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

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

Share

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.

twitter.com/@JohnRentoul

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Client Accountant Team Manager - Reading

Negotiable: Ashdown Group: The Ashdown Group has been engaged by a highly resp...

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: You will also work alongside their seasoned sa...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Property Manager

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you looking for your first step into...

Recruitment Genius: Mechanical Design Engineer

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This innovative company working...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Crofter's cottages on Lewis. The island's low population density makes it a good candidate for a spaceport (Alamy)  

My Scottish awakening, helped by horizontal sleet

Simon Kelner
The rocketing cost of remarking scripts coupled with the squeeze on school budgets has led to some schools charging parents for the cost of requesting exam boards to review marks, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers' annual conference in Liverpool heard.  

A teaching crisis we can’t afford

Louise Scodie
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat