The future of the left since 1884

Ever closer union?

The Labour party was formed to be the voice of ordinary working people in parliament; the unions the voice of ordinary working people in the workplace. We have had different challenges through the ages and we have not always acted...


The Labour party was formed to be the voice of ordinary working people in parliament; the unions the voice of ordinary working people in the workplace. We have had different challenges through the ages and we have not always acted as best we could when in power or in conflict, but we have always retained those core values.

In September, Ed Miliband put forward a plan to ‘mend not end’ Labour’s relationship with the trade unions, with union members actively opting in to support the party, rather than having to opt out from doing so. The reform process is being led by Lord Collins, a former Labour general secretary, whose proposals will be voted in at a ‘special conference’, scheduled for March 1st 2014.

It is vital that the Labour party and the Labour movement move forward together, but we can only do so when both parties agree what forward movement looks like. At present, and with time running out, we seem a long way away from that.

Both the unions and the Labour party were formed in a time when rigid hierarchies were the norm. This is a habit that neither has ever lost. Deference lives on in strange ways in organisations whose purpose is to break down the barriers that hold the working classes back. But deference is gone from almost everywhere else in society and rightly so. The union movement, the Labour party and the monarchy remain – do we really want to be in this odd triumvirate, trying to retain these trappings of the late 19th century? Or do we want to live up to the best of our values and share power internally while fighting for a greater share externally for the vast majority of the British people?

One of the best ways of understanding your own organisation is to see it through the eyes of a stranger. This is why the work Arnie Graf has done in challenging the old Labour shibboleths of branch meeting rules and internal machinations have struck such a great chord. Most of us already knew all this stuff. We’ve sat through the meetings for long enough. But it took someone from outside to point out the Emperor is stitchless.

Where a workplace is unionised, it is generally the reps who set the tone of membership. I’ve had great union reps and dreadful ones but this still reinforces a hierarchy that denies the true meaning of ‘representative’ where power comes up from the bottom. It is equally unclear what would bring someone from a non-organised workplace to join a union.

Union density is in crisis. Non-public sector membership is just 14.4 per cent. We just aren’t reaching, supporting, talking to or fighting for millions of ordinary working people. SMEs account for 99.9 per cent of all private sector businesses in the UK and nearly 60 per cent of private sector employment. These people need and deserve workplace representation, and we need a better way of reaching out to offer that. We cannot allow union representation to be pigeon-holed as it is.

Equally, let us not tell ourselves fairy tales about our own past as a party. Our conference has changed to be less democratic, but that does not mean the Labour party was ever a bastion of internal democracy. It was always a system that favoured those who knew the rules of the game.

As Labour became New Labour, the rules were reinterpreted to force control upwards and towards the centre. Branches and CLPs became little more than delivery machines for the messages dictated from on high. I have heard countless examples of ways in which the opinions, policy demands and campaigning needs of ordinary members were side-lined. This reached its peak during the Iraq war, but a great many other areas became unnecessary ‘tests of strength’ where the leadership sought to prove how strong it was by once again squashing a restless membership. On education, on the health service, on civil liberties and on social housing, the leadership’s attitude was that if the membership were unhappy, they were probably doing the right thing.

This can hardly be considered a healthy long-term strategy for any organisation that is so dependent on the money, motivation and good will of its members.

At the same time, the union movement was consolidating from smaller job-based unions to large ‘super unions’. While this ensured the strength of those organisations that were left, it increased the hierarchy of the organisations and removed them further from the workplace. Consequently, they are now further from the concerns of their members and further from their members’ opinions when it comes to the relationship with the Labour party. In fact, polling has shown that a large majority of Unite members – for example – support the proposals originally mooted by Ed Miliband.

I believe completely in a vibrant and active Labour party and a vibrant and active labour movement. I believe it is really important that they work together. But I do not believe the way either work at the moment is sustainable. I don’t see a future in the current models and that scares me. Because I worry that too many vested interests in both movements care less about the future of the movements than ensuring they keep the outdated rules in place that keep their positions safe.

We can’t allow that to happen to the Labour party, and we can’t allow it to happen to the union movement. Ordinary working people deserve better. Neither movement should exist within its own bubble, looking only to its own ends. We need to build movements that build up the members of those movements.

Power must be devolved from the Labour and union leaderships because this is the only way these movements can survive and grow through a century in which representative democracy is increasingly being found wanting and power is increasingly being demanded by the people.

But it must also be devolved because it is the right thing to do. If we want to be the party and the movement that give voice to ordinary working people, we need to do so not by speaking for them, but by providing the platforms to amplify their voices. By listening and responding to them. By putting those voices at the heart of our joint mission.

That is what the Collins review must achieve for union members within the Labour party. So what are the practical ideas that could bring this about?

Ultimately, the relationship between Labour and the unions is about values not money. But managing how the money works will guide the way our relationships develop. Because devolving the financial decisions will devolve decision making.

Unions don’t get value for money by funding unwieldy air wars at the heart of the Labour machine. They have minimal impact and no input from the people they are designed to reach or those who have to match the messages on the doorstep.

Their money would be better spent and better understood by working with key constituency Labour parties on equal terms, on individual projects designed to genuinely make an impact to the lives of local union members. Ideally, such projects would be co-produced, with local union members and local Labour party members working together on projects to benefit their communities.

Like Labour’s ‘campaign, diversity and democracy fund’, this could only be drawn on at a local level, but unlike this fund, the decision making from the funders must be made on a regional or sub-regional basis. In this way, decisions will be made by people who have walked down the streets they want to improve, who know the people whose lives will be changed. Decisions made that don’t start and end in a financial transaction, but work to develop ongoing and mutually beneficial relationships. As most of the large unions have either a well-established or fast-developing regional framework this should be relatively easy to organise – though eventually, I would prefer the decision making takes places even more locally.

This is the change we need to see both in Labour and in the unions. By devolving funding decisions and the power they carry to local decision makers, and allowing them to use the money in the ways that will best benefit their members locally will change the way both local Labour parties and unions are run separately and transform our local relationships from transaction towards interaction. But this must go much wider than simply some structural changes to the Labour party. We must all, union and Labour members – and the thousands of us who are both – embrace this new culture, and throw off what is holding us or our fellow members back.

This is essential. Labour must gain power as a collective and share power by ensuring our leaders give it away. That is our mission for the 21st century. If we shy away from it, we will fail ourselves. But more importantly, we will fail those we seek to represent. For perhaps the last time.

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