The United Left group, which commands a majority on the Executive of the giant Unite union, meets in Manchester on 31 August to discuss the Collins-Miliband proposals on the links between the unions and the Labour Party.
UL secretary Martin Mayer, in convening the meeting, has made clear that he disagrees with Ed Miliband’s suggestion that trade unionists counted as “affiliated members” only if they explicitly and individually “opt in”.
Jim Kelly, another known defender of the collective trade union voice in the Labour Party, is due to introduce the discussion. The UL meeting could lead to serious objections at the Unite Executive (meeting from 16 September) to Unite general secretary Len McCluskey’s more-or-less unqualified support, so far, for Miliband’s move.
Len McCluskey has said that he “welcomes the opportunity” to recast the trade unions relationship with the Labour Party; that the union “block vote didn’t stop the Labour government invading Iraq” or keep Labour “out of the clutches of the banks and the city”; and that “defending the status quo is not an option”.
Unite circulars have not been clear about whether they will support the cutting down of union representation at Labour conference and Labour committees, or if they agree that unions must change their rules to require individual members to “expressly agree” before a part of their political fund payments goes to the political levy paid to Labour.
If Unite votes for such changes at the Labour conference starting on 22 September, or at the Labour special conference planned by Miliband for spring 2014, it will weaken and seriously undermine the ability of working-class people through the trade unions to influence politics. And it will mean that the Unite union’s new political strategy, agreed only recently, would be in tatters.
That strategy was meant to be a process in which Unite’s members actively engaged in the Labour Party and used Unite’s collective representation in Labour structures to swing the Labour Party to supporting policies that would improve the lives of working-class people.
Democratic rights within the Labour Party, and campaigning for them to be extended, were supposed to be an essential part of that strategy.
The scale of the problem is shown by the recent agitation from some Labour figures, and in the media, about Ed Miliband not announcing enough new policies. In an even halfway democratic party, policies should be debated and decided by the conference, not just announced by “the leader”.
In Manchester the United Left should vote for proposals which give clear direction to Unite’s leadership and to the union’s delegation to Labour Party conference on how the union should conduct itself on this issue.
We should insist that unions’ decisions about which organisations we affiliate to, and how we manage those affiliations, should be in the hands of our members, and not dictated to us from outside. We should not vote for proposals that would force the union to change our rule book.
We should not vote for proposals that undermine or diminish the collective representation of trade unions in the Labour Party.
At present the union decides collectively whether to have a political fund, and where to affiliate. As was made clear in the leaflets for the ballot in which, as recently as May 2013, Unite members voted by an 87.4% majority to retain their political fund, part of that political fund goes to a levy paid to the Labour Party.
By law individual members can “opt out” of the political fund. We should not accept a return to the system imposed by the Tories between 1927 and 1946, where workers could not pay into the political levy unless they explicitly “opted in”.
And we shouldn’t be forced to vote for controversial proposals put to Labour Party conference at the last minute without the union having a full debate on them.
We should make positive proposals to improve democracy in the Labour Party — for a policy-making conference, for the right to amend NPF documents, and for changes to selection procedures.
The timing of this debate on the union link shows that some on the Labour right are willing to lose the 2015 general election if it helps them end trade union influence in the Labour Party.
The leadership of Unite must not be allowed to be complicit with that.