Ed Miliband’s superb performance at the Labour Conference in Brighton, has changed a few things. ’Labour’s New Energy’ (‘Guardian’), ’Decisive shift to the Left’ (The Times’),were the typical commentators’ take on it. More significantly, all the trade union leaders, especially Len McLuskey, (the darling of delegates at this conference), were ‘over the moon’ with the Labour leader’s list of concrete pledges and the general tenor of his virtuoso hour long performance without a note.
They even drew comfort from Ed’s very brief mention of their other main concern, his plans for ‘changing our politics’ viz., ‘party reform’ of the union political levy. Yet there was no hint that he is abandoning this attempt to change what he clearly sees as an outmoded form of the link. His contrast of ‘hearing the individual voices of people from call centre workers to construction workers’, with the hearing the collective voices of union leaders, could not have been more pointed. Yet there was still no detail about how he proposes to do it. Most union and many party activists remain extremely sceptical about how his ‘mass membership’ of political-levy payers could be realised.
Yet his new status as a substantial Labour Leader in the more conventional social democratic tradition, means that many will suspend judgement until we see more flesh on the bones of Lord Ray Collin’s surprisingly slim interim report to this conference. In it he stated that ‘Ed does not want this individual relationship with trade union membership to damage the collective relationship and the institutional links between the party and the union organisations. Ed wants to mend - not end – the link.’ But, as unions say, ‘the devil is in the detail’.
The Collin’s statement also said, ‘we do not believe there is any need to change the laws around the right of trade unions to hold political funds’. The Labour Opposition may not intend to go there, but the government party leaders, especially Clegg, seem intent on it. My fear would be that they would do that ‘dirty work’ whilst in government. At the Unions 21 conference fringe on ‘Thatcherism’, the Tory ‘envoy’ to the union movement, [now] Lord Balfe, said just that.
I suspect, therefore, that the genie is now well and truly ‘out of the bottle’ and will never go back to where it was. It seems that the Labour leadership chose their ‘Falkirk moment’ to challenge what they saw as undue mega-union political power, in their Party policy and structures. Their concerns seem also to have arisen in the context of their discussions with the Liberal Democrats, and the unions fear some unprincipled deal for a Lab-Lib Dem coalition.
There will therefore be some real heart searching from now until the proposed special Spring conference and the Collins’ report will be the subject of close attention.
The History & Policy Trade Union Forum has been looking at the whole relationship of the unions with all the parties historically in a series of seminars involving senior union figures (such as Billy Hayes of the CWU). Each one has been written up on our website (http://www.bit.ly/tuforum). In November, we will be pulling the threads together and drawing some conclusions as to the future policy options for unions and the parties, and this will be of interest as a historical context of this whole debate.