Unite offers Miliband an olive branch, with clear red lines

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.

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