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The unions should realise - this isn't an attack

It's not “Blairite” to question the links between the unions and Labour and there is nothing new about worries over union leaders throwing their weight about

Back in the 1960s, when union membership was over 10 million and still climbing towards its peak of more than twice what it is today, one of TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady’s predecessors, George Woodcock, was greeted by a friend at the end of a session during the annual congress. “That was a very dull day, George,” he said. To which a beaming Woodcock replied: “Thanks very much.”

Because of the row between Ed Miliband and the leaders of the big Labour-affiliated unions it’s unlikely that anyone will be making the same remark – which Woodcock, with a deep distaste for media coverage of high-profile splits, took as a magnificent compliment – to Ms O’Grady this week.

Certainly not today, when the TV cameras will focus on every twitch, gasp and frown – and even possible shout – from Paul Kenny, Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis as the Labour leader repeats during his speech to the Congress that he is still determined to reform – or in the cliché of the moment “mend but not end” – the link between the party and the unions.

Miliband is sure also to dwell on the crucial role the unions have in protecting workers in an unremittingly hostile climate, as well as on the iniquity of zero-hours contracts, the need for a living wage, and some of the other issues which Ms O’Grady highlighted yesterday in a sensible interview on the Today programme. But this is unlikely to deflect the story of the day which the chances are will boil down to the union leaders’ reaction to what Miliband has to say about their role in the Labour Party.

At the heart of this seemingly life and death struggle between Labour and its union affiliates is a real confusion, one which the GMB’s Paul Kenny, whether intentionally or not, did much to encourage at the weekend with his complaint about the “appalling language” used about unions in the wake of the Falkirk candidate selection debacle.

Such attacks on trade unions, Mr Kenny suggested, were “par for the course” from the Tories, but not from Labour. The argument, in other words, is that it is somehow “anti-union” to question whether fossilisation of the institutional links between party and the unions, including a decisive role for the latter in the selection of parliamentary candidates, is really in the interests of either.

The view that to do so is “Blairite” is not only belied by the fact that the man himself – despite his fabled lack of empathy with the unions – did remarkably little to change the link in 14 years as party leader, but by the fact that there is nothing new about worries over union leaders throwing their weight about in the Labour Party. Indeed, in the 1950s and 1960s –and at times more recently – it was the Bevanites on the Left who were most disturbed by what they saw, not unreasonably, as the undemocratic and cavalier deployment by union bosses of their block votes at party conferences in the interests of the right.

The recent poll demonstrating the popularity – including among trade unionists – of making union members “opt-in” to donating to Labour illustrates yet again electoral unease about union domination, real or perceived, of the party. Not to mention that its traditional dependence on union donations and affiliation fees hobbles its ability to argue for a level playing field in party funding.

But is the link, as at present constituted, really so great for the unions either? Ms O’Grady, as TUC general secretaries have long had to do, yesterday gently pointed out that a majority of unions are not actually affiliated to Labour. Yet anyone contemplating joining a union today in the midst of the present row would be forgiven for thinking its main purpose was to choose policies and candidates for the Labour Party rather than protects its interests at work – and even out of it.

Back in the early 90s when John Smith was a popular Labour leader, another poll showed that while most people joined unions for bread and butter reasons like support with grievances and legal assistance, the biggest single reason for not joining a union – cited by 28 per cent of respondents and despite the fact that strikes were more common, union membership higher, and Labour’s class base much more secure – was “Labour party support”. Do the unions want a return to that problem now of all times?

 It’s beyond dispute that there has never been a greater time than now for unions to recruit after a steep decline in membership, to restore a fairer balance between business and workforce. It’s not only that agency workers are in dire need of protection or that – as a TUC analysis showed last week – UK workers have seen their wages fall by 6.3 per cent in real terms as those of chief executives have rocketed, or that they could play a significant part in arresting a steady erosion of employment rights.

As a lifelong member of a TUC-affiliated union – though not as it happens  a Labour Party-affiliated one – I happen to believe independent trade unions are as potent a symbol of a free society as a free press. Kenny is right to fulminate about the demonisation of unions. But he is deeply wrong to imply that their leaders have some divine right to rule the Labour Party.