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Big mistake for Ed Miliband to (almost) take on trade union bosses

The faction that controls Unite does not trust the union’s members

For a moment, it looked as if Ed Miliband might do something important, brave and right. He was going to take on the trade union bosses who organised the Labour leadership election for him and complete the task of democratising the party, which had proved too difficult even for Tony Blair. But now he isn’t.

There will still be a “special conference” of the Labour Party in March. Previously, such events have been held only to pass historic rule changes, such as the rewriting of Clause IV, or to elect new leaders. This conference will not be so memorable. It will be on the same date and at the same venue (the ExCeL centre in London’s Docklands) as the party’s local government conference. This will save money, and have the benefit, from Miliband’s point of view, of making it seem like a bit of procedural business at the start of a meeting of local councillors.

The special conference may be asked to pass one rule change and some waffle. The change will be to require trade unionists who want part of their union subscription to go to the Labour Party to “opt in” to the deal, rather than the present rule by which union members who don’t want to contribute to Labour have to “opt out”. There may be a second non-waffle rule change, to allow the party’s candidate for the London mayoral election in 2016 to be chosen in a US-style primary election, but that is now in doubt. Then there will be some general guff and guidelines about “fairness and transparency” in the selection of Labour candidates, after the local difficulty in Falkirk. 

The opt-in rule is why Labour delegates are being recalled from leaflet-delivering duties. It is to give effect to a fine speech Miliband delivered in July, in which he declared that no one should be “paying money to the Labour Party in affiliation fees unless they have deliberately chosen to do so”. That was after he discovered what had been going on in Falkirk, where Unite, Britain’s largest union and the one that delivered the Labour leadership to him, had been trying to secure the selection of its favourite as the Labour candidate and therefore the Labour MP. This included the sort of thing that I naively assumed was normal in a selection battle in a safe seat held by any party, such as signing up people as members without their knowledge. But Miliband was “fizzing with fury” and did the brave thing of saying, without knowing whether he could deliver it, that the unions’ link with the party had to be changed.

At which point the cynics asked: why bother? Well, it doesn’t matter as much as Labour’s policy on the economy – and our ComRes poll today offers some good news for Miliband on that, in that voters expect better public services under Labour but think taxes would be no higher than under the Conservatives. Either they expect a miracle of public sector productivity or they think that more borrowing is a good idea, after all.

However, the union role in the Labour Party does matter because it says something about the kind of party for which people are being asked to vote. Last week, Len McCluskey, the general secretary of Unite, made it brutally clear that Labour is and will remain a party in which his clique holds not total power but influence and a blocking veto. The union’s executive council submitted its response to Labour’s consultation on the changes. It might as well have said: “Unite welcomes any proposals for reforming the link between Labour and the unions, provided nothing changes.”

It accepted that its members should have to make a positive decision to contribute to Labour funds, provided that union leaders still hold 50 per cent of the vote at conference. This makes no sense, because those block votes are cast in the name of Labour supporters, who would, after the reform, have a direct relationship with the party. McCluskey’s gang also say they are “opposed to the principle of open primaries” to select Labour’s London mayoral candidate, so that rule change is unlikely to be put to the special conference, in which half the votes are held by union leaders, and the largest part of that half is controlled by McCluskey.

The faction in charge of Unite does not trust the union’s members. Its submission says Unite “cannot support any proposal that would lead to the collective voice of Unite being expressed solely through individual Unite members scattered across the constituency parties”. What a tragic picture this conjures up, of poor Unite members “scattered” to the four winds, in fearful isolation, the purity of their socialism diluted by contact with mere Labour Party members in the constituencies. The ruling faction does not make this argument because it believes in some mystical quality of the “collective”, although there are plenty on the left who do, but because it understands the Leninist principle of democratic centralism. It controls Unite’s executive council and therefore the union’s block vote at Labour conference.

Miliband tried, but the change he will secure next March is so small that he would have done better not to advertise that he is still the prisoner of the union faction bosses who lifted him to the Labour leadership in the first place.