Gregor Gall: United in the march for progress?

Trades union power used to offer working people a voice in shaping Labour party policy. Picture: Getty
Trades union power used to offer working people a voice in shaping Labour party policy. Picture: Getty
Share this article
Have your say

Ed Miliband is set to celebrate victory over the unions, but the Labour leader could still pay a price for it, writes Gregor Gall

ToMORROW, Labour Party leader Ed Miliband will get his way – a hugely slimmed down, two-hour conference in London will vote through his reforms to the union-party link that he announced in the wake of the so-called Falkirk West vote rigging scandal. It will be his “Clause IV moment”.

That no vote rigging was proven became immaterial to Mr Miliband’s drive to ditch the baggage that David Cameron and the Daily Mail regularly target – the union bogeyman. In his effort to attract the middle ground of middle England in order to win the 2015 general election, Mr Miliband bulldozed through his proposals to reduce union influence on the party by insisting that union members paying the political levy opt in. The conference was originally scheduled to last all day to allow debate.

It matters not to Mr Miliband that unions founded the Labour Party more than one hundred years ago, nor that they are the last remaining vestige (however, imperfect) of mass participation of workers in a mainstream political party.

What he will be left with is a party that is now not only more under the leader’s control than ever before but also free floating from any constraints. Any perceived policy U-turns or twists to better chase the votes of the middle ground will be now be eminently more possible.

Originally, most of the 15 affiliated unions were going to put up resistance to the proposals. The GMB union, for example, led the charge and along the way signalled its intention to reduce the funding it gives Labour as a result. Ironically, from the left, the Unite union has supported the proposals while from the right the Community union has done likewise.

But at a key National Executive Committee meeting last month all but one union representative voted for the proposals. It was a strange case of unions voting for their own chemical castration. But the simple reason for this was that the affiliated unions feared doing anything which would undermine Labour’s chances of winning the general election. In other words, they marched to Mr Miliband’s tune because they believed that any Labour government has to be better than a Tory one (or Tory-LibDem coalition).

But as soon as the unions took that position, they gave up their ability to influence the policy basis that Labour will fight the general election on. The irony of the unions ensuring that Ed Mr Miliband and not his brother, David, was elected leader back in 2010 will not be lost on readers. He has bitten the hand that fed him and has also been prepared to endure a potentially huge cut in funding to Labour at the very time that a debt-ridden party fights its biggest battle.

But there is also another irony that will not be lost. In the very week that Mr Miliband triumphs in this way, the Tories have started to try to rebrand themselves as the “workers’ party” by saying that they want to continue spreading privilege to all so that former Tory prime minister John Major’s dream of a “classless society” is achieved.

Privilege cannot be spread to all for if it were it precisely ceases to be privilege. That aside, this has come from a party that has increased the cost of obtaining justice at work by introducing fees for applications to Employment Tribunal, reduced the amount of time employers need to consult on collective redundancies from 90 days to 45 days and so on and so forth under its drive to end “red tape”.

Where does this leave politics in Britain? Further reducing union influence in Labour removes the one consistent voice that has said the market cannot and should not be only way that determines citizens’ life chances. Unions have upheld the view that the state has a progressive role to play in delivering social justice and equality in the face of the rich and powerful.

By contrast, Mr Miliband – although not enamoured with the rich in the way Tony Blair was – still maintains, as Blair did, that the market can be used for progressive ends. So Miliband wants to work in partnership with the private sector to ensure better outcomes. His recent well-publicised tussle with the power companies hid the fact that he will neither bring them back into public ownership nor regulate them on a proper and permanent basis.

Not to make too blunt a point, affiliated unions are the only voices still arguing and campaigning for Labour to be what it was first intended to be – not a socialist but a social democratic party. This means the voice saying that workers should not pay the cost of a crisis they had no part in making will seldom be heard any more, much less have any impact.

A canny SNP will no doubt try to make hay while this sun shines because it will play to its overblown argument that it is now the social democratic alternative that Labour was many, many moons ago.

The final irony in this whole business is that the Cameron and the Daily Mail will still be able to go on the union bogeyman attack because Unite will still try to influence Labour by way of donations.

It is this which explains why Unite did not think Mr Miliband’s reforms would end its influence. Thus, the cash-strapped party would be susceptible to its cheque book even if Unite had far fewer members affiliated to Labour.

• Gregor Gall is professor of industrial relations at the University of Bradford


• More information on becoming a Friend of The Scotsman