Unite and the Collins Report
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.