Posts Tagged ‘trade unions’

Len McCluskey signals potential Unite exit from Labour

01/04/2014, 04:39:01 PM

by Atul Hatwal

Big news from Len McCluskey’s turn before the press gallery this afternoon. Speaking to journalists, he said that he could envisage Unite changing its rules on funding to support other parties and leaving Labour, if the Labour was to lose the next election.

“Only if we change our rules, within Unite’s rules, we are affiliated to the Labour party. We cannot give any financial support to any other political party. So the rules within Unite would need to be changed, not by Len McCluskey – I know some of your papers think I have this huge power to flick switches on and off – but by our rules conference. Can I ever envisage a rules conference voting to disaffiliate from Labour? I can, I can, and that’s a challenge to Ed Miliband because I believe the Labour party is at a crossroads, this is a watershed…if Labour lost the election next May I fear for the future of the Labour party and so these are serious debates at this point in time in our history we have to kind of consider all of those issues, at the moment, though that’s not on our agenda.” (h/t Isabel Hardman)

This is potentially an enormous shift in Labour politics. If Unite were to disaffiliate, three points are relevant.

First, the balance of the party would shift towards the right. Unite are the most vocal and powerful of the unions on the left and without their seats on the NEC, votes at conference, financial leverage and members’ role in any future Labour leadership election, the party would likely move more to the centre.

Second, it suggests the Collins union reform proposals, passed with much fanfare in February, were only a stop-gap for Unite, pending the result of the next election. If Labour loses, then all bets are off.

Third, it would mean that the total number of trade unionists affiliated to the Labour party would drop below half the total number of trade unionists in the country for the first time.

At the moment there are 6.5m trade unionists in Britain and according to the latest figures on the TUC website, the 15 trade unions affiliated to the Labour party represent 4.2m of them. If Unite disaffiliated, with a membership of 1.4m, the number of trade unionists affiliated to Labour would drop to 2.8m or 43% of all trade union members.

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Exclusive Uncut poll reveals trade union members overwhelmingly back Ed on reform

08/09/2013, 09:55:24 PM

by Rob Marchant

As delegates gather in Bournemouth for the Trades Union Congress, one subject will surely be a major topic of conversation for delegates from the larger unions: the future of their relationship with the Labour party.

While the relationship between the party leader and the leaders of the main unions has never been easy for either side, it is safe to say that relations are at a turning point in their 113 year-old marriage. As things stand, a smooth and trouble-free conference season seems an increasingly remote prospect.

To recap, the disastrous selection process for Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Falkirk West, where allegations of malpractice triggered the resignation of Tom Watson MP as its election campaign coordinator – and which even now is subject to wildly differing versions of events – has kicked off a wholesale reform programme of everything from party funding to MP candidate selection and conference voting.

Then, last Friday night on the eve of the TUC, the party suddenly accepted that no wrongdoing had taken place. Simultaneously, candidate Karie Murphy – Watson’s office manager and friend of Len McCluskey, general secretary of the Unite union – pulled out, in what seemed almost certain to be some kind of deal, after threats that Unite could boycott the party’s conference later this month.

Although McCluskey, perhaps somewhat unexpectedly, accepted the principle of reform of the union link from the outset, one wonders if this stance will continue. And other union leaders have been notably less enthusiastic.

The GMB responded last Monday by announcing a cut in affiliation fees of almost 90%, estimating that only around a tenth of current levy-paying members would sign up.

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Ed Miliband needs a big win today and Len McLuskey should give it to him

09/07/2013, 06:30:56 AM

by Kevin Meagher

Today, Ed Miliband will set out a series of bold reforms to Labour’s relationship with its affiliated trade unions, in a bid to draw a line under the disastrous fallout from the botched Falkirk selection process.

He will propose an end to affiliation fees from the unions, switching to a system where individual trade unionists “opt in” to pay towards the party. Miliband will argue that trade unionists need to make “a more active individual choice on whether they affiliate to the Labour party”.

Fee income under the current system is said to be worth around £8 million a year to the party. The risk is that many fewer trade unionists choose to opt-in, with some estimates predicting the change could cost the party as much as £5 million in income

Miliband is also set to announce the greater use of primaries to select parliamentary candidates, especially where a local party’s membership is small. The party will also use a primary selection to choose Labour’s candidate for the London mayoralty in 2016.

There will be a new code of conduct for those seeking selection, with stricter spending limits, both on individual candidates and the trade unions and other affiliates backing them.

Miliband will say that Falkirk represented “the death throes of the old politics” and that he wants to build “a better Labour party – and build a better politics for Britain.”

Party reform is a familiar expedient for Labour leaders in opposition. Neil Kinnock’s is best remembered for driving through vital policy and organisational changes which brought Labour back from the brink. Later, John Smith took the gamble of driving through one member, one vote and curbing the union block vote.

And of course Tony Blair scrapped Clause Four of the party’s constitution back in 1995 – with its ambiguous commitment to public ownership – in a bid to “say what we mean and mean what we say.”

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Why has Ed allowed the unions to stitch up the euro candidate selections? What happened to the new politics?

11/04/2013, 07:00:44 AM

by Peter Watt

There has been a lot of retrospective going on recently.  Obviously the death of Baroness Thatcher has meant that we have all been reflecting on the politics of the 1970’s and 1980’s.  And politics has changed a fait bit since then and Labour politics in particular; long gone are the days when Labour ripped itself apart with splits and division.

Beaten time after time by the Tories, Labour finally realised that it needed to change if it was to win.  First Neil Kinnock, then John Smith and finally Tony Blair and Gordon Brown gradually enforced a degree of central control and discipline within the party.  There was an understanding that controlling process meant controlling the party.  Conferences, policy making and of course selections were all ruthlessly managed.

On the whole the party welcomed it, even if reluctantly at first.  There was a significant minority who always complained of course, but most were prepared to overlook what they didn’t like as we kept winning.

Working for the party throughout this period, we were loyal to the Leadership and we worked hard to keep control.  Centralisation was the name of the day.  But the world moved on and the time for command and control was over.

But at the centre we were slow on the uptake and so the culture of control was hung onto longer than it should’ve been.  As the rest of society was opening up and more open sources of information were becoming the norm in business, online and in the media, the Labour party stubbornly refused to change the way that it ran itself.  Keeping control meant keeping order.

But then we lost a general election and rightly our new Leader demanded a new approach to our politics.  There was talk of reaching out beyond our closed ranks: of allowing creativity and innovation and welcoming the possibilities that there may well be differences in tone and approach in different parts of the country.

As an old school control freak you would expect me to be sceptical.  But no; I am hugely supportive of an approach that begins to break down the barriers to our politics.  I can see just how remote and closed our politics actually is and how unattractive it is to most voters.  I wholeheartedly agree with Ed when he says:

“It’s not just about winning elections… It’s about constructing a real political movement. It’s a change from machine politics to grassroots politics.”

So I welcome the opening up of the party; except that is not what is happening.  The words are all well and good but the reality is that nothing has changed.  Actually that isn’t true.  If anything it is getting worse.

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The latest party funding figures tell us we can’t go on like this

23/08/2012, 07:00:00 AM

by Peter Watt

I’m on holiday at the moment and have both limited internet access and limited interest in all things political.  Normal levels of political obsession will no doubt return once the holiday is over.  One thing has caught my attention though this week and I felt the need to write about it.  It’s an old favourite of mine, something I feel passionately about – party funding and the trade unions.

The Electoral Commission has published its latest quarterly report on the donations to political parties.  The first thing to note is that overall levels of donations to all political parties were down almost £1 million when compared to the first three months of the year.  The Tories were down £250,000 receiving £3.8 million whilst Labour was down £450,000 receiving just under £3 million.

So it’s clear that Labour, already receiving less than the Tories, appears to be feeling the squeeze even more. The detail of the figures goes on to show that that even more of party’s income is now derived from a single source: the trade unions.  Of all of the donations received by Labour in this reporting period more than £2 million, or about 70%, came from the Trade Unions.  And of this £2 million, Unite gave over £840,000 almost double that of the next biggest, USDAW, at £429,000.

Our opponents have once again tried to make mischief and claim that this means that 70% of our income comes from the trade unions.  This is simply not true.  As I have blogged on Labour Uncut several times before, the Labour party does not in fact receive the majority of its income from the trade unions.

In an average, non-general election year income comes roughly from the following sources:

  • £8  million in affiliation fees from trade unions;
  • £7 million from the tax payer in short money;
  • £5 million from individual membership subscriptions.

This gives a “definite” income of about £20 million per year.  In addition the Labour Party gets:

  • £2 – 5 million in donations from individuals, companies and trade unions;
  • £5 million or so from other things like commercial income, legacies and dinners.

So while the attacks of our opponents are an exaggeration, we should not pretend that they do not have a point.  Labour’s financial position remains precarious and we need to face up to it.

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In defence of trade unions and Labour’s union link

06/04/2012, 03:42:17 PM

by Amanda Ramsay

When Ed Miliband published his list of meetings with party funders, unsurprisingly several were with Unite’s general secretary Len McCluskey.  This was widely reported in the press but in the articles there was scant mention of the myriad of sectors a huge union like Unite represents: millions of individuals, working people, 20 sectors at the last count including agricultural, health as well as industrial.

As if one meeting every year or so would be enough time to discuss the huge swathe of complex issues that unions like Unite, the GMB and Unison are dealing with on a daily basis.

The contrast with the elite vested interests of the Tory party, as personified by the  likes of Lord Ashcroft and former Conservative Party Treasurer Peter Cruddas, could not be more stark.

But it’s not just the so-called right-wing press who are complicit in the misrepresentation in the media. Last Saturday, the Independent referred to Len McCluskey donating £5million, as if it were a personal donation, like he just wrote a cheque out of his own money!

“The Labour Party has benefitted from the publicly known link to working people and their views and needs,” Esther Pickup-Keller, president of the Aspect group of the major professionals’ and managers’ union Prospect tells me. “This type of democratic channel is a long, long way from secretive private dinners and meetings with senior politicians by capital corporate interests and donors.”

It’s offensive to hard-working people that the very small amounts of money paid by individual trade union members to the political funds of our unions are portrayed as somehow wrong by certain right-wing commentators and MPs. Where’s the balance?

I’m no militant, but let’s remember what this is all really about. One of the most poignant stories to learn as a teenager, to spark my imagination and social conscience, was that of the Tolpuddle Martyrs; their story speaks about something universal, way beyond party politics – shock and awe that these men could be shipped-off to be imprisoned on the other side of the world, for standing-up for their rights in the workplace, civil rights, human rights, call it what you will.

This is still the case today, for those of us who believe in trades unionism, the relevance of trade union membership is as relevant now as it’s ever been.

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United we stand – keep the link

26/01/2012, 01:00:25 PM

by John Spellar

John Healy has produced an excellent article on the unpleasant Tory group launching an attack on trade union rights and their ability to represent their members.  Also this week, Jim Sheridan, chair of the Unite group, rightly expressed his concern at what he sees as “some within the party constantly looking for ways to break the link”.  So the trade union movement and its links with the Labour party are once again under serious attack. It’s déjà vu all over again.

My only difference with Jim’s analysis is that there are also those on the ultra left who are looking at ways of weakening the link, and they always have. Both they and the latter day Jenkinsites have a very weak grasp of the realities of progressive politics, and not only in Britain. The Jenkins heresy always lamented the breach between Labour and the Liberal Democrats at the beginning of the last century.  He harkened back to what he saw as a “progressive century” in the nineteenth century.  Actually looking at the years in government of the two parties that century, and even regarding Palmerston as a progressive, he was wrong, but the most important error in his analysis is that it implied that the creation of the Labour party as a sovereign party, was a critical mistake.

On the other side, the ultra left, excepting their entryist phases, have always regarded the Labour party and the trade union bureaucracies as obstacles to their Leninist fantasies.  The reality for working people today is that under a major onslaught from an economic tsunami and a vindictive and incompetent government, it is now more than ever that they need effective unions at the workplace, strong union campaigning in national issues and a Labour party in, or preparing for, government; and they very much need them working together.

The reality is that  in every country with a successful Labour, Social Democratic or even Democrat Party is that there are strong longstanding links with the unions.  They are founded on our shared history, values and interests.

There may be nuances in the detailed constitutional arrangements, but they are far less relevant than the community of Labour. So it is right for us to make clear the indissoluble relationship between us. After all, the clue is in our name. So let’s have done with the delusions of both these groups and reaffirm our determination to “keep the link”.

John Spellar is Labour MP for Warley and a shadow foreign office minister.

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The Kelly proposals: eminently sensible and workable

24/11/2011, 08:00:40 AM

by Peter Watt

The reaction to the report “political party funding – ending the big donor culture“, by the committee on standards in public life, chaired by Sir Christopher Kelly, has been depressing if not surprising.

I feel strongly about this issue. I was caught up in “cash for honours”. I had to instigate swingeing budget cuts and redundancies to avoid bankruptcy at the Labour party. I was part of Labour’s negotiating team in the failed Haydn Philips inter-party talks on party funding in 2006 and I was embroiled in a pretty major funding scandal that lead to my resignation as general secretary and another police investigation. I also gave evidence to the Kelly enquiry.

So let’s start with some cold hard facts.

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For his own good, Ed mustn’t pick a fight with the unions

28/06/2011, 11:30:42 AM

by Dan Hodges

If Ed Miliband picks a fight with the unions, he’ll lose. That’s not a threat or a warning, but a statement of fact.

Just take a look at the trouble he’s managed to get himself into over the past few days. On Friday the Guardian reported that he intended to use the  Refounding Labour review to begin the process of “weakening the grip of the unions”. On Sunday the Observer reported he was “on a collision course” over the block vote and Thursday’s strike action. All dramatic, and seemingly unequivocal, stuff.

Then things started to unravel. On the political breakfast shows two of Ed’s most loyal Parliamentary aides, Peter Hain and Sadiq Khan, did what loyal aides do best: they pulled the rug out from under their man.

“I don’t think political leaders, in opposition or in government, should either applaud strikes or condemn strikes”, said Hain.

“It is a failure on both sides when there is strike action … it’s the last, last thing you do and what I’d like to see over the next three or four days is ministers, trade union leaders, speaking and trying to resolve this dispute”, said the slightly more on message Khan.

Yesterday saw Labour sources working manfully to repair the damage, with differing degrees of success. “The Hain and Khan comments were over-interpreted”, said an insider. Sorry, they weren’t. Ed Miliband’s statement that the upcoming industrial action  was “a mistake” is clearly incompatible with Hain’s statement that political leaders should not condemn strikes. And the signal this sent was not lost on  the unions or the wider party. “If even people like Hain are starting to put daylight between themselves and Ed, he really is in trouble”, said one shadow cabinet source.

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We need to diversify our funding base

09/06/2011, 07:00:50 AM

by Peter Watt

We recently saw the publication by the electoral commission of the list of donations by all political parties in the first quarter of 2011 (Q1). The Labour party received £2,882,765 of which £2,507,372 was from trade unions. This means that almost 90% of Labour’s donations in Q1 came from affiliated trade unions. Now whichever way you cut that, it cannot be a good thing. There are two aspects that are specifically worthy of scrutiny. One is political and the other is financial.

Politically, it is a mixed picture. We share history, and over the years the trade unions have proved that they are more than fair weather friends. The affiliated trade unions are members of the party in their own right. Their membership (affiliation) fees mean that trade union members are in theory a constituency of millions of working people with a stake in the party. These members should act as a constant reminder of life in the real world. And, of course, their organisations and ours are enshrined in our constitution with ties at every level of the party.

Over the years, our opponents have unfairly characterised the relationship as one of master and servant, with Labour’s union paymasters demanding and getting their policies. The reality has been somewhat different. In fact, as one union general secretary said to me recently, “if that really was the case then the pound for pound return has been pretty fucking poor”. No. Affiliated trade unions are members of the party because they continue to believe that a Labour government will, on balance, always be better for their members than the alternative.

But we need to be honest. The relationship between the party and the unions has not been right for some time. It isn’t really a direct relationship between the party and millions of trade union members. The relationship is mediated by a small group of senior figures. While for many in the party, the trade union link is just a source of patronage and funds when they are seeking selection. Which comfortable status quo means that millions of trade union members are mainly represented by the millions of votes cast on their behalf by trade union general secretaries at party conference.

With 90% of all donations now coming from trade unions, it is simply not credible to claim that they are not in a stronger position to demand greater compromise on party reform and on policy. If they pushed hard enough, it would be all but impossible for Ed to refuse. And if Ed wanted to do something that they really they didn’t want him to do then could he just ignore them? No.

Meanwhile, our opponents have done a very good job in the minds of the public of painting us as a party of the trade union vested interest. And they have linked this to notions of political extremism and economic excess. Whether this is fair or not is one thing. Another is why are we not capable of attracting a broader base of financial support in the first place? Why are successful companies and individuals not beginning to support us again? Because while it is great news that 70,000 new members have joined leading to an extra £1 million or so into the coffers, that is simply not enough to arrest the long term decline in our income. Particularly when you think that the party costs roughly £25 million per year to run.

Which leads to the second issue worthy of scrutiny – the financial implications of the party receiving 90% of its donations from the trade unions. The first thing to say is that it is simply not sustainable.

Remember that we are committed to paying off £2 million a year in debt before we pay anything else. Of the £2.8 million received between January and March this year, £1 million came from Unite, £500,000 from GMB and £400,000 from Unison. In other words, it would only take a decision by one of their conferences to withhold or reduce funds and the impact would be pretty serious. Any organisation with the levels of debt that the party has, and that is so reliant on a single source of funding, can only be described as vulnerable.

Second, the overall reduction in the amount we have available to spend each year because of our narrow funding base is being masked. It is being masked by the tax payers’ money that we now receive because we are in opposition. A combination of Short, Cranborne and Scottish Parliamentary money took our income from £2.9 million to £4.6 million in the first quarter of this year, meaning that we will be in receipt of the best part of £7 million this year from the taxpayer. So while our income this year is likely to be about £23 – £24 million in cash terms, without the taxpayer we would be looking at income of about £17 million. In other words, we can barely afford to fight an election and we almost certainly can’t afford to win one.

Finally, and most seriously, there is the threat of party funding reform. Quite simply, if the government decides to implement its proposed cap of £50,000 on all donations to political parties, then the Labour party is in dire trouble. The money received from trade unions would go from £8 – £10 million per year to a maximum of £750,000. And yet there is every sign that that is exactly what the government is going to do. And I’m not sure that another “defend the link” campaign is going to be enough on this occasion.

So all in all, 90% of donations to the party coming from the trade unions exposes some pretty serious political and financial weaknesses that we need take seriously. If it’s not happening already, I hope that we are talking to the other parties about agreeing some sort of consensus on party funding reform. I hope that we are looking at why we don’t appear to have been able to diversify our income and attract back large numbers of successful wealthy individuals and companies. And I hope that we are looking at how we can further increase the amount that our members give.

If not, then we may well have a bit more to worry about than Refounding Labour and poor attendance at local party meetings.

Peter Watt is a GMB member and former general secretary of the Labour party.

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