By Jon Lansman on Left Futures
The executive council of Unite the Union yesterday offered Ed Miliband a compromise in his efforts to “mend the link” between Labour and the trade unions, but also set out the red lines which it is not prepared to cross.
In a unanimous decision, it welcomed “any measures which increase the involvement of individual trade unionists in the Labour Party” and, as had been advocated by Len McCluskey from the start, specifically agreed Miliband’s proposal that “individual political levy paying members of trade unions be encouraged to ‘opt in’ to associate membership of the Labour Party as part of the drive to build a Party of mass membership.” However, it also insisted that collective affiliation of the trade unions should continue alongside the opting-in of individual levy-payers and that there should be no diminution of trade union voting strength or representation within Labour party structures.
Unite’s proposals argue that individual levy payers opting into associate membership should be able to vote in leadership elections (as they can now) and in the selection of parliamentary candidates (which they currently cannot). This last proposal goes some way towards Miliband’s idea of opening up selections beyond individual members of the party, but it rejects the idea of open primaries: “voting in selections must remain the prerogative of members and associate members.”
The proposals agreed by Unite’s executive have much in common with proposals which have been circulated by the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD) over recent months. These spell out in more detail how such a compromise might work.
There would be three categories of membership in place of the current two: alongside “affiliated members” (i.e. trade unions and socialist societies like the Fabians and Socialist Health Association) and individual members would be “associate members” – the new category for individual union levy-payers who “opted in”. Under this arrangement, wherever members of trade unions exercised their rights as individuals, they would do so as “associate members”, but where they exercised them collectively, they would do so as “affiliated members”.
Collective affiliation would be based not on the number of individual members who opted into Labour membership, but on their ‘weight’ as the most active and some of the largest voluntary organisations in Britain. Affiliation fees would be based on bands of membership (as is common practice for the affiliation of membership organisations to all sorts of bodies) – a proposal originally made by Martin Mayer who is a member of the national executives of both Unite and the Labour Party itself.
Finally, CLPD’s proposal envisages that the recruitment of associate members should not be a one-off exercise when the proposal is implemented or when members joining their trade unions. Instead it should be repeated whenever there is an opportunity for trade union members to participate in internal elections or selections within the party.
These proposals, whilst not severing the collective relationship with trade unions and widespread adoption of primaries advocated by Progress, do meet Ed Miliband’s aspiration to strengthen the relationship between the party and individual levy payers especially at a local level. It is now up to Ed Miliband to decide whether or not he wishes to reach an agreement on a way forward with the trade unions. If he doesn’t, since Unite’s decision brings it into line with virtually all other affiliated trade unions, he faces almost certain defeat at the special party conference on 1 March.
The Executive of the Unite union meets from 8 December. It will decide the union’s attitude on Ed Miliband’s drive to change union members’ Labour political-levy payments to “opt-in”.
Jim Kelly, chair of the London and eastern region of Unite, told the Guardian on 3 December: “Our executive has got to keep a collective voice, and that… has to be expressed through the block vote at a decision-making party conference where unions keep 50% of the vote….
“If unions stand together, with half the votes at Labour’s conference, and supported by many constituency parties worried about the severe threat to the party’s finances from Ed Miliband’s proposals, as well as the negative impact on the left within the party, then the link can be successfully defended.”
The United Left grouping, which holds a majority on the Unite Executive, met on Saturday 30 November. Unite general secretary Len McCluskey was to due to come to the meeting and speak about the “opt-in” issue, but didn’t show. Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner spoke instead.
Turner said that the “red line” issues are the same for all the affiliated unions, that the affiliated unions will put a common position to Ray Collins (who is charged by Miliband with working out details), and that he expects the Executive to ratify that stand.
Up to now, all the affiliated unions have opposed the “opt-in” plan outright — with the exception of a few maverick right-wing unions and… Unite. So Turner’s speech marked progress.
Collins is scheduled to finish consultations by 24 December and then produce proposals to go to a special Labour Party conference in the spring. It is certain that the proposals will include some fudge or face-saver, rather than be simply “no change”, but there is now a real chance of making the fudge relatively harmless.
The Guardian on 3 December carried a report based, as we understand it, on “leaks” from Collins’s discussions supplied by Blairites who fear too soft a fudge and hope through the leak to stir up pressure for hard proposals to weaken the union link.
Maybe trade unionists will be asked to “opt in” to the political levy, or not, only when joining the union, and existing payers will continue on the basis of “opt out”. Maybe plans will be eased in over five years.
The Guardian also reports that Collins backs the long-voiced demand of Labour right-wingers that the union vote at Labour Party conference be cut to below its present level of 50%. There is a danger of “opt-in” being introduced for new union members only, the number of levy-payers thus being gradually reduced, and that reduction being used to cut the vote.
“Defend The Link” is campaigning to keep the current level of union representation, and against rule-changes imposed on the unions from outside.