Britain’s biggest union, Unite, “should only fund Labour when it supports [their] policies”, says Jerry Hicks, left challenger in the union’s general secretary election in 2010.
Hicks’s article, which has been doing the rounds in the left “blogosphere”, is full of contempt for Unite leader Len McCluskey, accusing him of hypocrisy in attacking a Labour leader whose election he (along with Unison and the GMB) effectively engineered. Hicks exhorts McCluskey to “Stop wringing your hands, stop moaning and stop funding them!”
A perfectly reasonable line of argument, surely? Why should unions, particularly one with as much potential clout as Unite, give money to a party who — in government or opposition — has helped reinforce the cuts consensus in British politics?
But the problem with Hicks’s approach, and indeed with the entire way in which the relationship between trade unions and the Labour Party is understood by almost everyone in the British labour movement (including both the union bureaucracies and the far-left) is that it conceives of the relationship in essentially financial, machine-politics terms.
It is a conception of political engagement consisting essentially in trade unions “buying” political favours from an external political force. If a particular politician or political party doesn’t deliver on the paid-for favours, stop the payments and give the money to someone you expect to do a better job.
This is how unions do politics in America, where there is no labour party (small ‘l’ and ‘p’ deliberate). The funding invariably goes to the Democrats; the unions give them money, and turn out activists to campaign for them, in return for political scraps-from-the-table (or, more frequently, the promise of scraps). There are no channels through which workers, through their unions, can exert direct control or accountability over the Democrats. The relationship is mediated through union bureaucrats (themselves unaccountable) playing machine politics with Democratic senators, congressmen and women, and other officials.
This is undoubtedly how the hardcore New Labourites would like the relationship between their party and the unions to function in this country too. Severing the structural link between the Labour Party and the unions has been a long-held dream of the Blairites, and one that they have only held back from trying decisively to make a reality through a lack of confidence.
Certainly, McCluskey’s hypocrisy should be called out, along with the hypocrisy of Unison’s Dave Prentis and the GMB’s Paul Kenny, who have conducted similar media exercises in macho-posturing (both have talked of “reviewing” their unions’ relationship to Labour).
Their real hypocrisy lies not in their role in getting Miliband elected, but in their roles as part of trade union leaderships that have, at practically every turn, acquiesced to the New Labour machine when they could have stopped it in its tracks. In 2007, when the Labour leaders proposed a raft of anti-democratic reforms to party structure at its Bournemouth conference, union leaders talked a good fight but ended up voting the reforms through.
McCluskey, Prentis and Kenny have absolutely no intention of disaffiliating their unions from Labour. Besides, a summary disaffiliation by unions on these terms, necessarily motivated by a business-unionist complaint that affiliation to the Labour Party was no longer value for money, would be a financial blow for New Labour but a political victory. It would represent the completion of the Blairite project to turn the Labour Party into the US Democrats.
The confusion on this question is widespread; Bob Crow and Mark Serwotka (two of the most left-wing bureaucrats) have toyed with the idea of union funding for Plaid Cymru, SNP and even Lib Dem candidates. Most on the far left would baulk at unions supporting what are clearly straightforwardly pro-capitalist parties, but if your only conception of political engagement is based on buying political favours from the least-bad electoral party, then why not throw some money at Plaid?
After the abject experience of Labour in power, the little-better experience of them in recent opposition and the generation of anti-democratic reform in the party, it’s understandable that even people on the trade union left have internalised and accepted the basis on which union bureaucrats and New Labourites want the Labour-union link to function. But if socialists are to be useful in the fight for genuine working-class political representation, our perspective has to be based on more than knee-jerk cynicism.
Channels for union self-assertion inside the Labour Party are radically different now than they were even 15 years ago, but they still exist. The unions could still exert massive political pressure. They could get radical policy onto the floor of Labour Party conference. They could demand that Labour councils refuse to pass on Tory cuts. Some of what they could do might have a targeted financial element; within a framework of continued affiliation, they might refuse to fund individual MPs and councillors who voted for cuts. The reason the unions have not done these things is not that they are impossible, but that the union leaders lack the political will to do them and rank-and-file union members lack the democratic structures within unions themselves to force them to act.
That list is far from exhaustive, and there are plenty of ways the unions could assert themselves outside the Labour Party too (including backing independent candidates if and when it makes sense, as the RMT, CWU and FBU all did while still affiliated). But the aim is to shift the political terrain, not simply to buy into a “value-for-money” approach to political representation.
The Labour Party is not “reclaimable” in the crude sense suggested by those on the left for whom loyalty to the Labour Party is a religion. In all likelihood, any consistent political self-assertion by unions on anything approaching a radical political basis would precipitate a splintering of the existing Labour Party, with most MPs and the entire New Labour machine decamping (perhaps to merge with the Lib Dems), or pushing through a formal severing of the union link. That potential should not be shied away from; in fact, if it happened as the result of a consistent fight, it would be positively to be welcomed.
Of course, we’re nowhere near that happening now. It would require seismic shifts within the unions themselves and a reinvigoration of independent rank-and-file organisation (something else the left has consistently failed to meaningfully organise for). A perspective of the unions using the existing link to disrupt, subvert and, if necessary, cause a split (rather than hive off one by one) is “blue sky thinking”. But it’s “blue sky thinking” that starts from where we are now and proceeds forwards. The “blue sky thinking” of Hicks — that the unions will disaffiliate, one by one, and give their money to someone else instead — is both less plausible and less desirable.
It would be a step back for working-class political independence, a political gift to New Labour and a reinforcement of the machine politics that both New Labour leaders and union bureaucrats are desperate not to see disrupted.