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Nothing new about Labour-unions relations being controversial

Professor Andrew Thorpe reviews the history of the relationship between Labour and the trade unions.

Ed Miliband’s proposals to reform Labour party funding have been big news this week.

Miliband is reacting to events in Falkirk, where the Unite union is alleged to have tried to fix the selection of the parliamentary candidate for the next general election. In a speech on Tuesday he outlined various proposals to reform the party-union link.

There is nothing new about Labour-union relations being controversial, especially where money is concerned. The Labour party was formed in 1900 as a federation of trade unions and socialist societies, but the crucial movers were the unions, who wanted the party as a defence against attempts to place legal restrictions on trade union activity. Since then, the unions collectively have always played a major role in the Labour party, because they represented a large part of the electorate that Labour saw it as its job to represent. But they were never the sum total, and they were never able simply to ‘dominate’. Indeed, ‘the unions’ are not a monolith and have always had varying interests and concerns.

In the 1990s the main unions tended to take the view that what was needed above all was a Labour government and they therefore confined themselves to very specific issues like statutory right to recognition, the national minimum wage, etc. This began to change once Labour came to power and as it became clearer that it was likely to stay there for some time, and as New Labour began to reform public services after 2001. The Rail, Maritime and Transport union, led by Bob Crow, left the party altogether in 2004.

Some New Labour people would have liked to end the union link but this was resisted ideologically and emotionally. It was also financially unthinkable once other sources of funding began to dry up after 2000.

It is always possible to talk about crises but actually the relationship has been reasonably amicable in recent years. Pictures of union domination are overdrawn. In terms of the selection of candidates, criticism of the behaviour of Unite has to be set against the parachuting in of celebrity candidates in other seats.

And in any case, what Unite and others have tried to do – enlist more union members as active members of the Labour party – is in itself a good thing for anyone who wants to see active political parties, representing a wide range of people, as an essential component of a lively democracy. A fundamental issue is the current historically low level of working-class people in parliament and more broadly the narrowing of the political class. While the Unite scheme may be open to criticism, it was at least trying to address this fundamental problem that our democracy currently faces.

Today Miliband faces a problem that has faced every leader from Ramsay MacDonald onwards – how to behave in relation to the unions. Unions are not always an easy ‘sell’ politically. They are easily portrayed as sectional, supportive of workplace inefficiency, and ‘left wing’. There are also many people in society who are opposed to their fundamental aim of enhancing the life chances of ‘ordinary’ working people. Therefore Labour leaders often run in fear of being ‘soft’ on unions, and this in turn can lead them into being trapped, or trapping themselves, into situations where they end up trying to take the unions on in order the get electoral credibility. This worked for Blair in 1995 when he abolished Labour’s commitment to nationalisation. It worked less well for Callaghan in the winter of 1978-79, or for Wilson ‘In Place of Strife’, his plans to reform union law, in 1969.

The danger for Miliband is that in trying to satisfy the anti-union agenda of his opponents he will lose control of the debate and also lose support within his party. The opportunity, perhaps, is that by being ‘tough’ he can win over new supporters. But those new supporters are unlikely to remain supporters for very long if this is all he has to offer. It is interesting that Lord Whitty has refused the invitation to oversee the changes – seeing them as ‘unworkable’. Whitty is no fool, having been the party’s general secretary at a time of considerable positive reform under Neil Kinnock in the 1980s.

It is also noteworthy that the man who has been portrayed as the victim of the planned reforms – Len McClusky of Unite – has himself refused to fall into a trap. Instead of fulfilling the media stereotype – and the hopes of some of Miliband’s advisors – by coming out against the reforms with all guns blazing, he has welcomed the prospect of real reform. Trade union leaders often are, and always have been, much cannier political operators than the stereotypes allow. It is one reason why more of their members need to be in parliament.

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