by David Green
The most remarkable thing about Unite’s decision to remove the words “so far as may be lawful” from its constitution is how little comment it has attracted in the Labour party.
The union’s opposition to new Tory plans for minimum strike ballot thresholds is understandable, right, and will be supported by the Labour party at large. But what is unsupportable is the union’s declaration that it will not regard itself as being bound by the new legislation.
Indeed, the constitutional change goes much further than this – worryingly so. On its face, the change means Unite will pick and choose the laws it deigns to obey.
This is dismaying in any major civil society body, but for a formal affiliate of the Labour party it is intolerable. Labour is – must be – a party of government, one which aspires to lead and not simply to oppose. A necessary part of this is that we seek change through reforms within the UK’s political system.
Unfortunately for all concerned Labour didn’t win the last election, and the Tories did. All the bleating about mandates in the world can’t change the fact that they have an absolute majority in the UK’s sovereign parliament: any legislation they can pass is the law. Labour believes – must believe – that even the most iniquitous law must be remedied by being repealed by parliament. Endorsing any other approach undermines the principle of the rule of law, on which all of the rest of society’s stability and freedom depends.
Labour is now put in a position where one of the major parts of its family – an affiliate with votes at its conference and seats on its national executive committee – has a fundamentally different conception of the means by which reform is achieved.
And Unite isn’t just setting its face against the law: it is a statement of intent for illegality, not limited (on the plain wording of the change) to strike ballot thresholds, but to every law with which the union interacts. Some Labour members may harbour sympathies on strike ballots: they should consider how they would feel, and the position the party would be put in, when the change was used to put the union’s official imprimatur on actions which break laws against intimidation, trespass or property damage in the course of strike action.
This is not fanciful – it is a small step from the “leverage” actions taken by Unite demonstrators in Falkirk at the homes of Ineos managers to action that would open pickets to criminal prosecution. Potential encouraging and assisting offences could be committed, all by senior union officials also holding office in the party.
This sort of liability was raised in 2012 in a comparatively minor spat in which the High Court restrained the Chairman of private hire firm Addison Lee from encouraging his drivers to use bus lanes in London: we shouldn’t think that the courts would be shy just because Len McCluskey makes grandiose statements comparing his planned “civil disobedience” to the suffragettes.
Ultimately Labour has to decide what sort of party it is, and whether the route to its promised land lies through the order of reform and government, or the chaos proposed by Unite. And once it has done so, it should be loud and proud of reminding all members of the movement to get on the same page.
Dave Green is a Labour party member, and a teaching fellow in Law at SOAS