Labour: Miliband’s media-pleasing funding proposals
Falkirk shows the pro-capitalist dynamics at work in the Labour Party, writes Eddie Ford. But should the unions be urged to disaffiliate?
On one level the recent spat between Ed Miliband and the Unite union over Falkirk has been a storm in a teacup. Nothing to get too excited about. The Labour leader shows no inclination to smash or fatally undermine the union link. After all, he cannot afford - quite literally - to simply turn his back on the 15 trade unions affiliated to Labour that provide an annual source of income of about £8.2 million. In turn, Unite general secretary Len McCluskey remarked on July 9 that he is “very comfortable” with some of the proposals being put forward by Miliband to “mend” the relationship between the unions and Labour. Like, for example, bringing an end to the current situation whereby the three million individual union members are automatically affiliated to Labour for a fee of £3 a year - instead, they will have to choose to ‘opt in’.
So far then, no shattering clause four-type moment. But on another and far more important level the row over who gets to be selected as the parliamentary candidate for a relatively obscure Scottish constituency was clearly about high politics and strategy. What is the nature of the Labour Party, what direction is it going in and how do we on the left relate to it when it comes to our theory and practice? If Marxists, supposedly the most advanced thinkers in the working class movement, do not have a correct orientation on such a fundamental issue then nothing of any lasting significance will be achieved.
What is more than obvious though is that large sections of the mainstream media have used Falkirk as an opportunity to attack the very idea of an organic link between the trade union movement and the Labour Party - portraying it as something inherently sinister. Hence the bizarre suggestion in a Financial Times editorial that Falkirk and the other constituencies that Unite are hoping to influence are the latter-day equivalent of a “rotten borough” - and just as ridiculous is the idea that Unite is engaged in “naked entryism” and “nefarious activities” (July 5).
Though the Financial Times, Daily Mail, Telegraph, etc seem have forgotten their history - or at least pretend to - the Labour Party began life as a federation. To participate one first had to be a member of a socialist society or an affiliated trade union. There was no individual membership of the Labour Party. According to the rules as exist today, unions are allowed to ‘bulk-buy’ Labour Party membership. Indeed, this is something Labour has positively encouraged and the unions - for anyone recruited locally - can quite legitimately pay the first year’s subscription fees to the party at a special introductory rate of £15 annually or £1.25 a month (hardly big money).1
So the idea that Unite was acting in a conspiratorial or ‘entryist’ fashion in Falkirk or anywhere else is a deliberately dishonest refusal to understand the Labour Party. Admittedly, it was alleged that Unite had signed up members to Labour without their prior knowledge or consent. However, the evidence for this seems scant, to say the least, which is why McCluskey has called for an independent inquiry - rejected by Miliband. Someone possessing a suspicious mind might think he did so because he knew what the outcome would be.
Anyhow, Unite’s preferred candidate for Falkirk, Karie Murphy, was hardly parachuted in - not something that could be said for many a New Labour careerist, as Len McCluskey has scathingly pointed out.2 A former nurse and then an office manager for Tom Watson, Labour’s former election coordinator, Murphy was due to appear on an all-women short list and would almost certainly have been selected with or without the extra members brought on board by Unite.
If anything, the real question was how Eric Joyce - the current sitting MP - ever got selected in the first place, given that Falkirk is the realm of traditional Labour. Joyce, on the other hand, is an unpleasant New Labour hack and an enthusiastic warmonger - who triggered the entire selection process by deciding to stand down at the next general election following his conviction for assaulting Tory MPs and a Labour whip in a well stocked House of Commons bar (not his only booze-related misdemeanour, it seems). Now Murphy has been suspended along with the constituency chairperson, Stephen Deans, and Watson has resigned from Labour’s front bench. Outrageously, the Falkirk row has been referred to the police - although it is difficult to imagine how any of the allegations against Unite could be regarded as criminal.
Still, regardless of the exact details surrounding Falkirk, the political demarcation lines could not be clearer. The attack dogs of the bourgeois press and those they serve hate the fact that the Labour Party remains some form of a bourgeois workers’ party, no matter how attenuated. They would prefer it if Labour was transformed along the lines of the Democratic Party in the United States (perhaps ill-advisedly from the overall perspective of maintaining bourgeois rule - after all, Labour’s link to the unions has played an important role in acting as a safety valve at times of acute class struggle).
Clearly there is a struggle going on inside the Labour Party. But it is not a traditional struggle between left and right, a struggle which used to see the trade union bloc vote giving power to the right. This time there is a struggle between the leadership of the Parliamentary Labour Party and a trade union bureaucracy that fears it has given too much ground for the sake of Labour’s acceptability to ‘public opinion’ (read media created opinion).
Cast your mind back to only last June, when Andy Newman - a Trotskyist turned semi-Stalinist who runs the fairly influential, but misnamed, Socialist Unity blog - moved a successful motion at the GMB conference to “monitor the factional activity” of Progress. The latter is, of course, the ultra-Blairite outfit founded in 1996 by Lord Mandelson (that should tell you everything) and is backed to the tune of hundreds of thousands every year by Lord Sainsbury of Turville. Essentially, Progress offers state-of-the-art in-housing grooming to those who are eager to climb the greasy pole of bourgeois politics.
Unfortunately, these are the sort of people who have entered the Labour Party in droves - talk about ‘entryism’ - and now constitute the vast majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Carefully chosen by the New Labour machine, it almost goes without saying that they are concerned above all with keeping their seats and winning at the next general election. Without that no career. So getting votes matters ... and those votes rely in no small measure on appealing to the newspaper proprietors who, because of the millions of pounds their publications get from big business in advertising, can influence the minds of millions of atomised people.
Once, of course, there was the labour movement and the influence it exerted over minds. But no more. Over the years both the Labour Party and the trade unions have been hollowed out. The unions have lost millions of members since the 1970s and most of those that remain do not attend branch meetings from this year to the next. As for the Labour Party, it has just one-fifth of the membership now compared to its 1950s peak. Affiliated union membership of the party has also shrunk, from 6.5 million in 1979 to below 2.7 million today. Something that Unite has noticed and wants to reverse - even before Pete Hain’s April 2011 Refounding Labour document. He exhorted the party to “seize” the first year in opposition to “reform” in order to reach out to the hundreds of thousands of people who are Labour ‘supporters’ but not ‘joiners’ and to the millions of voters it needs to “win back”.
Taking the lead in many respects, Unite came out against Progress in essence because it threatens to finally de-Labourise the Labour Party by eliminating all and any trade union power within its structures. The union claims to have changed the party rule book to seek to “end the discrimination” against working class candidates through the direct involvement of Unite, “without which” Progress or other rightwing candidates would have been selected. Thus the flyers sent out by Unite inviting its members to attend a meeting in Ilford and offering to pay for their first year of party membership. And, of course, the attempted selection of Murphy in Falkirk.
Progress is a viper’s nest and communists welcome Unite’s 11th hour attack on it. The openly pro-capitalist right should be driven out. However, first and foremost this should be done through an open political fight in front of the whole class, not by bureaucratic bans and proscriptions on the grounds that Progress is a ‘party within a party’ and a rightwing version of the old Militant Tendency - as distinctly implied by comrade Newman’s motion.
For our part, communists certainly think that Labour should be a federal party - meaning that it should permit and welcome the existence of different pro-socialist groups, tendencies and factions within it. If that makes them ‘parties within a party’, so be it. We want the open clash of competing and contending ideas - how else is the working class going to master politics and develop confidence? Yes, we look forward to a time when the ideas of Marxism are dominant within the Labour Party. But for that to happen will require a long and arduous struggle requiring many years of patient work.
Ed Miliband, to nobody’s great surprise, has decided to dance to the tune dictated by the mainstream press - which is telling him that Falkirk is the “defining” or historic” moment of his career. He has tried to prove that he is not a mere “union puppet”, as the FT put it. Stand up to Len McCluskey and other union barons, etc. If not, the story goes, Labour is bound to lose the next election.
Having said that, Miliband’s July 9 speech outlining his plans to reduce the already reduced power of the trade unions in the Labour Party pleased Tony Blair - and might have wrong footed David Cameron - by demanding a £5,000 cap on individual donations to political parties. Some of Miliband’s key proposals, apart from the end of automatic union affiliation, were also intended to be media pleasers. Eg, ‘codes of conduct’ for candidates in Labour selection contests; open primaries to be held for selection of the Labour candidate for the 2016 London mayor election and potentially other contests; consultation on the amount MPs can earn from ‘outside interests’ and rules to prevent ‘conflict of interest’, and a repeated call for all-party talks on capping donations to political parties. Resorting to hyperbole, Miliband claimed that changing the link with the unions would mean an end to “machine politics” and that what we saw in Falkirk was “part of the death throes of the old politics”.
Afterwards, McCluskey told the BBC that there was “no civil war” within the Labour movement and that Miliband’s speech “did not mention anything” about losing the political levy from unions - which “would stay as it is”. Instead, he argued, the Labour leader wants to add a “second option”, letting individual union members become associate members of Labour - allowing them to show a stronger commitment to the party. Paul Kenny, however, grimly predicted that Labour would lose more than 500,000 GMB members currently affiliated to the party under Miliband’s new ‘opt-in’ system - decrying the “very disappointing” and “insulting” language used by some within the party when discussing the unions.
The clash over Falkirk shows that the Labour Party remains a site of struggle. Therefore it would be foolish in the extreme to urge the trade unions to simply up and leave. Of course, that is exactly the position of Peter Taaffe and his Socialist Party in England and Wales. In response to Falkirk, SPEW declares that now is the “time to discuss the bold step of disaffiliation”, Falkirk demonstrating once again “the political transformation of Labour from a party based on workers, that had socialist aspirations, albeit with a pro-capitalist leadership, into a pro-big business party with similarities to the Democrats in the US”.3 Apparently, Labour is “unreformable” and ever since its leadership “accepted the free market” and dropped clause four (which “envisaged nationalisation and socialism”), it ceased to be a site for class mobilisation and struggle.
What is SPEW’s alternative for Unite and the unions in general? An “emergency executive council” should be called to discuss the crisis and pass a resolution for a “recall rules conference” which would remove the references to Labour Party affiliation, thereby “facilitating disaffiliation”. We further read that this conference should also “discuss political representation for the working class” - there should be meetings and conferences of trade unionists, from affiliated and non-affiliated unions, with the aim of “forming a new workers’ party” armed with a programme of fighting the cuts. In other words, unions should walk out of Labour and join the no-hope Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition. Comrades, this is a pathetic, delusional fantasy - it will never happen.
One more aspect of the ‘post-Falkirk’ politics that needs to be mentioned is the distinct possibility of red-baiting over the coming weeks and months. Not very difficult to work out how the story - and logic - will pan out. Red Ed is beholden to the trade unions and hence Red Len, and the latter is beholden to Red Andy - ie, Andrew Murray (no, not that one), Unite’s chief of staff and a member of the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain. Shock, horror.
In fact, there are signs of such a witch-hunt already. Never one to miss a reactionary trick, Andrew Rawnsley pontificated in The Observer about the “ideological agenda” of those firmly in favour of the link - pointing out that McCluskey “was a supporter of the Militant Tendency in the 1980s” and “his chief of staff is a member of the Communist Party” (July 7). Which is fine, Rawnsley generously remarked - if they want to present a different political choice to the country, then they are “perfectly entitled to support a party to the left of Labour or form one of their own”; they can even write a manifesto “detailing their vision of McCluskeyite socialism and see how many votes it attracts”. But what they are not entitled to do, he sternly lectured, is “use their funds to try to stuff the Labour parliamentary party with people obedient to a hard left agenda”.
Undoubtedly, there will be plenty more crap like this to come.
2. ‘Blairites manipulating Labour selection process’ and ‘Yes, Labour’s selection process has been abused, but not by the unions’ (The Guardian July 8).