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.

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: C# Developer - Kent - £43,000

£35000 - £43000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: C# and .Net Developer - n...

Guru Careers: Digital Marketing Exec / Online Marketing Executive

£35 - 40k: Guru Careers: Our client has a new role for a Digital Marketing Exe...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Facebook lights up the London Eye with the nation's general election conversations.The London Eye showed the top five most discussed political topics on Facebook. (Colours: Economy - white; Health - purple; Tax - yellow; Europe and Immigration - blue; Crime - red) in London  

Election 2015: Why each party's share of the vote could really matter

Matt Dathan

How the French stay so slim while we British balloon can’t ever be reconciled

Rosie Millard
General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'