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.

Labour “opt-in” plan can be blocked

From Solidarity:

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.

Motion on Collins Review ASLEF Nottingham

If your branch, CLP or union branch passes a motion on defending the link then we want to know about it!

Contact marshajanethompson@yahoo.co.uk  or leave a comment on the website.

Nottingham ASLEF branch passed the following motion:

The Collins Review

This branch notes the contents of the Labour Party bulletin ‘Let’s build a better Labour Party, so we can build a better Britain’. It announces proposed changes to the relationship between the Labour Party and its affiliated trade unions which will be taken forward by the Collins Review. In the bulletin, the Labour leader Ed Milliband says, “I want to hear their [trade unionists who pay the political levy to Labour] voices louder and clearer than ever before. That means enabling the men and women in trade unions to make an active, individual choice on whether they become part of our party, not seeing them affiliated automatically.” He spins the proposed change to political levy paying from opting out to opting in as a move that will empower trade unionists in their dealings with the Labour Party. We should guage Milliband’s real commitment to empowering trade union members by recalling that when trade unionists in Falkirk West attempted to use that power it led to accusations of a crime being committed and the police being called.

This branch believes that the move from opting out to opting in will seriously weaken the Labour Party as it did when the Tories introduced it in 1927. We further note that the Labour Party has committed to maintain the coalition spending totals for 2015-16 if it is elected. These spending totals will mean more cuts in public services which will set the trade unions against a Labour government.

We believe that wishing to neutralise any fight by trade unions within the party (trade unions have 49% of the votes at LP conference) against Labour’s future austerity measures is the real reason why the Labour leadership is pushing to adopt this reform even though it might lead to bankrupting the party. Polls indicate that only 10% – 30% of current political levy payers would opt in to paying it. At that rate the Labour leadership could then reasonably argue that the share of union votes within LP structures should be likewise reduced.

This branch believes that it is trade union involvement that fundamentally differentiates the LP from the other main political parties and holds out the possibility of changing LP policy to benefit working people. We therefore call on our executive committee to oppose any changes that would reduce the influence that trade unions have within the LP, starting with the fight to maintain opt-out.

The Hidden Agenda behind the Collins Review

By Barry Gray and Peter Willsman (CLPD). This article originally appeared on Grassroots Labour.

In his Interim Report on Labour’s union link (‘Building a One Nation Labour Party’), Ray Collins makes it clear that once a new affiliation system is in place, ‘we would address consequences for other structures in the party, such as the Conference’.

At the moment the union and other affiliated organisations have 50 per cent of the vote at Conference and CLPs have the other 50 per cent. When this balance of voting was put in place a strong argument was accepted that it properly represented the two wings of the federation that makes up our Party. It means both the unions and CLPs have a decisive influence over any changes to the Rule Book and over all motions carried by Conference.

The unions’ role in Conference was resented by ‘New Labour’ during the last Labour government, because it is the key to their power in our Party. Both then, and continuing now, it is a ‘project’ on Labour’s right-wing to end the unions’ influence in our Party. The main internal obstacle to this ‘project’ is that with their 50 per cent share the unions’ votes are necessary to change the Rule Book.

So any reduction in the unions’ share of the Conference vote would be a huge step backwards. If the union vote went down to 33 per cent, one suggestion that has apparently been floated, trade union influence in politics would decline and the unions would loose the strength to stop future rule changes. The whole Party would suffer from the reduced engagement with working people.

A look at recent Party history emphasises the importance of the union vote at Conference. When Partnership in Power was introduced in 1997 the number of policy motion subjects at Conference was drastically reduced to only four, and it was further stipulated that these had to be ‘contemporary’. But Conference and the Party was assured that in future motions carried by Conference would be taken very seriously by the Parliamentary leadership.

Opinion polls at the time indicated CLP members and trade union members held broadly similar views, but this consensus was certainly not reflected in the votes at Conference. When moderate motions came forward seeking progressive policy change tense debates and votes took place on the conference floor. The whole party machine, including regional officials, was used to pressure CLP delegates to vote against these motions. CLP delegates were even taken out of the hall to meet government ministers, who implored them to oppose the motions. This had some influence on the CLP vote.

The difference between the way CLPs and unions cast their vote can be seen in the following table.


After such votes the press were often told the result somehow represented a ‘consumer’ v ‘producer’ split. The spin was of course entirely disingenuous, given that Conference’s decisions best defended the consumer’s interest in having cost effective, efficiently-run quality services.

When Gordon Brown took over as Leader he immediately proposed the replacement of ‘Contemporary Motions’ with ‘Contemporary Issues’. The latter would not be voted on by Conference and so contentious votes at the NEC and Conference would be avoided.

This arrangement was accepted for a few years, but proved unsatisfactory so ‘Contemporary Motions’ were bought back. But unlike in the past, there are no votes at the NEC and no card votes taking place at Conference. The motions are simply waved though unanimously.

In stark contrast with past practice, where policy carried by more than two thirds of the vote was considered for inclusion in the next manifesto, we often now get statements issued by shadow ministers pouring cold water on the significance of Conference’s vote.

Of course, when Labour is back in office Conference motions could well again become the focus of opposition if the government abandons the direction members and affiliates want it to follow. Then we would see heated debates at the NEC and card votes on the Conference floor.

The Party needs to address the issue of its staff interfering with CLP delegates voting, which still continues, as was seen in the CAC and NCC elections in Brighton this September.

The right-wing’s campaign to cut the unions’ share of Conference vote aims to reduce them to impotence and to remove the influence that Conference, the Party’s sovereign body, can exercise over a Labour government.

If the unions’ 50 per cent of Conference vote is given up, they will not be able to block future rule changes that attack the union link and they will loose the influence they have had in the Party since its Founding Conference in February 1900.

Defend the Link’s model response to the Collins Review

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.

Party-Union Link

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

CLP motion on the union link

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.

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.