This article by Jon Lansman was written before this weekend’s Labour Policy Forum and first appeared at Left Futures . We think it makes some very important points about the present state of the Labour-union link:
Doubts about this weekend’s meeting of Labour’s national policy forum have already been raised by Jon Cruddas’s comments (£) about the “dead hand” of central control, which I argued remained a problem because of mistakes by Ed Miliband. Of course, party managers have ensured that Cruddas and policy forum chair, Angela Eagle, attempt to present a picture of Labour “united by a single desire” for “big reform, not big spending.” Press commentators at the Independent and Guardian reveal the truth – that party managers are set on preventing commitments to necessary, financially prudent and popular reforms like taking railways back into the state sector at the end of current franchises. As Patrick Wintour puts it:
Ed Miliband is facing a weekend of battles behind closed doors to persuade Labour party activists to back his manifesto, which faces grassroots challenges over railway renationalisation, welfare caps and labour regulation.
Note the reference to “party activists” and “grassroots challenges“. In spite of all the rows in recent years about the “power of the trade unions”, reaching a climax in the Collins report earlier this year, the pressure for a radical bold programme comes not from ‘union barons’ but from party activists. And there is every prospect that the trade unions will this time, as on almost every occasion in the party’s history, allow Labour’s leadership to get its way.
In the aftermath of the Collins report, Progress director Robert Philpot, ever eager for further attacks on the influence of trade unions, opined that “decades of ingrained cultural behaviour by the fixers and factionalists of machine politics do not just end with the passage of a rule change.” Too right. Except the truth of machine politics thoughout the history of the Labour Party is that ‘union barons’ have been not the fixers but the instrument of Leaders’ own fixing.
It needn’t be like that this weekend, nor in the future. Len McCluskey may have said to his union’s policy conference that now is not the time “heated arguments within the Labour Party about policy” but we don’t need public rows. If only trade union representatives would vote for the policies agreed through their own democratic structures alongside their comrades from the constituency parties, we would be guaranteed also the opportunity to vote for progressive policies at the September party conference in Manchester.
It is an irony that many of the far-left are clamouring for the Unions and Unite in particular to break the link with Labour. They point to how badly the unions were treated over Falkirk, and the failure to get any significant policy concessions out of the party. We don’t agree with their conclusion. We see no prospect of any new party of the Left breaking through in the forseeable future. Neverthless, the lack of support from the Labour leadership for union aspirations within the Party, even when they are clearly popular, affordable and right, is undeniable — the relationship does not work.
In reality the Labour-union link works with union participation but no real influence on the major issues. To understand why the link fails, we need look no further than how the unions reacted to the Blair reforms.
In the 1970s, there was a broad level of agreement between most trade unions and the CLPs in support of an alternative economic strategy on which the party was united but whose implementation the parliamentary leadership prevented. This led to the democratic reforms of the late 1970s/early ’80s but then the left in the CLP’s were progressively defeated through the 80s, leading to the Blair reforms. Although every new attack on democracy met some resistance from trade unions, they always made some concessions. Over time, Blair’s reforms were made with union votes.
Blair reshaped the Party with the aim of ending party democracy by removing political debate and discussion (the lifeblood of a free labour movement) and centralising power, detaching the Party machine from the members. Not only did this generate an overbearing and corrupt bureaucratic structure but, in conjunction with a major expansion of salaried political posts (councillors, MPs’ staff etc), it spawned a political salariat whose climbs up the greasy pole is to ensure the machine runs smoothly and dissent is snuffed out. That career structure is still in place, and though Ed Miliband may not be authoritarian by nature as both Blair and Brown were in different ways, he has if anything increased the centralisation of power.
The entire structure of the party is stacked against anyone who wishes to challenge the status quo, but like any bureaucracy in the Labour movement, it is only as powerful as the membership is passive and support it. Outside the bag-carriers and the Blairites (read Progress) in the CLPs, there is little appetite for it.
While this structure is Blair’s child, the trade unions votes have not only helped create the structure but have acquiesced in the policies that have emerged from it and kill those which didn’t. So Blair’s policies were endorsed, or at least not opposed by union votes. In Pete Willsman’s account of the Saga of Warwick II (the immediate forerunner of this week’s policy forum)
For most on the Left such a revelation is anathema, as it blows apart a rather simplistic view that somehow big bad Labour beat up on the unions – a view which helps fuel the fire of those who wish us to disaffiliate. Truth be told, the unions are consenting adults in this relationship:
- The unions may have fewer than half the votes at party conference, but with the left in the CLPs have an in-built majority there, as they (just about) have on the NEC. This means a raft of progressive polices could be put through both the NEC and at conference.
- Every anti-democratic reform the party has put in place has been supported by most trade unions. Indeed if they had not been so supported, as with the Collins report, they would not have been passed.
At the centre of the Labour-union relations are the meetings which help decide the manifesto – including the Warwick agreements and perhaps those at Milton Keynes this year. This special relationship are in effect a parallel structure to that of the NPF. While it appears to privilege unions within the Party, the reality is very different. As Willsman describes, unions negotiate directly with the leader with the goal of getting their ‘union agenda’ adopted, and the Labour leadership agree to support a number of relatively minor demands.The quid pro quo is that unions support (or at least doesn’t oppose) the leadership on all other matters.
Why else in 2008 did trade unions permit the rejection of policies like a moratorium on foundation hospitals, opposing the outsourcing of commissioning in the NHS, restoring the link between pensions and earnings, a windfall tax on energy and oil companies and the restoration of a 10p tax band?
You might ask what have these agreements brought the unions in concessions that they could have not have won by voting alongside constituency parties, when they could obtain so much more in an alliance with the left CLPs? We hope that is a question we shall not have to answer again.