Labour: Unions vote to be distanced
Delegate Charles Gradnitzer reports on Labour’s special conference
As readers will know, the Labour Party endorsed the Collins review at its special conference held in London on March 1. Collins requires trade unionists to “opt in” to become second-tier members of the Labour Party, introduces ‘one member, one vote’ for elections of the party leader, imposes primaries for the selection of the candidate for London mayor against the wishes of London Labour and requires “registered supporters” to pay a fee for the privilege.1
Nobody expected conference to be anything other than a rubber-stamping exercise to give the ‘reforms’ a democratic veneer. The apparatchiks of the Labour Party are such experts in stage-management and stitch-ups, they could make a lucrative career teaching theatre and haberdashery.
In the run-up to conference delegates received numerous letters from Ed Miliband urging us to vote for the reforms. One such letter told the story of Paul, a lifelong trade unionist and figment of Miliband’s imagination, who finally joined the Labour Party after the reforms were announced - on the basis that “until now the party never felt democratic. It never felt like one I could join.” This anecdotal approach was commonplace throughout the entire affair.
One encouraging development before the conference had been the February Young Labour conference, which had narrowly voted to reject Collins. This came as a surprise to many, as Labour Students has often been dominated by rightwing careerists, and prompted Labour Party headquarters to issue a statement explaining that “some people may find change difficult to accept”.2
But there was no chance of that being repeated on March 1, despite the opposition of several groups which turned up outside the Excel Centre. Labour Party Marxists was amongst them, distributing our special bulletin.3 The Campaign for Labour Party Democracy had produced its usual Yellow Pages,4 which comrades from the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, Labour Representation Committee and Socialist Appeal were helping to distribute.
Surprisingly, a small contingent from the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition was also opposing the reforms. In a rather surreal scene the comrades - no doubt members of the Socialist Party in England and Wales - followed Ed Miliband in their dust masks, shouting, “Don’t let Labour silence the unions”, as he arrived.5
Inside the hall Miliband used his opening speech to attack the Conservative Party as a bunch of “out-of-touch toffs” and joked feebly that the Liberal Democrats would have their next conference in Nick Clegg’s local garden centre or a telephone box.6 And there were more of those anecdotes. We were told about Tracey, a union member and mother of three who had not voted in 20 years. She feels as though politics does not speak to her. Assuming she is not another figment of Miliband’s imagination or a product of his PR team, it was unclear exactly how these reforms were going to convince “Tracey” to vote for the party, let alone join it.
What his speech lacked was any logic or reason bridging the chasm between his truisms and the reforms he was asking us to vote for. It is perfectly true, for example, that movements change things and that it was the labour movement that won workers’ rights at the beginning of the 20th century, but it was not explained how completely ending collective affiliation or imposing primaries for the London mayoral selection would build on those achievements.
But, of course, making Labour part of a vibrant mass movement is the last thing Miliband wants to do. And his nod in the direction of the party’s reformist past was at odds with his assertion that he found support for nationalisation “worrying”. Even though polls show 70% support for renationalisation of the utility companies and the railways7 and such a policy was passed unanimously at the 2013 Labour conference, it is clear that, in a tradition stretching back to the 1924 Ramsay MacDonald government, this policy will be ignored by the parliamentary party on the ostensible grounds that Labour needs to show that it is “fit to govern”.8
Fair and balanced
When Miliband had finished, a point of order was raised by a CLPD supporter - who was booed and jeered, as she walked up to the rostrum - presumably for exercising her basic democratic right. She asked why there had been no conference arrangements committee report and what had happened to the emergency motions that had been submitted by several CLPs calling for the review to be taken in parts.9
Angela Eagle replied from the chair to the effect that the CAC had met in January, and immediately asked, “Can we please move on?” - to the enthusiastic applause of many. Clearly if the CAC met in January, then it would not have been able to consider submitted motions or actually do any arranging, as the Collins review was not published till February.
Speakers were called in rounds of three and the first six were all in favour of Collins. Their speeches were obviously well rehearsed and followed the same disjointed, truism-cum-‘support the reforms’ pattern of Miliband’s speech.
Several union general secretaries walked up to the rostrum to urge delegates to vote in favour. They included Paul Kenny (GMB), who not eight months ago had opposed the reforms on the Today programme.10 He was followed by Dave Prentis (Unison), Len McCluskey (Unite), John Hannett (Usdaw) and Tosh McDonald (Aslef), who all praised Miliband and called for a Labour victory in 2015.
Eventually Angela Eagle asked those opposed to the reforms to indicate if they wanted to speak, but, despite her promise of a balanced debate and the comparatively large number who had indicated, only six out of 27 people called from the floor were opposed to the review. They included Pete Firmin, political secretary of the Labour Representation Committee, who has written a report of the conference for the LRC website,11 and Dame Margaret Beckett.
Steve Brown argued that the way to win mass support for the Labour Party was through having “good policies”, such as renationalisation, while Richard Johnson said that the move to an opt-in system could lead to a £7 million shortfall in party funding, which could only be mitigated by state funding and so would be unpopular with the electorate.
When it came to the vote, 96% of the affiliates (mainly trade unions) and 74% of the Constituency Labour Parties voted in favour of the reforms, giving a total of 86.29% in favour and 13.71% against.
The closing speech was delivered by Leicester South MP Jon Ashworth, who congratulated Angela Eagle on her “fair and balanced” chairing. Though laughable, this was hardly surprising, coming from a man who was once national secretary of Labour Students.
Reclaim the unions
The opt-in system was originally introduced by the Tories in the 1927 Trade Disputes and Trade Unions Act in order to damage the Labour Party and was finally repealed in 1945 by the Attlee government. It resulted in an 18% decrease in party funding.12 Which begs the question: is the Labour Party committing financial suicide? The answer to that perhaps lies in the timetable.
The Collins review establishes an implementation group to oversee the reforms. The timetable given for the transition from ‘opt-out’ to ‘opt-in’ for the unions is five years - well after the next general election. However, if in 2015 Labour is unable to secure state funding for political parties by forming a government either alone or in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, who also support state funding,13 then the whole thing could be dropped.
The other question is, why did the unions overwhelmingly vote to end collective affiliation? Christine Shawcroft, in her report of the national executive meeting that endorsed Collins, said: “I believe that several trade union delegates opposed the report, but felt that they were in a difficult position: as their general secretaries had negotiated the proposals, they didn’t feel they were able to vote against.”
The union bureaucrats were always going to come to a compromise. They were never going to vote against. This is hardly in the interests of their members, as collective affiliation represented a progressive gain for the working class. Those arguing for Collins championed liberal individualism over collective decision-making. But, once a democratic decision has been made by a collective organisation - whether to collectively affiliate to a political party or vote for industrial action - there should be no right for individuals to opt out: ie, to scab, either politically or economically.
In an article entitled ‘Labour has betrayed its roots by distancing itself from the unions’14 Bianca Todd of Left Unity has argued that Labour is no longer the party that reflects trade union values, the party of people like her father, Ron Todd, the former general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union. Since it is now hopeless trying to “reclaim” the Labour Party, disenchanted members should join Left Unity instead.
Leaving aside the fact that the trade unions themselves block-voted for Labour to ‘distance itself’ from them, when has the party ever ‘reflected trade union values’, let alone acted in the class interests of workers? It was precisely because the Labour Party sought to become a respectable party of government, to demonstrate that it was “fit to govern”, that it has repeatedly “betrayed” the working class. Because it sought to manage capitalism (allegedly in the interests of the working class), it had no option but to behave in that way.
So the idea that a Labour Party mark two would behave differently is absurd - not that LU has any hope of becoming one. Left-of-Labour electoral projects come and go, but have never offered a real alternative; they merely promise the same thing - a ‘fairer’ capitalism, thanks to sensible Keynesian management. But how that will happen without Labour’s established voter base and trade union backing is anyone’s guess.
The Labour Party can be neither ‘reclaimed’ - it was never ours - nor sidestepped. Yes, it is possible for the union leaders to demand policies in the interests of their members, but that assumes that those leaders are accountable to their members in the first place. By winning control of our own organisations - first and foremost the unions - we could hope to transform Labour into a different sort of party. But the Labour question must be confronted head on; we cannot wish it away.
8. RN Kelly, J Cantrell Modern British statesmen 1867-1945 Manchester 1997, p149.
12. SJ Lee Aspects of British political history 1914-1995 Oxford 1996, pp94.
13. The Guardian September 6 2013.
14. The Guardian March 3 2014.