unions donate to the Labour party, and when they question the direction the party is taking, to me that is only fair play. The raft of legislation currently in place regulating trades unions’ political funds ensures far more scrutiny of Unite than say, Tescos or Progress, let alone certain hedge funds I could mention.

We are highly unlikely to get a period of calm reflection at this point as to what really needs to be done. We have had Ed Miliband’s speech though, which throws up as many questions as it answers:

Can we survive as a party with less money?

How will the party instigate a recruitment drive within the unions whilst gearing up for a general election? Is Ed actually serious about this?

If this gamble fails, what next? Who next?

Why, in the face of all the evidence of its operation in the USA, does anybody favour the primary system?

Some of the changes are of course welcome – a cap on selection spending, coupled with a limited time frame would of course be a step forward.

The primary system, as used in the USA, has no effect upon the “machine politics” nor the grip that wealth and power has on both the Republicans and The Democrats. Even a spending cap can simply lead to a rise in PACs running outside the official campaigns. In the US, the AFL-CIO unions do indeed support candidates, generally Democrats, and have got for their pains … Joe Biden. Whoopee.

Contracting is unlikely to increase membership, only to decrease party funds. As a union member I have a vote on whether or not my union has a political fund at all, and can already opt out of the levy should I wish. Should disaffiliation become an issue, I will have a vote on this as well. As a union member, this seems fair to me.

What happens to the electoral college? Under current rules, the party leader, whoever they may be, is elected by the largest constituency of any political party leader in Britain. MPs, party members and union affiliates were asked to make a choice in 2010, and we made it. Not David Cameron, not Nick Clegg, nor anyone else has had to campaign amongst such a wide electorate.

As I have said already, I am not qualified to write about Falkirk, so where there may have been abuses, yes, they must be investigated, but I have a feeling that once again, a sledgehammer is being used where a toffee hammer may have been more use.

Why is Ed playing straight into the Tories hands? This is not an issue on the street, this is simply not important outside of Westminster or transport house. With the union link as it is, we have a clear, democratic link to organised Labour. Other parties rely on individual and corporate donations. Nobody who works for these corporations has any kind of vote as to the money spent on the Lib Dems and Tories, unless they are a shareholder. Even then, scrutiny is pretty much a joke, a footnote at the AGM.

If the union link is now to be severed, at best we will see an increase in unaccountable funding in British politics.

Ian Stewart is a Labour party member and blogs athttp://clemthegem.wordpress.com/

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11 Responses to “Why is Ed playing into the Tories hands on the union link?”

  1. Felix says:

    And what else is Ian Stewart apart from someone who can’t put together a coherent argument and asks a question at the end of his piece which betokens the shodiest thinking since the last Rob Marchant article I read.

    Ian, a word of advice, reread before you publish, insist on the final and strictest rule of all, don’t let CockCut suggest article ideas.

    This one will be forever forgotten in the web’s back hole. Poor lad you

  2. Alex Harvey says:

    Oh my God, you people will never be satisfied with our leader, will you?

    Disloyalty breeds division, division breeds defeat.

    Get behind us or get out.

  3. Anne says:

    I too am a paid up member of Unite, and I recognize the very import role that unions play – especially in the news today of the privitisation of the Royal Mail – I would also like to see the presence of the unions in the private sector representing the workers there. I am also a paid up member of the Labour party. The unions, however, can not control the Labour party and also some members of Unite may not want to be members of the Labour party.

    There has to be a fairer way of selecting candidates as potential MPs. If there has been wrong doing in this selection process then it is right that it is investigated. A better way must be found. In my career one of the lessons I have learned is that nothing lasts forever – change must occur – systems have to be re evaluated and looked at – better ways found. This is what I hope comes out of Falkirk

  4. Robert says:

    Anne leave Unite best thing.

    Looking at this last week I’m not sure if Blair is pulling the string which I suspect, or Labour are in such a financial mess the Unions funding is not enough and only a state funded hand out will keep the party going.

    hell of a mess to be in no matter the reasons Tory Liberals and the Tory Lite party

  5. Danny says:

    Disloyalty breeds division? Blind loyalty leads one down a much darker path. And division will lead us to defeat at a much slower pace than trying to replicate the Conservatives, a party who have not had a majority 21 years. Two decades and one year. Does that not say something about the electorate’s views on Conservative, right-wing politics? Despite being in opposition against a government who had taken the country into an illegal war and a desperate recession, the voters still could not bring themselves to giving the Conservatives a majority. So it is with some bemusement that Ed Miliband appears to be dragging the Labour Party closer to the Tories than further away, and his approach to the Unions, who I once felt did us a huge favour in ensuring David Miliband did not become leader, is a further example of this.

    What happened to our poll lead when we pledged to match Conservative austerity? It was meant to prove we could be trusted with the economy. It lost us support. My loyalty will never belong to a leader who in my opinion is taking the party in completely the wrong way and therefore harming our chances of being elected. It will never belong to someone who is happy with the status quo in our out-of-touch, Oxbridge graduate club that is the House of Commons. It will never belong to someone who does not cherish the relationship between my party and its founding fathers. It will never belong to someone who is not proud of the fact that the majority of our funding comes from organisations who campaign for the Living Wage and who fight for workers rights, as opposed to coming from big business who only donate in return for policy favours and contracts (see the hedge fund tax deduction and the dozens of Tory donors who are now benefiting from NHS privatisation). If Ed Miliband wants my loyalty and wants a united party, he needs to start remembering what the Labour Party represents.

    For what it’s worth, despite Felix’s eloquent critique, I think Ian Stewart’s piece is the most sensible thing I have read on Labour Uncut in many weeks.

  6. John Reid says:

    What alex Harvey said

  7. John P Reid says:

    anne, you could opt out of the union levy, from unite

  8. Duncan says:

    One of the better pieces I’ve read on this.

    I’ve tried to put some thoughts together on this topic, which tries to put it in a broader context.


  9. dixmith says:

    It is about time someone in the party had the balls to stand up and remind people that the Labour Party was created by the unions to resist the repression of working people by the Tories who are the paid lackeys of he banks and bosses. Their raison d’etre is as relevant today as it ever was – the Tories are busy stripping away worker protection and robbing the poor.

  10. Richard T says:

    It’s no wonder there’s so much confusion over this issue, plenty of people seem to believe both that: the Union movement represents Working People in general, rather than a relatively small subset of people disproportionately employed in state, ex-state or para-state organisations, heavily skewed towards the managerial/professional classes; and that the Union-Labour link is of consuming interest to most Union members, whereas most Unite members didn’t even vote Labour in the last GE, if polling is to be believed.

    Still, the endless navel-gazing has some therapeutic value, I suppose.

  11. Ian Stewart says:

    Dear Felix – I thought that the correct spelling of “shodiest” was “shoddiest”. Otherwise, interesting response. As for myself, no one suggests article ideas to me, so the fault would be mine. “CockCut”? Well, what could you possibly mean by that?

    Anne: being a private sector worker, I would also like many more fellow members to unite with.

    Alex Harvey and John “broken” Reid: Are you sure that you are in the right sort of political party?

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