Over a century of history is in the process of being ripped up and cast aside by the leader of Britain’s Labour Party, Ed Miliband, with his decision to push ahead with a change to the relationship between the party and the trade unions.
It was in trade unions’ interests that the Labour Party was founded in 1900.
In a process initiated by Miliband after allegations that organisers of the country’s largest trade union, Unite, had signed up union members into the Labour Party without their knowledge in order to use their votes to put in place a candidate sympathetic to the union’s interests for a by-election in Falkirk, Labour’s National Executive Council (NEC) voted this week to adopt measures to weaken the power and influence of the unions within the party. Such measures were outlined in the recently published Collins Report commissioned by the leadership of the party – even though a subsequent investigation, which at one stage involved the police, found no evidence to uphold allegations of malfeasance by the union.
Given the central role traditionally played by affiliated unions in funding the party, it constitutes the most radical reform of the Labour Party’s constitution since the party came into being. Indeed it is so radical even the party’s most right wing leader to date, Tony Blair, did not attempt to go that far during 13 years as a party leader.
The nature of the trade union link with the Labour Party has always been a target for the Tories and those on the right of the political spectrum in the UK. Representing the organised working class, the unions constitute the collective power of working people in Britain, just as they do everywhere in the world. The unique relationship enjoyed by the unions with a mainstream political party such as Labour had ensured that the voice of working people was heard within the political mainstream, and at various points in its history the union’s influence even guided the party’s policies, both in and out of government. But those days are long gone, shattered in the wake of the last great struggle between capital and labour in Britain of the 1980s during Margaret Thatcher’s right wing assault on the British working class as she set about ripping up the country’s manufacturing base during her structural adjustment of the UK economy.
Labour’s response to the rise of the right in the UK, led by Thatcher, was to roll over rather than resist. The result was Tony Blair’s emergence as leader of the party in 1994, kick-starting a process wherein the party was rebranded New Labour and free market nostrums were embraced rather than rejected in favour of a social democratic managed alternative, prompting Thatcher to boast at the end of her time in office that her greatest achievement in politics was the formation of New Labour.
The relationship between the Blair leadership and the unions within the party was a fractious one. Blair wanted their funding but did his utmost to deny them any influence when it came to party policy, internal elections, and the all important selection of parliamentary candidates. In brief, New Labour succumbed to the Thatcherite view of the unions in Britain as a brake on progress and a relic of the past, doing so mindful of the damage done to the Labour Party as a consequence of the Winter of Discontent in 1979, when widespread strike action brought the country to a near standstill, resulting in the then Labour government under Jim Callaghan being ousted from office after a vote of no confidence ushered in the early general election which saw Thatcher and the Tories returned to office in his place.
Sadly, the unions have never fully recovered from this historical battering, leading to where we are now with current Labour leader in the process severing the historical link between both.
The key reform being implemented under Ed Miliband’s initiative is to turn what had been an opt out process – wherein union members automatically paid into a political fund out of their membership dues, a proportion of which was donated to the Labour Party unless they specifically stipulated otherwise. The opt in alternative being introduced by Ed Miliband will mean that union members will have to specifically stipulate that they want to donate part of their political fund to Labour. It sounds a very simple reform but its ramifications for party funding and with it union influence within the party are seismic.
At present the trade unions are collectively responsible for around 60 percent of Labour Party funding. Under Blair, when private donations were at the highest in the party’s history, the unions donated a third of the total. Ironically, union funding of the party had gone up since Ed Miliband was elected leader in 2011. Without the support of the unions it was a leadership election he would have lost to his brother, David Miliband, the preferred candidate of the party’s Blairite wing.
Trade union leaders have met the reforms that are being ushered in by the current leader with scepticism. Paul Kenny, leader of the UK’s third biggest union, has predicted that only 10 percent of his members will choose to opt in under the new rules, warning that Ed Miliband’s reforms are as “close as you can get” to ending the union link with the Labour Party.
The reforms are not set to come into force until 2019, designed to give the party and the unions time to adjust. However the question of where and how Labour will make up the huge shortfall in funding looms large. There are two options in this regard – the first is that the party will shift to the right again in order to compete with the Tories for donations from the world of business and finance, while the second is that reforms to party funding, which may well come to pass in some shape or form after the next election in 2015, for all the mainstream parties results in a system of state funding in order to ensure a level playing field.
Both options constitute a regressive shift away from the Labour Party as an avowed and distinct party of the working class in Britain, however, with its emphasis on a collective rather than individual ethos. It would further Americanise British politics, increasing rather than alleviating the disconnect that already exists between ordinary people and the political process.
On March 1 a special party conference will take the final vote over whether to proceed with the reforms to the Labour Party outlined in the Collins Report. If the conference votes Yes it will constitute the logical conclusion to the assault on the trade union movement unleashed by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.