Campaign news

Not just in defence of the union link

8th July 2013

Ed Miliband says he is “incredibly angry” about what has happened in Falkirk. To many, it might seem an odd set of priorities that our leader is “incredibly angry” about a remote constituency selection process. All the more so, as it’s just a week after the latest round of Coalition spending cuts, about which the whole Labour front bench seemed a great deal more relaxed. Indeed, many of the attacks on the poorest in society, such as the vicious requirement that newly redundant workers should wait seven days before being eligible for benefit, have been hailed as irreversible. Now that’s what makes many ordinary Party members angry.

But what exactly did happen in Falkirk? The leadership’s refusal to publish an internal inquiry means we are unlikely to get a balanced view of events. Yet as Owen Jones points out in The Independent, “The focus has almost exclusively been on Karie Murphy, the Unite-backed candidate. But Labour’s internal Falkirk report is said reveal that her opponent, Gregor Poynton, recruited 11 new members, submitting a single £130 cheque to pay for their subscriptions. He wasn’t said to have done anything wrong.”

Instead, we have the suspension of the local party, a police investigation and the resignation of a member of the Shadow Cabinet, Tom Watson, whose campaign against illegal phone-hacking has made him a prime target in the eyes of the Murdoch press, a scalp they have long sought. Now they will want more.

Yet, leaving aside the specifics of Falkirk, what’s so terrible about trade unions that are affiliated to the Party at all levels having some say in its internal affairs? This is, of course, a privilege which a hostile media takes for granted for itself. Len McCluskey defends his union’s role primarily in terms of the needs to have a broad spectrum of candidates, who have life experience from outside the Westminster bubble.

Writing in the Sunday Mirror, he pointed out, “If your son or daughter fancies becoming a Labour MP, forget it. They have more chance of cleaning in the Commons than being elected to it. That is what the row over Labour selection procedures is really about – who can play a part in our politics. Today, Parliament is increasingly the preserve of an out-of-touch elite – Oxbridge-educated special advisers who glide from university to think tank to the green benches without ever sniffing the air of the real world. That is what Unite is trying to change. We want to give our democracy back to ordinary working people.”

Others - although so far, way too few trade union leaders - have stood up to defend the union link as a good thing, because unions generally make a positive political and useful financial contribution to the Party.

Now, let’s not be too defensive. The money unions give to Labour - when you think how little union members have been given in return during thirteen years of New Labour governments keener to do the bidding of the city, the multinationals and George W. Bush - well, that money has got to be among the cleanest in UK politics. It’s hard to find examples of cash for favours and access where union donations are involved.

And the alternative? As Owen Jones again points out: “It is better to be bankrolled by millions of dinner ladies and care assistants than hedge fund managers, City bankers and legal loan sharks – like the Tories. That is exactly what would happen to Labour if the union link was severed. When Tony Blair attempted to dilute Labour’s reliance on union funds, it ended in the cash-for-honours scandal and a sitting prime minister being questioned by police in Downing Street. Before Labour’s 1997 election victory, the key Blairite ally Stephen Byers floated severing the union link: he ended his political career offering himself as a ‘taxi for hire’ to corporate lobbyists. These union-bashers are completely beholden to private interests, and they want Labour to be, too.” (

But it’s not just about money, it’s about politics. There are many who are happy to see the union link preserved within the Party as long as the unions don’t try to exert influence over policy. The LRC is not among them.

Imagine a Labour Party committed to the policies of most its affiliated trade unions - well-funded publicly accountable services, an end to costly and wasteful privatisation, a clampdown on tax dodgers, greater social equality, a huge programme of affordable house building, sustainable jobs.

“Is this a pipedream?” asked Martin Mayer, Chair of United Left and a Unite delegate on Labour’s NEC, writing in a recent edition of Labour Briefing. “Policies such as these are supported by the British trade union movement and endorsed by the TUC Congress which represents seven million trade union members.” (

And they are popular policies too. Don’t forget that an estimated five million voters deserted Labour at the last election. If the Party is to be successful again, it needs to be rebuilt from the bottom up, in their interests. Unite at least have a strategy for doing this. The Blairites of course prefer moribund local structures where elite careerists can be parachuted into safe seats, the only basis on which they can replicate their discredited policies. All of which analysis is entirely absent from most of the press, which has orchestrated an avalanche of attacks on the Party’s union link in recent days.

The offensive is being fed firstly by a Tory leadership, keen to draw attention away from its own mismanagement of the economy and internal troubles, driven by their new hireling, strategist Lynton Crosby, notorious for negative and dirty campaigning. But it is also being fuelled by a right-wing rump within the Labour Party that has never forgiven the trade unions - the rank and file s much as their leaders - for helping Ed Miliband win the leadership election in 2010 against his far better funded Blairite brother.

With the frenzy being driven by both the Tories and the last discredited remnants of ‘New Labour’, grouped around the ever-divisive unelected Lord Mandelson, the media have gone into hysteria mode. All pundits agree that this is the biggest test of Ed Miliband’s leadership. Guardian commentators Nicholas Watt and Rajeev Syal even evoked Neil Kinnock’s 1985 denunciation of Militant-controlled Liverpool Council, which they gushingly described “as one of the greatest political speeches of the postwar period.” (

The comparison with Kinnock is salient. This is a man who was elected by the Party, against the wishes of its entrenched bureaucracy, on the basis of a track record of opposition to attacks on the working class. But then as now, the entrenched interests don’t go away - they simply intensify the pressure. Under their pressure, Neil Kinnock buckled horribly. He ended up, aided by Peter Mandelson and others, using the most divisive tactics to force the Party to the right, alienating much of the grassroots in the process. During his nine years, he led the Party to two electoral defeats, the second of which his own hubris and incompetence seemed to snatch from the jaws of victory.

So this is something of a test for Ed Miliband’s leadership. Is he, like his useless 1980s predecessor, going to allow himself to be dictated to by the Murdoch press and the Blairites he defeated, or will he stick up for what he said he believed when he won the 2010 leadership election?

Past experience teaches that if you cave in once, your enemies will come back for more - and more. Those who hold the economic power in this country know that those who don’t want an alternative to the current unelected and unpopular government. Those with power want that alternative to be 100% safe for their interests, almost indistinguishable from the current lot, a change of faces only.

Haven’t we been here before? Isn’t it about time Labour offered a real political alternative, both in policy and the kind of people it seeks to represent? That’s what lies at the heart of this controversy.

Mike Phipps

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