Leading Article: Compromise no more, Mr Smith

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The Independent Online
IF JOHN SMITH cannot persuade the Labour conference this autumn to reform the party's links with the unions, his authority will be severely damaged. His problem is that the more he compromises to avoid that decision, the less likely he is to be elected prime minister.

In his speech to the Transport and General Workers' Union at Bournemouth yesterday he took another step towards compromise. Speaking out strongly for the principle of reform, he nevertheless focused only on the selection of parliamentary candidates. He did not mention leadership contests and has already compromised on decision-making at party conferences. Thus, in two out of the three main areas in which union block voting needs to be ended, he is preparing to accept a fudge.

From a tactical point of view he is right to concentrate on selection procedures, since they will have to start operating next year. With luck, there will be no leadership contest before the next election, so that problem can be postponed. And the proposed compromise on decision-making would at least end the embarrassing spectacle of union leaders at party conferences casting huge block votes in the name of memberships that include non-Labour voters and minorities that have opposed the positions taken. After reform, delegations would not necessarily vote as a block.

These reforms would be an improvement on the present situation, but they fall a long way short of what the party needs. If it is to maximise its electoral chances and draw voters from the Liberal Democrats, it will have to sever all institutional links with the unions. The relationship damages both the party and the unions. Unions are supposed to represent the specific interests of their members as employees. These interests may sometimes be best served by a Labour government, but by no means always or automatically. Moreover, employees have other interests as consumers, property owners or whatever. These may point them away from Labour, which is why so many union members vote for other parties.

The idea that employees as a class require a political party to represent them is an absurd anachronism, a relic of the early days of the Labour movement. It damages the democratic process by crippling the opposition, and is not even good for the unions. They could represent their members better if they were politically non-aligned because they would be freer to take up issues on merit, rather than from prejudged political positions. They might also arouse less suspicion. There would be nothing to stop them giving money to the Labour Party and trying to influence its policies.

Mr Smith knows that reform ought to go much deeper than he is now proposing, but believes that he cannot risk splitting the party. In the long run, however, the party will become much stronger if he fights for what he believes, and risks a confrontation in the autumn. He should compromise no more.