In mid-July Labour Party leader Ed Miliband proposed various ‘reforms’ to Labour Party structures and procedures. Central to these was the proposal that unions affiliated to the Labour Party switch from ‘opt-out’ to ‘opt-in’.
At present, a member of a trade union who does not ‘opt out’ of paying the political levy is automatically included as a levy-payer. If that union is affiliated to the Labour Party, anyone who does not ‘opt out’ counts automatically as an affiliated Labour Party member.
Under Miliband’s proposals, only union members who indicate that they wish to ‘opt in’ would be counted as affiliated Labour Party members. If implemented, this would result in a slump in the number of affiliated union members.
In late July Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey presented his response to Miliband’s proposals at an emergency meeting of all members of the union’s Regional Political Committees and the union’s National Executive Committee.
McCluskey said that, in his opinion, Miliband’s proposals were “not a threat but an opportunity.”
We think McCluskey’s response is seriously wrong. If accepted as Unite policy, it would not only be disastrous for union-Labour links but also result in the exact opposite of what McCluskey hopes to achieve.
Below we quote some of McCluskey’s statements and extracts from the Unite press releases issued before and after the emergency meeting, followed by an explanation of why we think they fail to get to grips with Miliband’s proposals.
“Ed Miliband has made some bold and far-reaching proposals for recasting the trade union relationship with the Labour Party. Some pundits were expecting me to reject them outright. When Ed made his speech, I saw it as an opportunity not as a threat.”
In principle, there is nothing wrong with ‘boxing clever’ and trying to outmanoeuvre your opponents. Nor is it axiomatic that any proposal which enjoys support from your political enemies should automatically be rejected as a matter of principle.
But such considerations always need to be subordinated to a concrete assessment of the proposals in question, their overall context, and their likely consequences.
The general context of Miliband’s proposal to replace ‘opting-out’ by union members by ‘opting-in’ is straightforward.
For nearly three decades successive Labour Party leaders – first Neil Kinnock, then John Smith, then Tony Blair and his successor Gordon Brown – have driven through tranches of party ‘reforms’ which have gutted the Labour Party of mechanisms of accountability and democracy.
This is the lesson they learnt from the experiences of the Labour government of 1974-79 and the subsequent upsurge in the influence of the left: shut down the mechanisms which the Party membership and its affiliated unions could, potentially, use to fight for control over the policies pursued by a Labour government.
Central to those ‘reforms’ has been a reduction in the influence of the affiliated trade unions – in annual conferences, in the National Executive Committee, and in the new institutions, such as the National Policy Forum, created by those ‘reforms’.
But these cutbacks in the role of the affiliated unions did not meet the end goal of the different shades of Blairism. Some wanted to retain the unions-Labour link but cut back still further the role allocated to affiliated unions in the party structures.. Others wanted a definitive end to the unions-Labour link.
Two years after Blair’s election as party leader his ally and fellow Labour MP Stephen Byers briefed the media that the Labour Party might sever its links with the unions. In later years Byers fell into disgrace after being caught offering himself to lobbyists as “a taxi for hire”.
In 2005 the ex-CWU general secretary and then Trade and Industry Secretary Alan Johnson advocated that the unions’ share of votes at Labour Party annual conference be cut to 15%.
In early 2007 Johnson lined up with former TGWU general secretary Bill Morris and the fake-left Jon Cruddas MP to advocate further reductions in the unions’ role in the Labour Party. Gordon Brown floated similar suggestions in meetings with union leaders.
In late 2010 Blairites returned to the attack on Labour-union links.
MPs Andy Burnham and Tessa Jowell “questioned” affiliated union members having a vote in Labour Party leadership elections.
Margaret Hodge MP advocated that Labour “cut the umbilical cord” with the unions on the grounds that they were “irrelevant in British society”.
And ex-MP Alan Milburn – so right-wing that some Tories wanted him to be offered a post in the Con-Dem coalition government – proposed that the unions “should no longer have a structural relationship with Labour.”
In February of this year Alan Johnson again raised the issue of reducing the unions’ role in the Labour Party.
In an interview with the right-wing Labour magazine “Progress” he attacked union leaders as “fat, white, finger-jabbing blokes on rostrums shouting and screaming” and called for their share of the vote at Labour Party conference tobe cut from 49% to “about a third”.
Unsurprisingly, when Miliband announced his proposals, they won applause from the old-time Blairites and from Blair himself (“bold and strong ... long overdue and probably, frankly, I should have done it when I was party leader”).
If the general context of Miliband’s proposals was the longstanding Blairite hostility to trade union involvement in the Labour Party, the specific context was Falkirk West.
In the weeks leading up to Miliband’s announcement there had been a concerted campaign by the media, Blairites and Tories to manufacture a spurious ‘scandal’ out of the fact that an affiliated union (Unite) had encouraged its members to join the Labour Party.
On the basis of a report not seen by the Labour Party National Executive Committee, the Scottish Labour Party or the party in Falkirk West itself – a report in which, according to the few who had been privy to its contents, fantasies jostled with outright lies for pride of place – Falkirk West Labour Party had been placed under “special measures” and two of its members suspended.
Miliband’s response to the concocted ‘scandal’ was twofold.
He panicked firstly in handing over the report to the police, which subsequently found that there was nothing to investigate. And he panicked again in announcing a new series of Labour Party ‘reforms’, with a particular focus on the unions-Labour link.
The general context and the specific context of Miliband’s proposal, along with their likely consequences (i.e. a reduced role for the unions in the Labour Party, especially at annual conferences) both point unmistakeably to the same conclusion: they are a threat, not an opportunity
“The relationship between the unions and Labour has not always worked for working people. Too often in the past the party has favoured establishment interests over improving the lives of ordinary people.”
As a straightforward statement of fact, this is indisputably true. Time and time again Labour governments have favoured “establishment interests” over those of working people.
This was a feature not just of the Blair-Brown Labour governments of 1997-2010 but also of earlier Labour governments. Even the great reforming Labour government of 1945-51 accepted capitalism as the framework within which it pursued its reforms.
The Blair-Brown governments differed from their predecessors only in the extent to which they positively embraced the values and dictates of capitalism, and in the extent to which they were openly committed to promoting “establishment interests” not just over those of working people but at the expense of those of working people.
But what explains the failure of the trade union movement to prevent successive Labour governments from ruling in the interests of capital rather than of labour? Why, to use McCluskey’s expression, did “the relationship between the unions and Labour” not “work”?
It was certainly not because of the nature of the relationship itself.
Until the process of ‘reforms’ begun by Neil Kinnock in the mid-1980s affiliated unions wielded 90% of the votes at Labour Party conferences and occupied a majority of seats on the Labour Party National Executive Committee.
Labour Party income was dependant on trade union affiliation fees. And more often than not, the General Management Committees of local Labour Parties were dominated by delegates from affiliated trade union branches.
Backed up by their industrial muscle, the affiliated unions had the opportunity, precisely because of “the relationship between the unions and Labour”, to impose a different set of political priorities on Labour, whether it was in power or in opposition.
But, with only a few exceptions, in the post-war decades union leaders chose not to exploit that opportunity.
Just as they had backed right-wingers such as MacDonald and Henderson in the 1920s, so too in the post-war years ‘union barons’ such as Lawther, Deakin and Williamson backed the leadership of the Parliamentary Labour Party and used their block votes to crush left-wing opposition based in the local Labour Parties.
As the author of a Fabian pamphlet on the union-labour link, published in 2005, gushingly put it:
“Unions were once the predominant constituency in the Old Labour coalition, with 90% of the votes at party conference. They protected the party against extremism, the political obsessions of the ‘chattering classes’ and a focus on cultural politics. Unions have saved the party from policies that were electorally disastrous.”
In other words: the reason why the relationship between the trade unions and Labour did not “work” had nothing to do with the nature of the relationship itself but everything to do with the unwillingness of generations of trade union leaders to make that relationship “work”.
The real problem lay not in the relationship itself, but in the lack of democracy within the affiliated trade unions. It was the lack of rank-and-file control over the ‘union barons’ which allowed them to use their block votes in services of the Labour Party leadership rather than in the interests of their own members.
What follows from this is that it is not the relationship itself between the unions and the Labour which needs to be changed, such as by reducing still further union input into Labour Party decision-making processes.
What needs changing is how trade union members can ensure that the interests of trade unionism are advanced through that relationship, through the promotion of greater membership involvement and accountability within the trade unions themselves.
To take the opposite course – that of reducing the role which unions play in the Labour Party and continuing to seal off that role from rank-and-file influence – would guarantee that the Labour Party would “favour establishment interests over improving the lives of ordinary people” even more so than in the past.
“The experience of the last generation on this issue (of party reform) was: the party leader says something, the unions reject it and have no positive proposals of our own, the first plan goes through anyway and we look like not just losers, but conservative losers.”
Apart from the reference to the unions having “no positive proposals of their own” (and even that was not always the case), this borders on being a caricature of how unions have responded to the process of party ‘reforms’ begun by Kinnock, taken further by John Smith, and culminating in the Blair-Brown years.
Over the past three decades sweeping changes in Labour Party structures have gutted the party of core elements of democracy and accountability. Central to those ‘reforms’ has been a constant reduction in the role which trade unions could – potentially – play in the Labour Party.
All six-hundred-plus local Labour Parties and all affiliated unions used to be entitled submit motions to party conferences. But now a maximum of just four ‘contemporary’ motions from local Labour Parties and four from affiliated unions can be debated at party conferences.
Labour Party leaders have always been quietly dismissive of defeats at party conferences. But under Blair this escalated into a brazen contempt for conference decisions, with the media being briefed in advance of party conferences that any anti-leadership votes would be ignored.
Trade unions used to control 90% of the votes at party conferences. Successive cuts have seen that fall to 49%. Unions used to have a majority of seats on the party’s National Executive Committee. Now they have 12 out of 32. On the National Policy Forum, an invention of the Blair years, trade unions have just 30 out of 186 seats.
But unions do not just have less votes or less seats in the various Labour Party forums.
The bigger problem is that such forums are increasingly a sham. Real decision-making powers about party policy do not lie with conference, the National Executive Committee, or the National Policy Forum but with a Labour Party leadership ‘sealed off’ from rank-and-file pressure.
This ongoing hollowing-out of party democracy and undermining of trade union involvement has not been – contrary to McCluskey’s portrayal – the result of the party leader saying something, the unions rejecting it, and the first plan going through anyway.
To a greater or lesser degree, and with only occasional exceptions, union leaders either acquiesced in or positively collaborated in the Kinnock-Smith-Blair-Brown attacks on party democracy.
After the Labour Party swung to the left in the early 1980s, it was the 17 trade union leaders in the so-called St Ermins Group – including the general secretaries of the engineering, rail, electricians, postal workers, steelworkers and shopworkers trade unions – who took the initiative to win control of the National Executive Committee and push through party reforms in order to reverse the swing to the left.
And the main tool they used in doing so was the trade union block vote at party conferences.
Desperate to see a Tory government replaced by a Labour one, in the course of the 1980s and early 1990s trade union leaders bought into – or at least passively accepted – the idea that party ‘reform’ was a necessary price to pay in order to achieve Labour success at the polls.
At the 1993 Labour Party conference – where unions still had 90% of the votes – John Smith was able to win sufficient trade union support to secure a reduction in the union block vote from 90% to 70%, and the introduction of ‘one member, one vote’ in leadership elections and parliamentary selections.
Ironically, in the light of more recent developments, the Labour Party leadership ‘sold’ these cuts in union influence to the unions by introducing the ‘levy plus’ scheme – members of affiliated unions could join the Labour Party for just £3.00 a year.
After Blair took over as party leader following Smith’s death in 1994, the pace of ‘reform’ accelerated. New ‘policy forums’ were created as a pretext for transforming party conferences into rallies. Further reductions in the trade union block vote at party conferences were implemented. And new ‘safeguards’ were introduced to prevent de-selection of sitting MPs.
Some union leaders made speeches opposing such ‘reforms’. Some unions voted against them at party conferences. But overall the trade union leaderships simply acquiesced in the ‘reforms’. Even if they did not support them, the unions certainly never campaigned against them.
Union leaders accepted the ‘reforms’ because they aspired to no more than getting the Tories out (before 1997) and keeping them out (after 1997).
This lack of opposition reached a climax in 2007, when all the leaders of the biggest affiliated unions – GMB, CWU, T&G and Amicus – voted at that year’s party conference to scrap the right of local Labour Parties and affiliated trade unions to submit motions to conference.
By this time the demoralisation of union leaders had become so abject that their ‘justification’ for abolishing the right to submit motions to conference was that conference had become such a meaningless event that losing the right to submit motions did not amount to any real loss.
The story of Labour Party ‘reforms’ has not been one of opposition from union leaders while the Labour Party machine presses ahead regardless. It has been one of mumbled discontent by union leaders followed by acquiescence if not outright support.
Ironically, therefore, in seeking to distinguish his approach from that taken by “the last generation”, McCluskey is actually repeating it, albeit without the pretences of “the last generation” that he opposes Miliband’s proposals.
“Strains in the Labour-union link have been fuelled by the failures and disappointments of Labour in office. The block vote didn’t stop a Labour government invading Iraq. Affiliation didn’t keep Labour out of the clutches of the banks and the City. Our special relationship didn’t get the union laws repealed.”
In the context of Miliband’s proposals and their likely consequences, this is rather like arguing that because mass demonstrations of a million or more did not prevent war in Iraq, holding smaller demonstrations is more likely to achieve change in government policy.
Again, McCluskey confuses the nature and existence of the block vote, of affiliation, and of the ‘special relationship’ with the question of whether such links with the Labour Party have been used to best effect by the trade unions.
Given the readiness of successive trade unions to either actively push through ‘reforms’ of the Labour Party or passively acquiesce in their implementation, union leaders themselves have undermined their ability to influence Labour on policy issues.
Allowing annual conferences to be watered down into a meaningless jamboree held in open contempt by the party leadership inevitably neutered the potential role of conference as a means of pressuring Labour governments.
The same applies to allowing the party’s National Executive Committee to be drained of its powers. It should not be forgotten that the biggest demonstration against the policies of the 1974-79 Labour government was actually called by the Labour Party National Executive Committee.
But even within the hollowed-out party structures which they themselves had helped create the union leaders failed to fight for policies in the interests of their members and the broader labour movement.
On his election as leader Blair declared that under a Labour government “trade unions will have no special and privileged place.” In the run-up to the 1997 general election he promised that a Labour government would “still have the most restrictive union laws in the Western world.”
Although denunciation of the failure of New Labour to repeal the Tories’ anti-union laws became a stock-in-trade of union leaders’ platform speeches, the union leaders themselves failed to campaign for their repeal.
In the ‘Warwick Agreement’ of 2004 – the list of manifesto commitments drawn up by trade union and Labour Party leaders to demonstrate the value of trade unionists voting Labour in the 2005 general election – repeal of the anti-union laws did not merit even a passing mention.
Union proposals for a ‘Warwick Agreement Two’ for the 2010 general election were ignored by the party leadership, even though the unions proposed only minor changes to the anti-strike laws: voting by e-mail as well as by ballot paper, and a very limited legalisation of secondary action where workers were employed by the same company.
Only once in the Blair-Brown years – at the 2005 party conference – did the unions submit a motion advocating reform of the Thatcher-Blair anti-strike laws, and even that motion called for no more than some modest reforms rather than outright abolition.
It was a similar story with the Iraq war.
In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq all union representatives on the party’s National Executive Committee voted – in breach of their own unions’ policies –against a left-wing motion opposing the invasion of Iraq and backed a vague counter-motion which functioned as a licence for war.
In the aftermath of the invasion union delegates again ignored their unions’ policies and unanimously agreed to “move to next business” when the issue of the invasion was raised on the National Executive Committee.
At the 2003 party conference motions on Iraq did not even win sufficient support to be prioritised for debate, never mind be passed as party policy.
At the following year’s conference 90% of the union votes backed a bland platform statement uncritical of the invasion and proposing a vague and conditional timetable for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq. The same proportion of union votes was cast against a more critical RMT motion calling for an early date for troop withdrawal.
True, there were occasions when unions did inflict defeats upon the leadership at party conferences. In 2003 Blair suffered more conference defeats than in the previous nine years of his party leadership. In 2005 he suffered five straight defeats on conference motions.
(When the National Executive Committee discussed the motions prior to conference, it voted to take “no position” on all of them. All union representatives on the Committee voted in support of taking “no position” – including those representing unions which had submitted the motions.)
Equally true, the evisceration of party conference transformed defeats of the party leadership into little more than gesture politics with no practical consequences in the real world.
But there was nothing inevitable about this. However limited an opportunity conferences provided for mobilising support for trade union policies, they did provide an opportunity to do so.
The basic problem was not that the block vote, affiliation and the ‘special relationship’ hindered and held back unions from fighting for their policies in the Labour Party.
The basic problem was that the unions chose not to fight for the policies in the Labour Party, and failed to follow up their successes on the rare occasions when they took on the party leadership at annual conferences.
“Could I go before the television cameras and pretend to speak on behalf of one million Unite members who pay the political fund, wanting to affiliate to the Labour Party? No, half of them don’t even vote Labour. It was indefensible, and I don’t want to be defending it.”
At first sight, the argument appears to make sense.
Many people who pay the political levy neither identify with nor vote for the Labour Party. And yet, because they pay the political levy, they ‘count’ as affiliated Labour Party members.
A share of the money they pay as the political levy is handed over to the Labour Party. And, because they ‘count’ as affiliated members, they have the right to vote in internal Labour Party elections.
But the argument makes a lot less sense once one takes into consideration what the Labour Party is (or, at least, prior to the emergence of New Labour, has been historically) and what distinguishes the Labour Party from other political parties.
The Labour Party was established in order to provide a political voice for the working class, by mustering the collective resources of the trade unions.
Whereas the rich could fund their own parties through individual donations and donations from their companies, the workers’ movement could establish a political party only pooling its collective resources.
In fact, the rich could, and still do, exercise power through channels other than political parties: their control of the media, their domination of state institutions such as the army and the elite of the civil service, and their ideological domination of society (as Marx put it: the ruling ideas in a society are always the ideas of its ruling class).
This made it all the more important for working-class organisations to channel their resources collectively into a single political party which, by virtue of that collective strength, could begin to act as a counterweight to the power and wealth of the rich.
Prior to 1909, when it was made illegal by a court ruling, unions simply took a collective decision about whether to affiliate to the Labour Party. If the union voted in favour of affiliation, it paid an affiliation fee and was given collective representation in the Labour Party. Until 1918 there was not even such a thing as individual membership.
The Labour Party was simply the ‘political wing’ of the trade union movement. Even at that time far from all trade unionists voted Labour. But this was not considered problematic: whichever party an individual trade unionist might vote for did not alter the fact that the Labour Party was the trade unions’ ‘own’ political party.
The Labour Party was the party of the trade unions as collective entities. It was not the party of atomised individuals who happened to be members of the same trade union organisation and whose individual authorisation was required before a small proportion of their political levy could be paid to the Labour Party.
(And apart from the period 1927 to 1946, when Tory legislation required union members to opt into the political fund rather than opt out, individual members could always exercise their right to opt out of paying the political levy.)
Today no-one would suggest that trade union affiliation to, and financial support for, bodies such as CND or War on Want should be based only on the number of members who individually sign a piece of paper authorising a proportion (even if, in reality, a very small proportion) of their dues being handed over to such campaigns.
Historically, the same outlook has rightly governed trade union affiliations to the Labour Party: affiliation was a collective decision by a collective organisation. The ‘substance’ of the affiliation was not a given number of individuals but the collective organisation to which they individuals belonged.
(This also explains the wording of the old clause two in the Labour Party rulebook, scrapped in 1995. This had been based on the original federal nature of the Labour Party, in which it was organisations – as opposed to the individual members who belonged to those organisations – which affiliated to the party.)
Elsewhere in his speech McCluskey argued: “No-one has said that the twentieth century should go on forever, and that in 2013 the labour movement should be structured in exactly the same way as in 1913.”
This is true, and not just in the sense that no-one today would suggest, as was the case in 1913, that there should not be individual Labour Party members.
But the truism that times changes and organisations need to change with them cannot be a licence for scrapping the historical federal and collectivist nature of Labour Party structures by replacing them by ones based on individual affiliation mediated through the trade unions.
The problem with the ‘twentieth century’ nature of Labour-union links was not that they were based on collective affiliation. The problem was, and is, that the lack of internal democracy in the trade unions deprived the affiliated membership of any real input into how their collective vote was cast at Labour Party conferences.
Again, what needs to be reformed is not the relationship itself, but the lack of democratic rank-and-file control over that relationship.
“The details have yet to become clear, but they offer the prospect of tens of thousands of Unite members playing a more active role within the Labour Party.”
Given that the details are indeed “yet to become clear”, it is difficult to see any grounds for being confident that they offer the prospect of “tens of thousands” of Unite members (and, presumably, tens of thousands of members of other unions) becoming more active in the Labour Party.
In any case, there is nothing in the Labour Party’s current organisational structures which acts as a barrier to members of Unite or any other union joining the Labour Party and becoming as active as they want.
But if the “details” are still unclear, the general contours of Milband’s other proposals are already visible. And they cut across the idea of “tens of thousands” of trade unionists becoming more active in the Labour Party.
Miliband’s other proposals include “standard constituency agreements with each trade union so that nobody can allege that individuals are being put under pressure at local level.”
But, depending on one’s definition of “pressure”, affiliated trade unions, and individual Labour Party members, have a perfect right to put individuals seeking elected office “under pressure”.
The most basic form of legitimate “pressure” is the demand that if elected the individual will adhere to the policies on which they were elected and implement the commitments which they gave in the course of selection and election campaigning. The more usual word for this is: accountability.
Another of Miliband’s proposals is for Labour candidates – initially in the London mayoral election of 2016 and then in Westminster seats where party membership is small and the sitting MP is retiring – to be selected in US-style primaries.
Such primaries would be open not just to party members but also to Labour Party ‘supporters’ who could register as ‘supporters’ right up to the day of the selection, either for free or on payment of a minimal fee.
So, “tens of thousands of Unite members” become more active in the Labour Party – only to find that in selection contests their votes will be dwarfed by those of individuals who are not even party members, have paid either no or only a minimal subscription, and may have become ‘supporters’ only on the basis of personal ties to the would-be candidate.
The proposal for primaries cuts across McCluskey’s vision of more Unite members becoming more active in the Labour Party.
And even if large numbers of Unite members were to become more active in their local Labour Parties, what then?
In the absence of a reversal of the ‘reforms’ implemented since the 1980s, their impact would, at most, be limited to their own locality. The mechanisms through which local Labour Parties could have a meaningful input into Labour Party decision-making and policy-making processes were scrapped under Blair.
Again, the lack of any re-democratisation of the Labour Party – and nothing in Miliband’s proposals even hint at a single step in this direction – would serve as a disincentive and discourage trade unionists from becoming more active in the Labour Party.
And then there is Falkirk West, where Unite activists encouraged a hundred-plus fellow trade unionists to join the local Labour Party, with the well-known result that a full-scale witch-hunt was launched against the union, local activists, and the local Labour Party.
If that is the response to a hundred-plus Unite members joining the Labour Party, what is the likely response to “tens of thousands of Unite members” playing a more active role in their Labour Parties?
Like the unashamed Blairites before him, the issue for Miliband is not the form which trade union involvement in the Labour Party takes. The issue is the mere fact of that involvement.
When parliamentary candidates were selected by meetings of delegates to the Management Committees of local Labour Parties, for example, this was denounced because trade union delegates supposedly ‘packed’ the meetings.
This spurious claim was then used as the rationale for the introduction of ‘one member, one vote’ in selection contests.
But now ‘one member, one vote’ is being denounced for the same reason. Individual union members are supposedly ‘packing’ local Labour Parties in order to secure the selection of their preferred candidate.
Whatever the form of trade union input, the input is still denounced just as vehemently as previously. The issue is therefore not the form of the input but the existence of the input itself.
And Miliband’s proposals, both in motivation and in consequence, are all about making it less likely that “tens of thousands” of trade unionists will become more active in the Labour Party.
“The offer has to be an attractive one. Above all, that means a Labour Party that (is) not a party that is a pinkish shadow of the present coalition that gives the City a veto over economic decisions and embraces the austerity agenda. I believe that Labour under Ed Miliband can be that party – a party that our members want to support because it feels like their party.”
Imagine an employer who announces in the media:
“I’ve read about the scandal in our Falkirk factory in that well known organ of journalistic honesty, the ‘Daily Mail’, and have decided to re-cast my company’s relations with the trade union.”
“Henceforth, there will be a cut in the number of recognised reps, a cut in their facility time, and collective bargaining will apply only to those employees who sign up to join the union.”
“The names and addresses of all union members will be provided to me, so that I can communicate with them directly. And passing members of the public will be given the same right to vote on pay offers as union members.”
Imagine a union rep who then responds:
“Some pundits were expecting me to reject this proposal outright. But I see it as an opportunity, not a threat. No-one has said that the spirit of the nineteenth century could not live on forever, and this is not 1917.”
“Could I continue to go before the media and pretend to speak on behalf of the entire workforce? No, half of them are not even in the union. It’s indefensible, and I don’t want to defend it.”
“But the offer has to be an attractive one. If the trade union is to lose its influence, then the employer will continue to attract staff only if he offers of his own volition the kind of terms and conditions which the union has always fought for (or, at least, sometimes fought for). And I believe Mr. Grindgrad can be that employer.”
Degrees of exaggeration apart, that pretty much up sums up the logic of the position taken by McCluskey.
Miliband’s proposals must, inevitably, lead to a reduction in trade union influence in the Labour Party. That is the driving force, stretching over three decades, which lies behind them. And that is why the proposals have been greeted with enthusiasm by the anti-union Blairites.
The replacement of opting-out by opting-in must result in a slump – probably of up to 90% or more – of the number of union members affiliated to the Labour Party. This, in turn, will be used to justify cutting the unions’ share of the vote at Labour Party conferences and their share of seats on various Labour Party bodies.
At the same time, the undemocratic and hollowed-out structures of the Labour Party will remain in place. Democracy and accountability will remain alien concepts. And new layers of forces outside of the party – registered supporters – will be mobilised against party activists.
While the influence of the agency best placed to fight for the adoption of pro-working-class policies – the affiliated trade unions – is weakened still further, McCluskey genuinely believes that the response from the Labour Party and its leadership will be to transform the party’s policies in order to meet the aspirations of the sidelined trade unions!
But the purpose of reducing the influence of affiliated unions is not to create ‘space’ for the party leadership to adopt better policies and pursue more active campaigning. Its purpose is the opposite: to seal off the party leadership and structures still further from trade union pressure.
Moreover, Miliband and his shadow chancellor Ed Balls are not unknown quantities. They have already made clear what policies a Labour government would pursue if elected in 2015.
A three-year cap on welfare spending. Lower unemployment benefits for anyone who has worked for less than five years. Maintaining ATOS-style tests for disability benefits. Means-testing winter fuel payments and child benefit. Continuing the public sector pay freeze. Implementing the Tory spending cuts scheduled for 2015/16. A “ruthless” approach to priorities in public spending.
Speaking at last year’s Labour Party conference, Miliband gave an insight into what the policies of a future Labour government would look like:
“They (the unemployed) have a responsibility to take the work that is on offer. ... We are going to have to work longer and have a later retirement age than we do now. ... Tough settlements for the public services will make life harder for those who use them and harder for those who work in them.”
“We must be the party of the private sector as much as of the public sector. ... There is no future for this party as the party of one sectional interest of our country.”
So, while McCluskey looks forward to a Labour Party and a Labour government which is “not a pinkish shadow of the present coalition” and not one which “embraces the austerity agenda”, Miliband and Balls promise a Labour government which will be pro-austerity and a diluted version of the Con-Dem coalition.
Miliband is at least consistent and logical. Cutting the potential influence of the affiliated unions in the Labour Party will make it that much easier for a future Labour government to continue with Con-Dem austerity.
McCluskey’s basic argument, on the other hand, is that a cut in the potential influence of the affiliated unions would result in a future Labour government being more likely to abandon Con-Dem austerity.
This is not a political strategy. It is a hallucination.