Labour and the unions

Unions21 is politically non-affiliated and impartial, here’s Gregor Gall’s view of the unions and Labour post-Falkirk, post your view below.


Unite has welcomed the opportunity of Ed Miliband’s proposals for reforming the union-Labour link for debating the issues at hand. But is it in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater?


The union has argued that – in line with its political strategy document agreed at its executive in December 2011 – that its desire to reinvigorate Labour through the influx of union members (especially its own) can come about through the opt-in proposal.


Unions like the GMB, Unison and the CWU have disagreed and both GMB and Unison will reduce their number of affiliated members from 2014 in response to what they see as the attack on the remaining amount of union influence within Labour.


Let’s look at Unite’s key argument. It says that the status quo cannot be defended as it is not working for union members. So it argues that the current arrangements by which unions attempt to exert influence on Labour and the Parliamentary party did not stop the then Labour government going to war in Iraq and neither did it stop the neo-liberal takeover of Labour.


It would be difficult to argue against that. But it does not follow that not defending the status quo means supporting, however tacitly, Miliband’s proposals or anything that will come out of the Lord Collins’ commission.


After this year’s TUC, no one can surely argue that Miliband should be taken at face value when he says that he wants to see a mass Labour party again. This is because, on the one hand, he is dead set against any substantial input from unions simply because it is a stick the Tories will use to beat him with. On the other hand, he rejects the very social democratic politics that are absolutely essential to provide a party with the policies that would be attractive to workers.


Instead, Miliband’s goal through his proposals is a party free floating from unions and any other organised body of opinion – apart from his, of course. This is a centralised, top down organisation, not a democratic, participative and discursive organisation. The closest political cousin of the outcome of the Miliband project is the Democratic Party in the United States.


Just as logically, Unite could call and work for a return to the so-called ‘bad’ old days before one member one vote and before the diminution of the bloc vote or something else entirely.  The problem is that Unite has not come up with an alternative to Miliband’s proposals. This makes its implicit criticism of those that wish to defend the link less than convincing.


It seems that approach of Unite is a product of its rather schizophrenic relationship with Miliband. From helping secure his election, the union has gone back and forth where one minute Miliband is a sinner and the next he is a saint. After Miliband’s TUC speech, he is currently accorded the status of saint.


If we turn back the so-called ‘bad’ old days, the reason why affiliated unions did not exert anything like the influence they could have and should over because they were divided. Even after the election of the ‘awkward squad’ leaders to the major unions, they were still sufficient differences that prevented the three or four biggest unions from blocking together. By the time the necessary alliances were made around the time of the Warwick I and II agreements, it was a case of too little too late.


Again, just because unity was not achieved then does not mean it could not be achieved in the future. And, it certainly does not mean that the mechanism by which affiliated unions work is faulty.


If unions can be criticised for small groups of people making decisions for their wider memberships without consulting or involving those members, then the problem lies on the side of the unions and it is they that must sort this out. It, therefore, does not follow that the actual current mechanism of the union-Labour link needs reforming.


So Unite as the biggest affiliated union – as well as all the other affiliated unions – need to get their thinking caps on in order to put up proposals that can combine the means and ends of mass membership participation for social democratic policies. Crucially, the proposals must address how to make the Labour leadership and the parliamentary party accountable to members so that if and when the right kind policies are taken up, they are actually implemented in opposition and in government. While Unite’s current attempt to get its activists selected as prospective MPs is to be welcomed, it is not up to the scale of the task of influencing the parliamentary party.


It is difficult to see how achieving such social democratic aims can be done without union members acting collectively. The individual opt in system will atomise and de-collectivise them.  Unions as the embodiment of the collective will are essential to having anything approximating to a decent Labour Party.


Gregor Gall is professor of industrial relations at the University of Bradford (

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One Response to “Labour and the unions”

  1. The problem is more fundemental and I think you hint at that when referring to the internal arrangements of affiliates.
    Decentralising and democratising the political funds in individual unions is the only real answer to this question.
    No doubt a fudge ensuring autocratic elected and non elected general secretaries and their loyal supporters retain the usurped power of the political fund is the end game for the interchangeable beaurocracy of the labour movement but in the long run it simply will not do. Only if the political fund is devolved to a branch level for local political campaigning involving rank anf file union members can this issue be properly resolved.
    This is an argument that the campaign for democracy in the GMB has been arguing for some time.

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