At its 2012 policy conference, the Unite union ratified a strategy from its Executive for changing the basis on which the union relates to the Labour Party.
Dave Quayle, Chair of Unite’s National Political Committee, spoke to Solidarity about what that strategy means for working-class political representation.
The consensus in the union was very much that if we were going to remain part of the Labour Party, the relationship had to change.
We give millions of pounds to a party we have little control over, and we get nothing back. The Labour Party in government did absolutely nothing for the collective rights of workers, and very little for our individual rights.
So we had two options — disaffiliate, or campaign to change the way the relationship between the union and the party worked. Len McCluskey made that a key part of his election campaign, so the strategy is something that’s been in development since he got elected.
Many people across the union had an input into it, and it was passed by our Executive last December. It’s all been entirely public; the strategy document is in the public domain and we’ve conducted the arguments for it out in the open. This isn’t a secret coup — we’re not Progress.
We want to shift the relationship between the unions and the party away from being money based.
We want to see trade unionists involved at every level of the party. We want a network of Unite councillors and MPs, as well as councillors and MPs from other unions. Only 9% of sitting Labour MPs have a working-class background; that has to change.
None of this will be easy because of the way New Labour changed the party’s structures, but we want to fight on that front too. A key part of our strategy is to democratise Labour Party conference and make it resolution-based, or at least to allow minority positions from the National Policy Forum.
The key policies we want to see trade union activists within the Labour Party fight for at every level are quite simple. It’s about giving workers the right to collectively struggle to change their conditions. We want to shift the balance in the party away from middle-class academics and professionals towards people who’ve actually represented workers and fought the boss. At the parliamentary level the key fight is against the anti-union laws. We have to restore the right to take solidarity action and strike effectively.
There’s a lot of support for our strategies within constituencies. It’s not about the unions versus party members, as some on the right are trying to suggest.
Within Unite, even the right wing is dissatisfied with the status quo. We cannot continue to throw money at a party led by people who don’t represent our class. But we also don’t believe we can fix the problem simply by arguing on the financial terrain — by giving 10% less in affiliation fees, for example. If we give 10% less, but the relationship is still fundamentally the same, we might as well not give anything at all. If we want working-class political representation we need to change the way the relationship works. It’s about class politics.
There’s deep and understandable scepticism from some activists within the union about putting this policy into action.
The leadership needs to take the membership with us and show people it can work. We have a job of work to do in that respect.
Fighting for a democratic party conference will be a key initial focus.
We’ll also be fighting the right wing in the constituencies to get trade union candidates selected as PPCs and as candidates on the lists for the European elections. It’s not just about getting Unite members selected, either. It’s about getting working-class, trade-union candidates who have experience of representing and organising in workplaces selected.
Obviously there’ll be a need to work to make sure any candidates who are selected remain politically accountable, but that’s an ongoing process.
We want a firmly class-based and left-wing general election campaign in 2015. We’ve got to say that Labour is the party of and for workers, not for neo-liberals, bankers, and the free market. That might alienate some people, but that’s tough.
Labour has to be a working-class party — a party for workers, pensioners, unemployed workers, single parents, the whole class.
It has to fight for positive rights for working-class people, and we want trade union activists out on the doorsteps of working-class households as Labour Party candidates making that case.