By Jim Kelly (first posted on the United Left website)
To Be Heard We Need A Voice
The current debate about the Labour Party – trade union link is the most fundamental since the TUC voted back in 1899 to establish what became the Labour Party. It isn’t a debate we asked for, because we’d rather concentrate on winning back millions of voters including our own members to ensure we end austerity and restore the hope, decent jobs and social justice the British people deserve. But it is one we cannot shirk.
In three weeks our executive council is due to consider our position on this debate. Most other major unions have already agreed submissions to Ray Collins’s review, and they have much in common. Whilst they all support strengthening the link, they all strongly defend the principle of collective affiliation rather than a union voice dependent on individuals opting in to some form of individual membership. On this the left and the traditional right are agreed.
On this more than any other issue, it is important that trade unions stand together. As the party’s biggest affiliate by far, Unite should be in the forefront of the campaign for a stronger voice, just as under Len McCluskey’s leadership, we have been in the forefront of the campaign against austerity – against Labour being “a pinkish shadow of the coalition”.
We know that there will be no report available from Ray Collins, but there is no sense in waiting until February for the executive to take a position when it will be too late to change the options and we will be forced to choose only between supporting or opposing them. Len initiated a debate on the issues we face back in July when he set out his thoughts – it is time the union decided what we think about those issues and started arguing our case.
If unions stand together, with half the votes at Labour’s conference, and supported by many constituency parties worried about the severe threat to the party’s finances from Ed Miliband’s proposals, as well as the negative impact on the left within the party, then the link can be successfully defended. The changes that were proposed were not thought through, and they are both bad for the unions and bad for the party. But that is not enough.
As Len said in July, “for a long time we have been taken for granted by people who welcome our money, but not our policy input, who want to use our resources at election time but do not want our members as candidates”. We know that, as the GMB’s Paul Kenny said at the Brighton conference on behalf of all affiliated unions, our experience under New Labour was of “collective voices ignored in favour of free market dogma”.
Len was right in July to argue that “the status quo is not an option” but not because there is anything wrong with collective affiliation, or with the “block vote” itself. In a democratic, federal party, there is no collective voice without block votes – constituency parties have them too.
The trouble with the block vote is that in the last twenty years, the trade unions have used them, however reluctantly, to undermine the very party democracy we now need and miss. We voted away the right to submit motions and amendments and the right for Labour’s national executive to oversee policy-making, until the party conference was left with almost no purpose at all, except as a circus where bag-carriers and careerists tout themselves in a political version of X -Factor.
We allowed power to be centralised. And even where we did manage to extract a few policy concessions, we have to vote for all sorts of bad policies alongside them to get that little benefit.
We need to restore democracy to the party. We need a Labour conference that makes policy again. We need a Labour executive that manages the party. And Unite is the union that should be leading the way. So it is wrong to say “don’t let anyone say that the status quo is worth defending” because some aspects of the status quo are worth defending:
• The Labour Party itself is worth defending. There is no better option for Unite and the other trade unions. • What levers of power we have in the party are worth defending. Trade unions have half the votes. That means a veto on changing the rules of the party. A level of influence we should use to restore democracy. Without more democracy, we can never have enough influence on what Labour does.
It is true that “significant numbers of Unite members do not support Labour” but far fewer support the Tories than in the general population, and the vast majority of our members favour having a political fund and a political voice which they know perfectly well is used to support and influence the Labour Party. The real problem is that too many of our members don’t vote or are seduced by false hopes like those offered by UKIP, or the SNP (even though it is far closer to big business than Ed Miliband’s Labour Party).
We cannot agree that our main aim should be “to ensure that as many Unite members as possible, already paying our political levy, now sign up individually, by whatever means have transparency and integrity, to be affiliate members of the party.” Whilst it is right to encourage Unite members to join the party and become more active, it is inconceivable, especially after our experience in Falkirk, that we will succeed in large numbers, until we have succeeded in changing Labour.
And to do that we need to make Labour more democratic. That should be our main aim.
Jim Kelly (chair London & Eastern region, Unite) in a personal capacity