What direction for Labour and the unions?

The Labour Party in Britain is at a crossroads in its relationship with its 15 affiliated unions (comprising some 3m affiliated unions members). A little known Westminster parliamentary constituency in Scotland– Falkirk West – became the fault line for what could comprise another few nails in the coffin of the historic party of labour that once was the party for labour.


Unite union, the biggest union in Britain and biggest affiliated Labour union, adopted a political strategy two years under its new general secretary, Len McCluskey, of trying to win back influence for itself and the union movement. Given that the parliamentary Labour Party, and not the annual conference or national executive, is the key locus of power within Labour, Unite naturally sought to get its activists selected as prospective candidates in safe Labour seats for the May 2015 general election. The method was to recruit new members to Labour and then win the vote for the selections.


It targeted some forty seats and was well on the way to securing the prospective candidature in Falkirk West until someone cried foul and accused the union of signing up new members without their consent. The Tories smelt blood and hounded Labour leader, Ed Miliband, as being in thrall to – and under control of – the unions. Within weeks, Miliband announced he was going to change the nature of the union-Labour link, requiring affiliated members to opt-in (rather than opt out as is the case currently). Subsequently, no wrong doing was found on the part of Unite and the two suspended activists were re-instated as full party members.


To have a political fund, all unions are required by law to hold decadal ballots and under affiliated union policies, the 15 unions ask members to pay the political levy of which a proportion is used to affiliate a certain number of members to Labour. With the withering of union activism and membership participation, this is far from a perfect system. But it does, nonetheless, mean that union members can act collectively to try to influence the historic party of labour. To opt-in would atomise those members that did and reduce any collective clout they might have.


Given that the affiliated unions are the one remaining organised source for social democracy in Labour, to remove their influence in this way would make Labour like theUSDemocratic party, namely, a free floating liberal party with no tangible association with the organised working class.


Criticism of Miliband from most of the unions was vehement. Most of all, they called his response ‘dog whistle politics’ and suggested he’d be better to concentrate upon battling the Coalition government over making workers pay the cost of the crisis of neo-liberalism (through the austerity programme) as well as them not gaining any of the fruits of the return of (limited) economic growth. Indeed, a few like Unison told Miliband that he faced an ‘Australian’ meltdown like that of thee ALP if he continued to misdirect his fire on the unions and not the government.


For the time being, the unions seem to have won out. The union-party reform was debated for only 30 minutes at this year’s Labour party conference and Miliband made a leader’s speech that was broadly welcomed where he fleshed out some of the content of his ‘one nation’ perspective. But it is a case of battle deferred not battle over for a special spring 2014 conference will debate the commission Miliband has set up under a former chair of the Labour party.


Ironically, when it comes to this special conference, Unite might be the one save Miliband’s bacon. It has been the least critical of the unions and, indeed, went so far as to welcome Miliband’s proposals as an opportunity to debate the union-Labour link. Much will depend upon the internal politics of this particular union.


So far only the siren voices of a few unions have argued for the setting up of a new party of Labour. The most prominent is the RMT transport union which was expelled from Labour nearly a decade ago for supporting the Scottish Socialist Party.


Consequently, unions still remain between ‘a rock and a hard place’ in terms of their political voice. For some of the big affiliated unions Miliband has not offered the clear alternative to the Coalition that they wish – it’s been a case of ‘austerity-lite’, namely, being for cuts albeit of a lesser size than the Coaliton’s.


Yet none are prepared to make the break that the RMT urges them to do. They fear it is cold outside Labour – better to be inside the tent albeit unhappy than to be outside it and better to be in the corridors of power even if they have no influence there.


This means that the alternative of a new party of labour has never gained the momentum or credibility that it needs to become a viable option for the currently affiliated unions. It is possible they may feel spurred into doing something if Miliband get his way next spring at the special confernence. But equally well, it might be another case of battle deferred if Miliband thinks that this battle will do more harm than good in the run up to the 2015 general election and the unions warm a bit more to him with the fleshing of ‘one nation-ism’.


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


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