The Party-Union Link – response to Collins Q&As
The link doesn’t need mending – it needs strengthening. Labour needs to better represent the interests of trade unionists and the party’s elected representatives need to be more representative of the population – more working class, fewer career politicians. The value of collective action and the role of trade unions in defending and improving living standards needs to be accepted once again.
Any changes to the relationship designed to strengthen the link with trade unionists should facilitate and stimulate greater involvement by levypayers without threatening the finances of the party. But the need for those changes should be justified and agreed.
1. What kind of relationship with the party do you think those individuals who choose to affiliate want or expect?
Trade union levy payers already vote overwhelmingly in every union whenever required for political funds established on an opt-out basis so that their collective voice will be heard in the political arena. There is nothing undemocratic about the current arrangements, where trade union representatives are accountable to their members through each union’s democratic procedures.
2. What rights should they receive? Should their rights differ from CLP members and if so how?
Affiliated trade unionists should at least continue to have the rights they have at the moment, which includes the right to help choose the party’s leaders and they should have the right to choose elected representatives too. Further than that affiliate members should also have more rights than those proposed for registered supporters who make no financial contribution.
Affiliated trade unions should also retain the right to influence policy through the collective representation of their trade unions.
3. What ideas do you have for how members of affiliated organisations might have a closer individual engagement with Labour and a real voice inside the party, particularly at the local level?
Labour and its representatives need to understand, support, promote and advocate trade unionism in parliament, in local councils and in government. Only by seeing Labour provide a voice for trade unions, and giving greater rights to levy payers such as in the selection of candidates will they be drawn into closer engagement.
4. How do we ensure that the collective voice of trade unions is still heard in the Labour Party?
Ensuring that collective affiliation is distinct from any form of individual membership. Ensuring that union collective representation and voting rights are sustainable and kept at the current level. Reintroducing democracy into the party’s policy making by ensuring we have a conference that is allowed to determine policies not just rubber stamp them
5. Once individual affiliated members have had an active choice about whether to be part of the Labour Party, do you believe that we would need to consider the consequences for other party structures including conference and the rules for electing leaders?
Individual affiliated members already have an active choice both as to whether to be affiliated members and to choose to be individual members additionally if they wish.
There is no case for any reduction in the current level of representation or voting rights which provide a collective voice for the trade unions who founded the party – they are rightly based on the total number of levy payers – who number fifteen times the individual membership of the party.
6. What views do you have about the practical timeframe for agreeing and implementing changes to affiliation and related issues?
There is no need for any change. There is therefore no hurry to make any changes that are made.
7. Do you have any other ideas you wish to contribute to this review about how to deepen the relationship between Labour and working people?
Labour policies and values as expressed by our public representatives, need to reflect a renewed commitment to working class representation if we want working class people to join and even vote for us in greater numbers.
We should also be encouraging unions that are not currently affiliated to affiliate to the party
What follows is a motion agreed by Lewisham West and Penge Constituency Labour Party at the instigation of Croydon UNISON. Re-posted from Jon’s Unison Blog.
This CLP confirms that having been created to represent working people in Parliament by the trade unions, together with cooperative societies and socialist clubs and societies we have concerns regarding the current Collins Review process.
We believe that Labour’s continuing relationship with trade unionists through their affiliation to the Labour Party continues to represent the values and aspirations of ordinary people.
We recognise that trade unions are collective organisations, and as such understand that this relationship is based on the basis of collective affiliation.
We note the review that Ray Collins is having of the Party’s relationship with the trade unions as outlined above.
However, we also note that the media interest in this matter is being whipped up by newspapers hostile to our aspirations which have never had sympathy with the basis of our Labour movement.
This CLP affirms that the relationship between the trade unions and the Party has been and remains central to the role of the Party in representing the interests of working people.
We therefore support:
– the collective affiliation of trade unions to the Party;
– collective decision making by trade unionists within the Party;
– representation for, and involvement of, trade unions at every level of the Party.
We therefore campaign for this throughout the Party and trade unions and call on all Labour movement activists to make submissions to the Collins review in accordance with the above principles.
We oppose any and all suggestions that would weaken or undermine the relationship between the Party and the trade unions based upon collective affiliation. We call upon the NEC to ensure that any proposals for change take account of the views expressed.
by Jim Kelly, Chair London & Eastern region (in a personal capacity).
This article first appeared on the United Left website.
Just as the Falkirk affair was put to bed, we were faced with a much bigger challenge; Miliband’s call to individualise party membership and end (or severely downgrade) the link between unions and Party. Unions from the GMB to USDAW are united against it, while the UL met and voted 60 to 1 to oppose it. There is a majority both within the unions and Party to maintain the link. So while it would be a major defeat for the unions if Miliband’s reforms were to go through as is this will only happen if we support change, or if unions are divided. Unions have almost half the votes at Labour’s conference, the more unified we are the firmer we are about the dangers of Miliband’s position the less damaging will be any changes. The precondition for getting the best possible outcome is a united approach by all unions.
Within all of this I am unsure as to Len’s position. I thought his presentation to the Unite delegation at LP conference at our first meeting was a little subdued and appeared to me to say we are up for trading influence on structures for policy shifts from Miliband. I hear he made a rousing speech defending the link at the Mirror fringe meeting, which many of us could not get in to, after Kenny’s tub thumping “no surrender” speech on the Monday. Yet he has welcomed Miliband’s proposals and along with other comrades, has argued `… the link is not working’; although true, the main reason it is broken is largely down to the unions and it can be mended.
Just this week Len is reported as saying, at the Jimmy Reid Commemoration Lecture that we would fund Labour in 2015, regardless of affiliation numbers.
More importantly while we can all agree with Miliband that we should aim for a mass party, it is only the spin Miliband puts on building a mass membership that demands an ending or downgrading the link. Keeping the Link as is, and building a mass party are in no way mutually exclusive. So the argument about the Link not working and the idea you cannot have the Link and a mass party simply does not stack up.
Ending of the Labour – union link or its downgrading is the most important issue the movement has faced in many decades.
The link is so important to us because, apart from collective bargaining, the only, way unions can progress members’ interests is through Parliament by extending legal support for workers. The only party in a position to perform this role is the Labour Party. For any union, regardless of the political character of its leadership, that leadership’s duty is to press Labour to support worker friendly legislation.
So change does not support unions’ immediate interests. A reformed party would also be another milestone in the disintegration of the labour movement, marking a further step in the direction of neo-liberalism. Politics like nature abhors a vacuum and removing the unions’ collective voice has been the long-term goal of sections of the right, which many want to fill it by a merger with sections of the Liberal Party, forming a left of centre party of do-gooders (Guardian readers). Only a fantasist would believe that out of such a defeat a new workers party will spring from the ashes.
If we want to try to reach an agreement with Miliband, and I think it is essential the unions do, it could include his proposal to encourage individual levy-payers to opt into a form of individual membership provided that:
1. The collective voice of Unite and other unions continue to be represented – allowing our representatives to speak at every level within the party structure on behalf of the whole membership, representing the policies and aspirations of the union as decided through our democratic processes.
2. The level of representation and votes to which the union is entitled is sustained at the current level, and is not dependent on recruiting any particular number of individual members.
3. The union is not required to make any changes to our rule book as a condition of continued affiliation to and support for the Labour Party.
The union should respond to the Collins interim report consistently with these principles, which should also serve as our bottom line in any discussions with the party leadership.
Finally, we should not accept the proposal to introduce primaries as a basis of selecting Labour candidates for public office. Our members who support the Labour Party should be able to participate in these selections on the basis that they contribute financially to the Labour Party, as should individual members of the Labour Party., There is no support from any quarter of the Labour movement (other than the Blairites in their mis-named organisation Progress) to involve people in these selection who do not support the party and who do not make a financial contribution to it.
The last London TULO was informed that Alan Olive, the Labour Organiser in London, will be running trial primaries in Croydon South in March next year. When Unite and GMB pointed out that this pre- empted the Collins Report and was outside the Rule Book he simply ignored our opposition. I am unaware if this issue was raised at the London Labour Board meeting, but it is a signal the apparatchiks’, as opposed to Progress, intent to push ahead with attacks on our collective participation in the party regardless of any agreement on the Collins Report.
Silencing a working class voice in politics has been the dream of the rich and powerful since the Chartists and then the formation of the party, Unite should defend our voice in the Labour Party with no fudging. The UL should pursue these points both through the regional structure and ensue they are endorsed by the EC.
The “interim report” from Ray Collins, presented to Labour Party conference on 22 September, emphasises the role played by trade unions in founding the Labour Party.
It says that the federal structure of the Labour Party “should remain”. It promises an ongoing “collective engagement” and “collective relationship” between affiliated unions and the party.
It says that if the Labour-union link did not exist, then it would be necessary to invent it.
It suggests that the scheme to have trade unionists “opt in”, floated by Ed Miliband on 9 July, should mean individuals opting to gain “additional rights”, or even an effort “to convert as many as possible of the levy-payers of affiliated unions into individual membership of our party”.
It states that “this individual relationship with trade union members” should not “damage the collective relationship and the institutional links between the party and the union organisations”.
Those who want to wreck Labour’s union link are not confident. Serious damage to the link – considered by many Labour leftists in July to be a near-certainty, something they disliked but couldn’t stop – can be prevented if the new Defend The Link campaign does its work well.
But the report is slippery. Without a strong campaign, serious damage is still likely.
Collins’s language is pointedly vague. He refers to the Labour Party as “an alliance of individuals and organisations”, using the vague word “alliance” instead of “federation”. He writes about “collective engagement”, but not specifically affiliation.
The style of the report is bizarre.
“Ed wants to … Ed’s intention is … because Ed has said … that is why Ed has said … Ed has now said … Ed wants … Ed has underlined … Ed has proposed … Ed has asked for … Ed has stressed … I want to hear your views on how we meet Ed’s objective “.
It is as if Ed Miliband is a god. His wishes cannot be questioned. Common mortals can have “views on how we meet Ed’s objective”, but not objectives of our own.
Collins’s report was supposedly based on responses by party members and affiliated organisations.
In fact, the report gives no information about the feedback received. This is particularly ironic in the light of the report’s opening page:
“We must go further in letting ordinary people back into our politics …”
This contrast between the promise of a greater say for “ordinary people” and an exclusive focus on what the party leader has to say reflects a more fundamental contradiction in the report.
Any literal requirement for trade unionists explicitly to “opt in” in order to be affiliated suggests that the “default” status for all trade unionists is to be “opted out”, and thus cuts at the principle of collective decision-making (and collective affiliation) by trade unions.
If Miliband or Collins were proposing solid measures to encourage trade unionists to join as individuals – a clear Labour policy against cuts, or to compel bosses to pay a living wage, for example – then that would be good. If they were even proposing reduced membership fees to encourage new members, that would be positive.
But the report’s support for primaries to select Labour candidates cuts across both collective input by trade unions and the rights of individual party members.
Primaries would mean non-party-members having a greater say in the selection of candidates than affiliated organisations and individual members.
The report is full of praise for collective involvement by trade unions in the Labour Party. But on the other hand it slyly suggests specific plans which would undermine that collective involvement – and presents those plans, not as items for discussion, but as unquestionable since they are “What Ed Wants”.
The ‘interim consultation’ was meant to usher in a ‘major consultation exercise’. But the report simply rubber-stamps Miliband’s idea and invites further submissions about how it should be implemented, as opposed to whether it should be implemented.
The most revealing sentence in the report reads:
“The changes will be put to a special conference this spring because Ed has said he wants them agreed well before the General Election. They will then take time to implement as we manage the organisational and financial implications.”
Worrying for the future is the report’s hint that “we need to consider the consequences for other party structures including conference and the rules for electing leaders” after the category of opted-in affiliated member has been created.
Many Labour right-wingers want a drastic reduction in the trade unions’ share of the vote at party conference and in leadership elections.
If they can point to a number of “opted-in” trade unionists much smaller than the three million “not-opted-out” at present, then their demands will gather weight.
The Collins review into the Labour party – trade union link has two fundamental questions to consider. The first is whether trade unions should continue the practice of collective affiliation, and if so on what terms. The other is what role trade unions and their members should play within the Labour party.
Yesterday I suggested that there were a number of options on which the principle of collective affiliation could rest. But I suggested that the best option is the one currently operating, which is that it is up to each trade union to determine the basis of its own affiliation.
As explained last week, most of the affiliated unions now affiliate on a basis that bears some relationship to the number of members who pay the political levy. But most unions under-affiliate. They do so out of respectfor those members who do not support Labour; and also to keep some cash for their own campaigns.
But what about the second question – the role that trade union members should play within the party? Since the clause IV debate in 1994, the rise of New Labour, and the emergence of Progress, the trade union voice has been gradually side-lined, and union leaders rightly feel that they are not being heard.
In my view the Collins review presents trade unions with the opportunity to re-assert their role within the Party. A blueprint was prepared six years ago by an unofficial independent commission on Labour Party Democracy convened by Labour party activist Peter Kenyon, in which trade unions took part.
Indeed not only did unions take part, but all of the existing ‘big five’ at the time took part, each represented by very senior officials. Other members of the Commission were drawn from the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, and another is now an MP.
Chaired initially by Michael Meacher MP and subsequently by Angela Eagle MP, the Commission proposed – among other things in a tight 58 page interim report – a 10 point Charter of Members’ Rights. This would give Labour party members rights of a wide and varied kind in relation to party organization.
These include the right to select parliamentary and other candidates, participate in policy development, select the party’s representatives for appointment to the House of Lords, have access to party financial information, and to complain about unconstitutional or unethical behaviourto a party Ombudsman.
One failing of that Commission (of which I was a member) was that it neglected to spell out the role of political levy paying members of affiliated unions in these different processes. The Collins’ review should fill that void, as a catalyst to democratize the party in a way that is progressive and inclusive.
So what role should unions want for their levy-paying members from the Collins’ review? How about starting with (i) the right of access to party finances (to reflect the right they have to their union’s finances), and (ii) the right to take part in the selection of party candidates?
And how about (iii) allowing union levy paying members to vote with party members for House of Lords nominations, and (iv) giving levy-paying members the right to take part in a meaningful policy development process, by restoring the authority of Conference and abolishing the ridiculous National Policy Forum?
While we are at it, post-Falkirk, who can now say that a Party Ombudsman is a bad idea? Here was a recommendation that is becoming all the more compelling as the Falkirk drama unfolds, with Tom Watson’s most recent revelations only the latest in a lamentable tale of party mis-management, if not worse.
But for Collins the big issue is of course candidate selection, an issue now linked with the idea of ‘primaries’. Primaries are of two kinds – open (whereby anyone on the electoral register can have a vote to selecta Labour party candidate), and closed (whereby only party members or supporters can have a vote).
Open primaries are used extensively for candidate selection in the United States, but have no place here, except perhaps in safe seats. But as a general principle, it would be nuts to allow the supporters of other parties to choose a Labour party candidate, for reasons that ought not to need explanation.
Nor is there much to be said for closed primaries if byclosed primaries it is meant that registered Labour party supporters should be permitted to take part. There would certainly be no justification for allowing such supporters to participate on equal terms with fully paid up party members.
This is not to deny, however, that the system of candidate selection needs to be opened up. But the best way this could be done would be formally to enfranchise trade union members who pay the political levy in their union. They should have a vote in the selection of the Labour candidate where they live.
The problem here of course is that the levy paying member only pays £3 annually, while the individual member pays £44.50. It would be hard to argue that both categories should have equal rights on this model, even though there are at least 10 times a many trade unionists affiliated as there are full members.
The answer is surely that on this model, there should be an electoral college in every constituency in which 50% of the votes are assigned to party members, and 50% of the votes are assigned to trade union members resident in the constituency who pay the political levy.
Similarly with the House of Lords, until such time as it is abolished, replaced or reformed. An electoral college could be created in which half the votes are assigned to party members and the other half to the political levy paying trade union members, in what could be national or regional party constituencies.
But whatever happens it is essential that trade unions stay and fight. If we go down the Miliband route of atomized associate membership of the party by individual trade unionists, this will not only lead inexorably to an even further decline in union influence in the party, but to their exclusion altogether.
The risk is that to appease and placate the leadership in the run up to the election, we give it what it wants. Suppose Labour then wins the election. It is quite possible that one of the new government’s early moves will be to ‘re-arrange’ the system of State funding for political parties.
What then for the Labour Party – trade union link? But let’s suppose that Labour does not win the next election? This is an outcome not as implausible as some may think. How many trade unionists at that point will want to be ‘associate members’ (or indeed any kind of member) of the Labour party?
What then for the Labour party?
Keith Ewing is professor of public law at King’s College, London. This article first appeared on Left Futures.
Ed Miliband’s plans to dilute the role of trade unions in the Labour Party are already encountering strong resistance from activists.
Senior trade unionists have spoken out against the proposals and a campaign has recently been launched to Defend the Link, with an inaugural public meeting at Conway Hall on September 3.
The task of redefining and diluting the trade union role has been given to Lord Collins of Highbury, who will be presenting a consultation paper to the Labour conference in September with some initial thoughts. The final blow will be delivered in the conference in the spring.
There are already legitimate complaints that the consultation period is too short and that there is too great a rush for something so important and so historic.
But like it or not the clock is ticking down and trade unions and constituency Labour parties will need to get their tackle in order for the fight ahead.
There are two questions that we will need to confront, the first being the nature of the future relationship unions are to have with the Labour Party and the second being the nature of the influence unions have in any new settlement.
So far as the future of the relationship is concerned, there are many options that could be put before Lord Collins. This is because there have been so many inquiries in the recent past set up to break or redefine the link between the unions and Labour.
The bad news for Lord Collins is that they all failed in the face of united union resistance.
The first option is the status quo. Trade unions as collective entities are members of the Labour Party, with each union deciding the nature and intensity of its relationship.
Most affiliate on the basis of the number of members who pay the political levy, but many under-affiliate.
Those who under-affiliate usually do so for two reasons – first to respect the fact that not all levy-paying members support the Labour Party, though they are happy to contribute to their union’s other political work. And second, in order to retain some funds for independent political campaigning.
This is an option that may look increasing alluring to Miliband.
But given that he may have talked himself out of it, the second option is the “Hayden Phillips option” after the civil servant who was tasked by Tony Blair after the cash-for-honours scandal in 2006 to clean up party funding.
Under this option unions would affiliate on the basis of everyone who pays the levy, and would make clear on their membership application forms that the political levy is used to support Labour.
There would then be informed consent. Those who objected would be free to opt out of paying the political levy altogether.
This is not attractive to affiliated trade unions, which brings us to the third option – ”Hayden Phillips-plus” whereby a union would affiliate on the basis of everyone who pays the levy, except for those who tick a box to indicate that they do not want their levy to be used for parliamentary representation.
In this case the political levy of these members would go into a general political fund to be used for the other campaigning political purposes of the union.
Again there would be informed consent, in the sense that the right-wing media could not say that members’ money was being used without their knowledge or against their wishes.
In my view these are the only acceptable options, with my preference being for the first in the interests of trade union freedom, and the third being a possible option only if it was felt necessary to compromise with the Labour leadership. There are, however, two other options on the table, both of which should be binned.
The first of these other options is the “Kelly option” named after the chairman of the committee on standards in public life, which looked at party funding in 2011.
Here, a union would affiliate to the Labour Party only those members who ticked a box to say that they want their political levy to be used for Labour Party affiliation.
Under the Kelly option, levy-paying members would have to “contract in” to Labour Party affiliation if they were in favour, unlike the “Hayden Phillips-plus” option whereby levy paying members would have to “contract out” if they were against affiliation. It is the beginning of individualisation.
Under the Kelly option trade unions would be reduced to no more than collecting agencies for Labour, with the money to be handed over automatically.
If a member did not contract in to Labour Party affiliation, their political levy would go to the general political fund to be used for other political purposes.
The unions rightly rejected the Kelly option, which offends common sense.
So does the final option, the so-called “Miliband option” which takes the process of individualisation to its logical conclusion by suggesting that unions can affiliate collectively only on the basis of those members who are themselves associate party members.
The Miliband option represents a fundamental change in the structure of the party and its relationship to the trade unions.
Collective affiliation becomes of secondary importance – it is contingent on levels of Labour Party membership within the union, rather than total union members paying the levy.
As such it will inevitably weaken the trade union voice within the party, as millions of trade union levy-paying members decline the not so alluring opportunity to become members of the Labour Party, in whatever capacity.
The beauty of the status quo is that it enables workers to engage with Labour vicariously rather than directly.
For many that is enough. And it ought to be respected. Apart from anything else, insisting that trade union levy payers must also become members of the party will lead inexorably to small and declining levels of union affiliation and the unsustainability of existing party structures.
Unions are rightly concerned that the existing structures have not delivered sufficiently radical policies.
But in my view the answer to that lies not in diluting our voice within the Labour Party, but in making better use of these structures so that they are more responsive to trade union demands.
The Collins review provides an opportunity for trade unions to strengthen rather than weaken these procedures, of reinforcing the link rather than breaking it.
But it will not happen if we allow the principle of collective affiliation to be significantly diluted.
Stick with option one and be prepared to settle on option three.
Keith Ewing is professor of public law at King’s College, London. This article first appeared on Left Futures.