In his speech at the TUC (10 September) Ed Miliband said: “I want to make each and every affiliated trade union member a real part of their local party. Making a real choice to be a part of our party. So they can have a real voice in it...We could become a Labour Party not of 200,000 people, but 500,000 or many more”.
This is a shift from the 9 July speech about “opting-in”, where he said only that unionists paying the political levy to Labour should have to “opt in” to pay, rather than just not “opting out”. What Miliband seems to propose now is a drive to get affiliated unionists to become individual members of the Labour Party, with some rights, rather than just “opters-in”, who would have no more rights than those who currently pay the political levy by way of not “opting out”.
According to the Financial Times, Miliband is “understood to be in retreat over [plans] to cut the unions’ large block vote at annual conference and in leadership elections... “ The FT reports “Labour insiders” as saying that “a dilution in [unions’] 50 per cent vote at conference and 33 per cent vote in leadership elections... is likely to happen only if a tiny number of union members — say 50,000 — sign up to Labour membership”.
So far, so good. But problems remain.
Schemes to get more trade unionists to join Labour as individual members are good, but far from new. In 1993, under John Smith as Labour leader, there was a scheme for unionists to become individual members by paying just an extra £3 a year. Today, unionists can become individual members for £19.50 a year rather than the standard £42.
Improving or extending these schemes would be good — and have no connection with changes in the payment of the political levy.
What’s needed for the schemes to draw in large numbers is a Labour policy which inspires working-class activists — not “we are going to have to keep all these cuts”! — or at least an energetic drive by unions, within Labour structures, for working-class policies. Also needed is an opening-up of Labour Party democracy.
Unions’ rulebooks, not Labour Party rules, govern opting-in and opting-out of the political levy. Miliband still seems to want to change Labour Party rules so as to force unions to change their rulebooks. That’s wrong, and anyway it won’t work.
Already Paul Kenny of the GMB has said his union will cut its affiliation fee to Labour, and Dave Prentis of Unison has said that Unison won’t change its rules whatever the Labour Party asks. An attempt by Miliband to force changes in union rules could well lead to unions disaffiliating, which in turn will discourage workers from “opting in”. It will set up a sort of rolling vote of no confidence in the Labour Party for the period up to the 2015 general election.
Even if that snowballing collapse of the Labour-union link is averted, the likely sign-up from trade-unionists will probably be more than 50,000 but much less than an extra 300,000. What then?
The same Labour right-wingers who now bide their time, reassuring us that there is no real threat to the block vote, will come forward to make that threat.
Labour and trade union activists should insist on two “red lines”: no cut in the collective trade union voice in the Labour Party and no move to impose rule changes on the unions.
Unite left resolves to defend union link
The national meeting on 31 August of Unite United Left voted to oppose the Collins-Miliband plans which threaten to seriously damage or to end collective representation of the unions in the Labour Party.
Opening the debate, Jon Lansman argued that the bottom line had to be that Unite would only support schemes to single out those union members who “expressly agree” to pay the political levy to the Labour Party if the unions insisted that there was also a decoupling of the numbers counted as “affiliated” (under the new definition) from union representation in Labour Party conference, NEC, NPF, and CLPs. These should continue to be based on collective union strength.
The Labour right has been trying to break the link between the trade unions and the Labour Party for years — and now, from what McCluskey had been saying, it looked like Unite’s votes could help them do it.
Communist Party of Britain (Morning Star) members expressed different views. One of them advocated support for the stance of Len McCluskey and his “chief of staff”, CP member Andrew Murray; but the majority of CPers argued that we should oppose.
The meeting noted that we could accept that individual “affiliated” members volunteer to join the Party at a subsidised rate, with individual member rights. But the trade unions must still be able to affiliate as organisations, not on the basis of some notional number of affiliated members. Trade unions should be entitled to representation in the Party according to their membership and financial contribution to the party. The basic structure of conference (50% CLP delegates, 50% TU delegates) should remain the same.
A commitment was made that the United Left motion would be acted on at the Unite EC due in the week starting 16 September.
GMB: “You can’t fire us, we quit!”
The leaders of Unison and GMB have postured in response to Ed Miliband’s proposals to degrade the Labour-union link, with neither showing any real sign of fighting back.
GMB has announced a 90% reduction in its affiliation fee, slashing it to £150,000 from £1.2 million. The figure represents the equivalent of just 50,000 of the union’s 617,000 members “opting in” to Labour affiliation. The GMB Executive expressed its “considerable regret” that “the party that had been formed to represent the interest of working people in this country intends to end collective engagement of trade unions in the party they helped to form”, but rather than fighting the Labour leadership’s plans, the GMB has helped implement a version of them in advance. It is one of the most spectacular cases of “you can’t fire us, we quit” in the history of British working-class politics.
Unison leader Dave Prentis has grumbled in response to the proposals. He bemoaned the “disunity” that all the squabbling betrays, and said: “Where I was brought up in Leeds, we were taught not to get our dirty linen out in public.”
At the TUC annual conference in Bournemouth (8-13 September), Prentis made his now annual promise of mass strikes — this time over public sector pay. But when local government employers offered his members a derisory 1% pay increase in March 2013, Prentis and the rest of the Unison leadership capitulated and advised members to accept the deal. The conference passed a motion in support of mass coordinated strikes — but, like the 2012 motion committing the TUC to “consider the practicalities of a general strike”, without any strategy for how to get there or build such strikes when unions are weak and disorganised.
Building independent rank-and-file organisation should be the first priority for socialists in Unison, GMB, and across the British labour movement.