Why the right is attacking the unions

Peoples Assembly Against Austerity

By Jane West

The conflict that erupted between UNITE and the Labour leadership over the union’s decision to sponsor a range of candidates in the current round of Parliamentary has provoked a new round of assault on the union link with Labour.

The decision by Ed Miliband to take the opportunity of the spat to push through changes to the unions’ affiliation to the Party has been cheered on by the Blairites and the right-wing media, for whom an ‘opt-in’ ballot and the elimination of the unions’ 50 per cent of the vote in the London Mayoral selection are just initial steps.

Some have been surprised that Miliband is prolonging this row and pushing through these changes, as it is well-known that he would not have defeated his brother David in the 2010 leadership election if it were not for the votes cast in the trade unionists, whose section currently has a one third share of the ‘electoral college’.

The initial issue – the alleged wrongful recruitment of members to the Party in Falkirk (strongly refuted by UNITE) – was hardly worthy of the scandal that blew up. It is scarcely the first case where similar accusations have been made against one local faction or another.

But in the case of Falkirk, Labour itself escalated the confrontation – and the longevity of the story – first by administratively ruling out all members recruited since 12th March from having a vote in the eventual selection, taking the shortlisting of candidates out of the hands of the local Labour Party and then taking the unprecedented step of referring the matter to the police.

While the Tories and the right-wing press had jumped on the issue, and it had unleashed a new bumpy period in the media after a year of pretty much plain sailing for Miliband’s Labour, neither of these would have out-lasted the release of the next bad figures for the economy or the implementation of the next set of cuts.

Miliband deliberately took the decision to provoke a deeper row with the unions.

One clear aim is pure grandstanding for the media: to demonstrably distance himself from the unions especially given their role in his selection. As Billy Hayes, General Secretary of the CWU, put it: as ‘This is all about dog whistles. It’s about signalling to people there’s a problem with the relationship with the trade unions… Nothing excites the political class more than an attack on the trade union movement…’

But it is not just about a position for the media. Miliband is deeply committed to actually reducing the role of the unions in the Party.

He does not have to stand for Leader again, so he is not concerned about that. Nor does he have any interest in ensuring that the unions can determine who is the Labour Leader after him.

But he is concerned about the potential problem the unions may pose if Labour is elected in 2015 and continues with the policies of wage restraint, austerity and cuts that the Coalition is insisting upon.

This has been in preparation for some time. Miliband is known to have pushed for a significant reduction in the unions’ 50 per cent share of the vote at party conference in the 2011 Re-founding Labour review of the party rules and structures. This was rejected by the unions, and a face-saving formula suggested such matters would be returned to in 2012 – instead they were quietly dropped.

But Miliband is not a soft touch – as standing against and defeating his more senior brother shows. He had not dropped the issue, and took the opportunity to strike back when the unions were weakened due to the bourgeois media offensive after the alleged mismanagement in Falkirk and by Labour’s own decision to refer it to the police.

As Len McCluskey, leader of UNITE, has correctly said: ‘I have seen this a thousand times in my life: you mention the police … and the outside perception is there must be something in this. It is the oldest tactic in the book and it is shameful.’

Having created the perception of ‘union fixing’ in the Labour Party – when the truth is that the ultra-right, business-funded group Progress have ‘fixed’ far more selections than any trade union – Miliband moved to attack the union link itself.

Of course, many in the unions are saying they can live with the current proposals.

First, while an ‘opt in’ process will very much reduce the number of union members affiliated to Labour, unless a new system is badly mismanaged, union-affiliated members should still outnumber the rest of the membership. That’s if the change can even be made, for as Len McCluskey has pointed out it may be difficult to bring in as it might need a change in the law.

Secondly, a reduced affiliated membership does not automatically change the 50 per cent share of the vote in the Party conference or the one third share in the leadership election, nor change the number of union seats on the NEC, National Policy Forum and so on.

The only definite consequence appears to be that Labour will receive much less money in trade union affiliations!

This is why many trade union leaders are walking away from a frontal fight over these changes. Their objective approach is: If Labour doesn’t want our money, so be it…

However, Miliband’s changes are not intended to stop at an ‘opt in’ or some form of ‘primaries’ for the London Mayor.

In his speech, Miliband said he had appointed the former Labour General Secretary Lord Collins to work through the details of the proposals and review the unions relations with the Party- which is likely to include the unions’ voting power at the Labour conference.

Angela Eagle, Shadow Leader of the House, suggested the leadership was already looking at the ‘implications of what Ed has announced’ for the trade unions’ share of the vote at conference and in leadership elections.’ (Daily Telegraph 15 July 2013)

However, Len McCluskey was even sanguine about a reduction in the union share of the vote, acknowledging that the change in affiliation system means a change to “the whole dynamics” between Labour and the unions. According to the Guardian he said “he would prefer to have one-third of the vote at a conference that meant something, where the leadership took notice of what was being passed, rather than 50 per cent where it is ignored”.

But it would appear that the whole aim is to create the circumstances where the Labour leadership can safely ignore, if not entirely eliminate, the views of the unions.

Right-wing Blairite, Alan Johnson – who is invariably fielded to attack the unions on the basis he was once a trade union official – writing in the Independent on Sunday 14th July, suggested eliminating the unions from leadership elections entirely – replacing it with the old discredited system where the Parliamentary Labour Party club could outgun the Party membership. He argued: ‘…if the electoral college survives it will be on the basis of a 50/50 split between the Parliamentary Labour Party and the membership. Despite John Smith’s OMOV (one member one vote) reforms of the early 1990s we currently persist with an electoral system that is not just OMTV (one member, two votes) but NMOV (non-member, one vote). This will change as a natural consequence of the Miliband revolution.’

Blair himself welcomed the proposals as ‘brave and bold’, while the Telegraph praised Miliband as the ‘true heir to Blair’. This praise is not for the ‘opt in’ proposal, but because they anticipate that Miliband is embarking on a course that will lead to much more fundamental change to abolish the role of the unions in the party – or at least ensure they cannot determine the leader, the candidates or the policy.

Getting rid of the role of the unions in the Labour Party was a key component of the entire Blairite ‘third way’ New Labour project, but one that could not be carried through by Blair and Mandelson. Blair himself said of Miliband’s measures: ‘…he’s carrying through a process of reform in the Labour Party that is long overdue and, frankly, probably I should have done it when I was leader.’

The proposals on the table at present – ‘opt in’ and primaries – are not the end of this process, just Miliband’s first volley in a more fundamental confrontation.

With Labour still on course to win the election in 2015 – despite a recent fall in Labour’s lead it is still strongly ahead of the Tories – Miliband’s attention is turning to issues that will confront Labour in government. Recent speeches by Miliband and Balls have set out their commitment to continuing with austerity, including the Tory welfare spending cap, wage’ restraint’ in the public sector and further cuts.

Miliband is entirely clear on how unpopular these policies will be, especially within the unions. The union anger at the Coalition’s austerity policies, their support for the wider anti-austerity movement in the People’s Assembly Against Austerity, their outspoken attacks on the Labour right, will all be redoubled if it is Labour implementing such policies. The spectre haunting Miliband is the media frenzy if a Labour government’s policies are voted down at Party conference. The aim is to make that virtually impossible by neutralising the unions and relying on the well-organised right to persuade individual Party members to vote for Christmas if it’s a Labour government telling them to.

The fact that Ed Miliband was elected on the basis of the votes of the unions, that he was a step to the left from his Blairite brother David, and that he has made an effort to engage with sections of the left (including appointing Jon Trickett as Shadow Cabinet Office Minister and supporting Ken Livingstone’s campaign in London last year) lulled fears of any renewed attack on the union link with the Party.

The first salvos in that renewed campaign were fired last week, and no one should be under any illusions as to what is intended.