Miliband’s confrontation with the trade unions is a reminder that he and the people around him have a very different agenda to most Labour supporters
There can be few sights more likely to bring a feeling of gloom to even the brightest summer day than that of Ed Miliband attacking his party’s links with the trade unions and declaring that he is bravely going to stand up to their overwhelming power and influence.
Only in the fantasy world of the Blairites could such a claim be given any credence. The anti union laws are the worst in Europe, British workers work some of the longest hours in Europe, and union membership is around half what it was when Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979. Strike levels are at historic lows. Inequality is growing as the gap between rich and poor widens. The coalition Tory government is enforcing levels of austerity which have not been seen since the 1930s.
Maybe it is fear that the unions and Labour’s left might be organising to do something about the parlous state of working class life that is affecting millions of people that led Lord Mandelson to attack Unite the union’s role in the Falkirk selection process to decide the party’s new candidate there. Or maybe it is Mandelson and his fellow Blairite John Reid’s particularly sadistic idea of a joke. After all, the Blairites have never recovered from the younger Miliband’s winning of the Labour leadership instead of his older brother David - at the hands of the union vote. What better punishment than to force Ed to savage Len McCluskey and to suspend the Unite favoured candidate in Falkirk from the Labour Party?
Union money, anti union policies
The Falkirk selection process was triggered by the resignation from the party of sitting Labour MP Eric Joyce following a House of Commons brawl. The experience has not led Joyce to a period of calm reflection but to himself launching an attack on Unite. McCluskey and Unite have defended themselves, as have other union leaders such as Paul Kenny from the GMB and Billy Hayes. They and others on the left have pointed out the bankers and other millionaire businessmen who bankroll the Tories. Billy Hayes also pointed out the forcing union members to opt in to party membership is a repeat of the old union busting policies brought in following the defeated General Strike of 1926.
What are the factors underlying this argument? The unions, and especially Unite, claim that they want more working class people representing Labour. They argue that in a period when the mass of people feel disconnected with all the main parties, Labour can help to reconnect by putting forward people who actually know what it’s like to work in ordinary jobs or struggle with bills. Who could argue with that, you would have thought?
But this isn’t the first time that there have been such problems over selection. It was one of the issues which brought about the Labour/SDP split back in the early 1980s, was the issue behind the vicious campaign against Peter Tatchell in Bermondsey in 1983, and now is the question so vexing those various advisers who see Oxbridge and full time political posts as the path to becoming MPs.
People who have no problem with union involvement when it ensures the selection of this sort of candidate (such as Peter Mandelson and David Miliband in the strongly Labour north east seats of Hartlepool and South Shields) hate the thought that this could lead to different types of candidate who might even be responsive to their constituents rather than to various factions around Westminster. None of them have any problem with union money and local logistical support when elections come round, but don’t actually want to carry out pro union policies.
This was a running sore through there Blair and Brown years, from which the unions got next to zero. The problem for both sides is this: many Labour supporters feel bitterly disillusioned from those years, especially over Iraq, but on a range of issues. There has frequently been talk of a left alternative, and there were the beginnings of one with Respect, but Labour has always succeeded in regaining its seats in subsequent elections. It gambles that this will continue. The majority of trade unions have stuck with Labour despite this growing disillusion. They will not want to break now.
But the continuing link between Labour and the unions, with all its historic importance for both sides, has to deliver something on both sides. The unions hoped this would be the case with Miliband (let’s face it they are inured to low expectations) and they did not expect this confrontation. It demonstrates the grip the Blairites still have (or at least their ability to wreck things if they don’t get their own way). It also demonstrates the different interests now represented by the unions and Labour in terms of resisting austerity or implementing it.
The People’s Assembly reflected a very strong mood among union and Labour members for an end to neoliberal policies and a serious fight against the Tories and their big business supporters. Miliband’s confrontation in the past week is a reminder that he and the people around him have a very different agenda. While many expect him to win the election in 2015, even this is looking more difficult as more people ask what exactly is the point of voting for a Labour Party which commits to defending Tory spending levels? This latest argument may inexorably bring closer the time when the unions are forced to reconsider exactly who and what they are paying all this money for.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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