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  • Published in Opinion

The outrage expressed by most pundits over events in Falkirk Labour Party demonstrates their belief that politics is the preserve of the elite and that the common people should stay out of it

Ed Miliband

This is the week in which we discovered that police forces up and down the country are being forced to reveal whether they attempted to smear black activists and anti-racism campaigners in an attempt to stall the Macpherson enquiry into the murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence.

It is the week that a the judge heading the enquiry into the police shooting of Azelle Rodney found the police officer’s account of the shooting “are not to be accepted”, and that the officer “could not rationally have believed” that his life or that of others was in immediate danger. Azelle Rodney was black. The police officer that shot him (eight times in two seconds) had the proud record of having previously shot to death two other persons, and shot and wounded two more.

You might be forgiven for thinking this would be front-page news, the lead item on the TV news, and the front page of the papers.

Instead, they chose to lead with the shocking allegations that trade union activists who are members of the Labour Party have been trying (too successfully) to persuade their workmates to join the Labour Party too.

The fake outrage expressed by most pundits over events in the Falkirk Labour Party demonstrates nothing so clearly as their conceited belief that politics should be the preserve of the “elite” and that the common people should stay out of it and know our place – which appears to be to carry on paying for the tickets for their seats on the gravy train, and not bother our little heads about matters which we are not equipped to have views on.

There are a lot of allegations flying around, and precious few hard facts, so here is a summary of the salient facts that I do know:

For all the talk of Labour being “in the pocket” of the trades unions, we still have the most repressive labour legislation in Europe;

When the Coalition took office, the average wage in this country was £26,000 per year. Last year that had shrunk to £23,800. By definition, this means most people earn less than the average (do the maths). Yet they are represented by MPs on two and a half times that (not counting top-ups, perks, and allowances), most of whom have never done a proper day’s work in their lives.

The number of MPs who come from a manual background is smaller than at any time since WW2.

A closed club?

Unite decided some years ago to pursue a political strategy of attempting to get better representation in Parliament of ordinary people, the sort of people that make up Unite’s membership – but not just to change the social composition of Labour MPs, but to try to ensure that Unite’s policies were supported by these MPs. The strategy centred on persuading Unite activists to join the Labour Part, become active members, and persuade their fellow workers and neighbours to do likewise. Unite would pay the first year’s affiliation for each new member. This is absolutely in compliance with Labour Party rules.

Each member would therefore be entitled to a vote in the selection of council and parliamentary candidates. They cast their own votes (but it would be surprising – and stupid - if activists sought to recruit people fundamentally opposed to their own beliefs).

This has led to an increase of around 130 new members in the Falkirk Labour Party, nearly doubling the membership.

This strategy was debated and decided by Unite members, at Unite conference; the delegates to the conferences were elected, by their peers; the discussions were open, and public; the decisions are a matter of public record.

The strategy centres on Unite’s commitment to support of the Labour Party, and within that, to attempt to persuade Unite members to join the party, and become active within it. To this end, Unite has employed the perfectly constitutional tactic of offering to pay the first year’s subscription on behalf of any Unite member who wishes to join the Labour Party. In Falkirk, it is alleged that 130 new members were recruited this way. The union does not get to cast their votes; it does not “brainwash” them; but activists do seek to convince, by rational debate, that the cause of ordinary people is better served by representatives who share their life experiences, and that Unite’s policies of opposing austerity, of supporting public investment in jobs and housing, serves working class people better than the politics of austerity – or austerity-lite.

Now it may be that the right wing in the Labour Party is too lazy, or incompetent, to compete on this playing field. Or it may be that they just cannot bring themselves to believe that “the great unwashed” should play any part in the political process. Or it may be that arguing for austerity-lite is not a very appealing recruitment slogan.

Whatever the reason, far from welcoming 130 new members, they shouted foul. They have filled the airwaves with allegations and innuendo, with smears and slurs. But they have been unaccountably shy about hard facts. They have suspended the chair of the constituency, and one (why just one?) of the candidates, but will not say why. They have “handed their findings to the police”. I will make a prediction: in several months’ time, when the McCarthyite scare-mongering has achieved its purpose, the file will be quietly handed back to the Labour Party with some comment such as “insufficient evidence to justify further action”. It will have served its purpose, and the police will happily go along with it.

Aside from the insight it provides as to the mindset of the Labour Party establishment (where new members are objects of mistrust and suspicion –“why do they want to join our club? What’s in it for them?”), it also points to a flaw in Unite’s strategy.

Breaking with 'austerity-lite'

At the inaugural Rules conference of Unite I, and others, argued for removing the constitutional requirement of Unite to support the Labour Party and only the Labour Party. We argued that it only weakened our union’s ability to influence Labour Party policy as they could ignore us with impunity knowing we had nowhere else to go. Unfortunately, we lost that debate by the narrowest of margins but we are now faced with the consequences.

I should perhaps state at this point that I am not, and never have been, a member of the Labour Party. I applaud the commitment of many activists in trying to strengthen the influence of socialists on party policy – even though I have long argued that the party is so undemocratic that the leadership would only tolerate such activists as long as they failed. One whiff of the prospect of success and the hierarchy would respond as they did to every previous attempt – insult, isolate and expel. After Falkirk, whither now for Unite?

Owen Jones wrote in the Independent, on July 1st, an impassioned plea to Miliband and co to jettison the bankrupt notion that they could “out-Tory” the Tories, that they need to compete for the centre ground by accepting the premises of austerity. He argued that opting for “austerity-lite” as the pragmatic option is a betrayal of the millions of voters who want a better world for themselves and their communities. He argued that the People’s Assembly against Austerity provided a template for a better politics. I agree with him. Perhaps Unite would be better off concentrating their resources here, rather than on a quixotic attempt to tilt at windmills.

There is, underlying all the punditry around Falkirk a rather contemptuous sub-text: that there is something ignoble about arguing for what you believe; and that we ordinary people are too thick to be entrusted with decisions over our own lives. It is the mentality that always views trades union “bosses” as issuing orders to a braindead membership, who just do as we are told (or occasionally, mutiny). In Felixstowe, we are campaigning to raise the union membership in one of the largest transport companies in Britain. We have convinced dozens of drivers, over the past couple of months, that the only effective way to demand respect, and fair wages, is to combine together, to collectively discuss, and then stand united on a democratically decided basis, to force the employer to recognise and negotiate with Unite.

We could not do that if we treated potential members with the contempt that is inherent in the current attitude to members in the Falkirk Labour Party. And we could not do it if our General Secretary adopted that attitude to our activists on the ground. Fortunately, I am in Unite, not the Labour Party, and my (democratically elected) general secretary is Len McCluskey, not Ed Miliband.

Richard Allday is branch secretary of the Suffolk Road Haulage branch, and is currently standing for election to the Unite national executive.

Tagged under: Class
Richard Allday

Richard Allday

Richard Allday is a member of Unite the Union’s National Executive, a branch secretary and shop steward in road haulage.  A member of Counterfire, his comrades know him better as 'the angry trucker'.

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