Even New Labour needs the unions

So disturbed were my members by the easing out of sitting MPs before the election that we held back a quarter of a million pounds in contributions
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The Independent Online
So the proposed Fabian pamphlet by Alan Johnson and Tony Young on loosening Labour's links with the unions is not now to be published. That's a pity, because we may as well have the debate and bring out into the open what some of those jostling for influence in New Labour have been saying behind cupped hands: put an end to union presence and union influence at all levels of the Party, from local constituency parties to the National Executive Committee. And do it now.

These may or may not be the words of Alan Johnson and Tony Young, for whom I have the utmost respect, but they are the words of others who want to cast off millions of ordinary union members and move into, as they see it, more exciting, yet uncharted, waters.

Yet trade unions are something about which these protagonists know nothing. They don't understand the need for unions, because they have neither had to struggle to make ends meet, nor had to work for an employer who denies them a living wage, sick pay or holidays.

They are blind to the possibilities of the Nineties and beyond because their fears are frozen in the Seventies. If at some future date, unions and union members can no longer affiliate to, contribute to, and play their part in New Labour then we shall all suffer. The losers will be first democracy; second the Party, and third the nation.

Had it not been for the affiliation of the unions, there would have been no New Labour to offer to the electorate. It was unions such as my own which worked with Neil Kinnock and John Smith to drive out Militant. It was we who had to persuade the rest of the Party to adopt one member, one vote. It was we who turned the Party from unilateral nuclear disarmament and adherence to Clause Four. It was we who initiated the reforms so enthusiastically and ably espoused by Tony Blair. In short, we made New Labour possible.

And had it not been for our affiliation fees, there would have not been the campaign that swept the country. No Millbank Tower, no Media Centre, no Excalibur, no Rebuttal Unit, no expensive poster campaigns.

But much more important than the money we were able to donate was the assistance given to New Labour by thousands upon thousands of ordinary union members who tramped the streets, staffed the phone banks and stuffed the envelopes because they wanted a government that could give their families, their children, a better deal. New Labour is going to need the continued support of union members, the more so as increasing numbers of recent recruits opt out of doing the weekly or monthly chores, content that Tony Blair is in Number Ten or bored with the hard slog of keeping local politics alive.

And, until such time as the Government introduces state funding of political parties, New Labour will need our affiliation contributions, contributions our members are happy to make to secure a more equal and prosperous Britain. It is true that some companies have donated money to Labour, but will their contributions still be there when times get tough?

If the links are broken democracy would lose and New Labour would lose too; for my fear is this: that without continued union involvement, New Labour would become unrepresentative of the British people and too narrowly based.

One of the important contributions unions make is to identify and encourage members who feel they have much to offer as an MP. People who, without the advice, support and training their unions are able to give to them, would feel inhibited. Ordinary people. Engineers, nurses, steelworkers, computer programmers, builders.

There are those in New Labour who don't want people like these as MPs. They want lawyers, lecturers and journalists. More and more and more of them.

We saw some of this in the weeks preceding the General Election when steps were taken to ease out sitting MPs from industrial backgrounds, hold back support from candidates who weren't university graduates, and ease in people from the professions. In fact, so disturbed by this were our members that we felt we had to signal their unhappiness to the Party; and to do so, we held back a quarter of a million pounds in campaign contributions.

If the unions' link with Labour is broken, New Labour would, I'm afraid, become the preserve of those who inhabit the worlds of the media, courts and academia. New Labour could become as unrepresentative of our nation as Old Labour was when it was in the grip of Militant and its cohorts. We surely haven't thrown off the dominance of one group only to be subjected to the dominance of another.

At present, unions affiliated to the Labour Party are able to bring to the party the views, the aspirations, and the concerns of a cross-section of our country - postal workers and plumbers, dockers and electricians, car workers and fire-fighters, scientists and shop workers. If we were not able to contribute their views at all levels, then New Labour would be much the poorer.

Unions like mine are working in partnership with companies to protect and promote Britain's manufacturing base. Manufacturing is something very few MPs - and even fewer New Labour administrators - understand. Despite changes in the spread of business in Britain today, it is still manufacturing that creates the wealth which funds our schools, hospitals and welfare services. That is why we are spending so much time and energy campaigning for industrial projects - and taking this message to constituency Labour parties, district parties, regional parties, the National Executive Committee and right through Westminster and Whitehall. Company directors have told me that the most important contribution we can make to the health of manufacturing is to ensure that New Labour, from top to bottom, understands the priorities for the nation.

Some commentators, Donald Macintyre among them in his article in these pages on Tuesday, say that unions can still have their say without having to be affiliated to any one political party. That of course is true. But it is not the way to be the most effective. Ad hoc support of this party or that cannot begin to match the kind of fruitful relationship that a more enduring partnership between the unions and New Labour can sustain.

New Labour, cut adrift from supportive unions, could become unrepresentative, too narrowly based, and unable to mount - ever again - the kind of General Election campaign that it did this year. That would be bad for democracy, bad for our country, and bad news for union members, too. For they want to continue to play their part in securing a fairer and more decent society.

The writer is general secretary of the AEEU (Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union).