Ed Milliband’s proposals to “mend” the trade union/Labour Party link were prompted by an internal battle for the soul of the Labour Party. This culminated in a bitter row over Falkirk, when the right wing – Blairite shadow ministers, a majority of the PLP and the New Labour pressure group Progress – cried “foul “over UNITE’s success in building support for yet another working class trade unionist candidate.
The allegations of wrong-doing are groundless, but certain shadow ministers were happy to brief the right wing press to create a crescendo of opprobrium against “union barons” etc. Even Lord Mandelson accused the unions of “entryism”! The Blairites would love to break the link with the Trade Unions and swing the Party back to the neo-liberal right. But this would be electoral disaster.
Yet Labour would never have been born if the trade unions had not created it in 1900. In a capitalist society money buys political power – the working class lack the resources to challenge that power except by the collective representation offered to them through their trade unions. Ending that collective role within the Labour Party will swing the Party back to the NewLabour right.
Ed Milliband is right that we should engage our members to become affiliated individual Labour Party members. But this should be as well as and not instead of the trade unions’ collective role within the Party. The working class voice cannot be expressed within the Party by individual trade union members spread thinly across all the local CLPs.
The real issue is whether Labour can offer a bold progressive alternative to carry it to victory. It’s trade unions like UNITE which have been successfully expressing that alternative. We need to enhance not reduce the unions’ collective role within the Party to make that happen.
Martin Mayer is Chair of United Left, and a member both of UNITE’s executive council and of Labour’s national executive. This post first appeared on the United Left website