Labour-union link in dangerous waters
By Martin Thomas
The Labour Party will hold a special conference on 1 March at ExCeL in London. The Labour leadership will put proposals to carry through some version of Ed Miliband’s call, in July 2013, to change the relationship between trade unionists and the Labour Party.
Ray Collins, who is charged with drafting the detailed proposals, had suggested that he would present his conclusions before Christmas. Now it looks as if the detailed draft may be much more delayed, maybe even after the Labour Party National Executive meeting on 4 February.
This is good insofar as it reflects opposition from the trade unions to messing around with links on which the party’s strength, vitality, and claim to be a party of labour have depended ever since the Labour Party’s foundation in 1900.
It is bad insofar as it means that the conference is likely to face a take-it-or-leave-it vote on a package presented at the last minute.
The Defend The Link campaign met on 22 January and decided to produce and mail out to CLPs etc., as quickly as possible, a leaflet expounding and explaining the “red lines” on the issue of trade unionists’ relation to the Labour Party.
The representation of the unions as collectives within the Labour Party – 50% of the votes at conference, places on the Executive and the National Policy Forum, the right to send union branch delegates to local Labour Parties – must remain unabridged.
Unions must not have rule changes forced on them from outside. And especially not rule changes designed to reduce unions’ affiliation numbers and thus to prepare the ground for a future reduction in union voting-power within the Labour Party. Collins’s interim report, last autumn, hinted strongly at such reduction, and many Labour right-wingers openly campaign for reduction.
Defend The Link will also mount an electronic campaign when we know what the Collins proposals will be. It is encouraging Labour Party members to get visitor tickets for the special conference on 1 March (see http://www.labour.org.uk/specialconference: the deadline for applying for tickets is 7 February), and developing plans for a presence at the conference.
The Campaign for Labour Party Democracy executive is meeting on 23 January, and may supplement these plans with additional activity.
Ed Miliband’s call was initially motivated on claims of misdeeds by the Unite union in Falkirk constituency Labour Party. Since then both a police inquiry and a Labour Party inquiry have found that Unite has no case to answer. However, Ed Miliband, or some around him, seem intent on making change of some sort.
The Executive of the Unite union, meeting in December, voted to oppose any reduction of union representation within the Labour Party, and also to oppose plans mooted by Collins for “primaries” (ballots of the general public) to choose Labour candidates and for restricting unions’ right to select where they set up Constituency Development Plans to aid local Labour Parties.
The leaders of all the other big unions have said that they see no case for weakening union input into the Labour Party. Paul Kenny, general secretary of the GMB union and chair of TULO, the consortium of Labour-affiliated unions, spoke on those lines at the regular Labour Party conference last autumn.
However, there seems to be a serious risk of a dangerous deal being done late in the day.
A formula of some sort is said to have been negotiated between Ray Collins and Paul Kenny. It hasn’t “stuck”. A number of the unions most vocal in defence of union input into the Labour Party are unhappy with it; so are some people in Ed Miliband’s office.
Details are scarce, and information is confusing. Some unions have been told that the formula implies no compulsion to change their union rules; others are angry because they see the formula as forcing them to change their rules. Ray Collins is said to have told Ed Miliband’s office that all the unions would accept the formula except Unite; the story inside Unison is that it was Unison which said no.
The best guess, and it is only a guess, is that the formula under discussion would not reduce union voting-power in the Labour Party immediately, but would be designed to reduce affiliation numbers.
It is said that unions will not have to question all existing political-levy payers and cancel their payments to Labour unless the individuals explicitly say they want to continue. But the formula is said to include some form of standard question on membership forms for new recruits asking whether they want part of their political levy to go to Labour.
Collins’s formula is said to have included a change on Labour leader elections: in future they would be one-person-one-vote in an electorate including individual Labour Party members and trade-unionists paying a political levy to Labour, on an equal basis, with no special extra vote for MPs and no electoral college.
That would be a positive change, but seems to have been designed as a “sweetener” for nastier content.
It would have been better if this whole exercise had been scrapped way back, and Labour were instead focused on campaigning against the Tories.
From where we are now, the priority is to alert labour-movement opinion so that some specious formula is not slipped through at the last minute with most activists having little information or chance to discuss.
Local labour movement activists are encouraged to set up local Defend The Link “working groups” which will busy themselves with distributing the Defend The Link leaflets and offering speakers to local Labour Parties and branches of affiliated trade unions.