The Collins Review has no other aim than to weaken the influence of the trade unions on the Labour Party, argues Richard Allday
On Thursday afternoon, a specially convened meeting of the National Executive Council of Unite voted to endorse the Collins Review proposals on the formal relationship between the trades unions and the Labour Party.
Unite is the largest trade union in Britain, and the Executive Council is the supreme governing body of the union between conferences. The union is the largest donor to the Labour Party and is widely seen as one of the most significant advocates of anti-austerity politics in Britain. The current leader of the Labour Party owes his position in very large part to the support he received from the union in his leadership bid.
It is therefore disappointing (to say the least!) that the EC voted – with a sizeable minority dissenting – to endorse a document that can have no outcome other than to further the drive to transform the Labour Party into a British version of the US Democrat Party-lite, weaken the link between organised labour and the Labour Party, and further erode the last vestiges of democratic accountability in the increasingly sclerotic and elitist parliamentary Labour Party.
Although it is true, in a purely formal sense, that General Secretary McCluskey was correct to argue that there was nothing in the Collins Review that crossed the “red lines” that the December meeting of the EC had laid down (an insistence that the collective political voice of the trades unions should be maintained; that there should be no diminution of the 50% of votes cast at Labour Party conference by the affiliated trades unions; that the nonsense of opening up US-style primary elections to non-members, among other proposals), to try and isolate the Collins Review from the context in which it was commissioned is disingenuous.
The Collins Review was a direct and conscious response by Ed Miliband and his coterie to the events in the Falkirk constituency. To recap (for those saddos who have better things to occupy their attention) the sitting Falkirk MP had the Labour whip removed after one too many physical altercations in the taxpayer-subsidised alcohol outlets in the House of Commons, thus triggering the process to select a new candidate (for a safe Labour seat).
Unite has had, for the past several years, a political strategy – democratically debated and endorsed by conference and the EC, and publicly available on the union website, so not in any way underhand or secret. The strategy includes encouraging union activists to join the Labour Party if they are not already members, and to encourage their fellow members to do likewise. Further (and more sinister) it encourages members to not merely join, but to actively participate in their local Party, at ward and constituency level. This is not a ‘plot’ or conspiracy, it was developed as a strategy after consultation with, and with the agreement of, the Labour Party.
Unite activists in Falkirk acted on this strategy and increased the local membership three-fold, with the express intention of ensuring the new Labour MP would represent the constituency without bringing it into disrepute, or disgracing the values claimed by the Labour Party nationally and locally.
You could be forgiven for thinking this would lead to commendation and congratulations from the Labour Party leadership – local activists increasing the size and involvement of the local party, working to repair the damage caused by the behavior of the sitting MP, restoring the reputation of their party, and actively participating in the party’s decision making.
Oh you poor innocents! Far from it; the ci-devant Blairites and their supporters, seeing their grace and favour patronage under threat by oiks, complained. And “Red Ed” Miliband, faced with supporting local working class members or the carpetbaggers of the metropolitan elite, chose to support the latter. He blustered and flustered, and called in the local constabulary. He bruited his concern at “union barons” (as opposed to the real titled parasites), and smeared and besmirched left left and centre to the delight of the muckraking press. He launched an inquiry, and when it failed to support any of the allegations of criminality or fraud, he refused to publish the report.
On the back of the press witch hunt, the biggest local employer (Ineos) decided the time was right to launch an all-out assault on union organisation at its Grangemouth refinery complex. Tearing up the agreements on terms and conditions, pay and pensions, that it had negotiated with Unite, the employer confronted the workforce with the threat of a complete shut-down unless they surrendered to all of his demands. (Ineos is very largely the personal fiefdom of one individual, Jim Ratcliffe, whose defence of financial necessity to make the changes to ensure the future of Grangemouth is somewhat weakened by the fact he has deprived the economy of some £400,000,000 through his tax-dodging move to Geneva.)
Part of Ratcliffe’s attack included the sacking of the two senior Unite reps on site, both of whom were strong supporters of Unite’s political strategy and one of whom (Stevie Deans) was the chair of the constituency party.
It is in this context that Miliband decided to launch his ‘review’ – not, by the bye a review into the autocratic way that an unreconstructed Thatcherite chose to play ducks and drakes with the Scottish economy, using the livelihoods of thousands of working class families as chips in a game of three card brag. No, Miliband has, to this day, offered not one bleat of protest about the abuse of economic power displayed by Ratcliffe. Nor has any member of Labour’s front bench. The bile has been aimed solely at the trade union.
It would be dishonest, therefore, to pretend that Miliband’s review has any aim other than to weaken the influence of the trade unions on the Labour Party, and to be fair, McCluskey has never suggested otherwise. In his defence, it must be acknowledged that he has had to respond, on the bounce, to ill-considered public pronouncements by Miliband and his cronies and has been forced into a damage-limitation exercise from the outset.
The disappointment for those on the left has been that Unite’s allegiance to the Labour Party seems to be greater than its allegiance to the long-term interests of its members. The Collins Review is not limited to ‘re-examining’ the relationship of union members to the Labour Party; it is above all intended to institutionalise the individualisation of working class input into the political process, and to marginalise any collective approach to politics. It is an attempt to take class out of politics.
This is not my prejudiced view; it is explicit in Lord Collins’ working title “Building a One Nation Labour Party”. This may seem a wonderful sound-bite to the spinners in Westminster, expropriating the old Tory slogan of ‘one nation’, but in fact that slogan was a conscious attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of an increasingly restive and divided polity in the 19th century by pretending that enlightened employers (!) and social reformers could all pull together and create a country of harmony and peace. It was invented precisely because an increasing number of ordinary people were drawing the conclusion that there was a fundamental divide in British society between the haves and the have-nots, and if the haves were to continue to enjoy their privilege and patronage we needed to be convinced that somewhere down the line we shared a common interest. We do not. If any proof were needed, the actions of Ratcliffe and Ineos in Grangemouth should provide it.
And if the intention of the Review is to present a political solution that denies class antagonism, then clearly it is necessary to minimise any dissenting voices that suggest there are social divisions of interest – and the trade union movement, if it has any purpose at all, is precisely there to promote the interest of working class people at the very basic level of providing a collective counter to the untrammelled individualism of the employing class. This is a dichotomy that is bred into the very bone of trades unions. If this were not an objective reality, unions would long since have ceased to exist. And wouldn’t that make the employing class happy!
This is the rationale behind Collins’ Review, and is the rationale behind slipping into a document purportedly about the trade union link such gems as reserving the right to nominate the party leader to sitting MPs. No talk here of widening the democratic input of ordinary members. This is not about preserving the status quo, but about entrenching the grip of the elite – only sitting MPS, not prospective MPS, not MEPs, not Welsh Assembly members, nor MSPs and not the current proportion of MPs either. For fear that some semblance of radicalism might rear its head, m’Lord Collins has decided to raise the bar so that only candidates that can achieve the support of one sixth of sitting MPs will be on the ballot paper. So forget the prospect of any future Diane Abbot or John McDonnell being able to provide an alternative to the Blairy sameness of ‘one nation’ new labourism.
And the Unite executive (with far too many EC members absent) after a 90 minute discussion, accepted the General Secretary’s passionate plea that Collins had crossed no ‘red lines’ and, I fear, have sleepwalked into endorsing a document which promotes a drift that they all oppose, on the grounds that it is all still to be fought over in five years time.
I suspect that it may be settled well before then. One good thing about McCluskey is that he is genuinely committed to Unite as a member-led, fighting-back union, and has fought to promote the self-confidence of our reps and activists in making their own decisions. We have a rules conference coming up in the near future (albeit after the next general election) and I predict that this time, delegates will vote to remove the rule that ties us exclusively to the Labour Party as the only vehicle for our political strategy. Then we will see how broad the Labour right’s smile is, as their smug complacency is challenged that they can take our money and support for granted while offering us little other than abuse and insult.
For all their worshipping at the altar of Mammon, these moneygrubbing sycophants genuinely do not understand that the chequebook is not the sole source of electoral support. For working class people, principles have always weighed heavier than pound notes. That is why the trades union movement broke from the vampiric embrace of the Liberal Party a century ago, and for all its shortcomings, George Galloway’s Respect Party has shown it is possible to throw out the placemen and women of New Labour without letting in the Tories. The Peoples’ Assembly movement has shown the anger is there, and that the problem in Austerity Britain is not apathy, or disengagement, but an increasing refusal to accept our only choice is austerity or austerity-lite.
If I were Miliband (god forbid!) I would not be too complacent that Unite has endorsed Collins. I would be a little more worried that a third of the executive council members present did not endorse it, and their stance seems to be far more popular with activists (in the Labour Party and out) on the ground.
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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