Unions have a say, but do not hold balance of power in leadership

If you pays your moneys to Labour, you shoulds be able to makes your choices.

Trade unions do not hold the balance of power in the Labour leadership election, as Rachel Sylvester argues in today's Times. The last time Labour's electoral college (MPs, members and affiliates) went to the polls, Harriet Harman won the vote despite not receiving a single union nomination.

Sylvester is right to argue that the leadership candidates are in danger of looking inward rather than reaching out to the voters they must win backm but that has nothing to do with the voting system Labour is using. In fact, the involvement of more than three million people who pay to be affiliated members of the Labour Party makes the contest more open than simply having 140,000 members balloted or allowing 250 MPs to decide.

Sylvester bemoans that some people can vote five times by virtue of being an MP, if they are also a member of a union and the Co-Op and the Fabian Society. But Sylvester herself could have four of those votes just by paying £50 or so in annual subs. If you pay your money, you should be able to make your choice.

Turnout is low in the union section, but because so many have the opportunity to be involved, participation is high. Nominations do matter, but ultimately it is a membership ballot and not a block vote. It is likely that many of the smaller unions may not even nominate this time round because the more moderate leaderships fear their more militant executives may back Diane Abbott.

Their toy lollipops

Last week, David Miliband scored a major victory over Andy Burnham by securing the endorsement of Usdaw. Last time, it backed Hazel Blears; and as Usdaw is the only union HQ based in Burnham's north-west stronghold, it will be a big disappointment for him.

That said, David Miliband is unlikely to get many more union nominations, and yet he, like Harman last time, is likely to poll better among union members. Could Burnham pull off the big nomination from Unison, as the then health secretary, Alan Johnson, did last time?

There is a myth that Jon Cruddas swept the union section last time but he secured only the Unite nomination. That success came with serious organisational support in the shape of a phone-bank tele-canvassing members.

This was innovative in 2007 but is now the mainstay of any serious campaign. David Miliband has activists phone-banking already. It does seem that the Unite nomination is up for grabs, with collective rights (the rules governing recognition agreements and strike ballots) the issue that matters most to the Unite executive.

Perhaps the most controversial nomination last time was that of the Communication Workers Union (CWU), because its conference delegates actually overturned the executive's nomination and backed Peter Hain. The CWU is a single-issue union with privatisation of the Post Office its dominant concern. Whoever offers the strongest reassurance (Diane Abbott?) is likely to win the nomination.

The GMB conference in Southport hosted the first hustings, though Ed Balls didn't make it until the second day because of parliamentary commitments. Its membership illustrates another often overlooked aspect of union politics: Sylvester complains that 61 per cent of members are employed in the public sector, but many GMB, Unite and, to a lesser extent, Unison members are employed by private-sector providers performing contracted-out public services.

The big cross-cutting concern for union members at the moment, however, is pensions. If the leadership candidates want to get ahead in the game, they should be looking to pre-empt John Hutton's pensions review and make some reform recommendations of their own. At the very least, they should challenge Hutton's review by putting down some red lines.

The Tories clearly view pensions as a bargaining chip to use with the unions, Richard Balfe actually telling the Telegraph:

Public-sector pensions will clearly be a very significant issue in the wider relationship between the government and the unions . . . Public-sector pensions are like lollipops for kids.

Far more sensible discussions will need to happen over the future of public-sector pensions, and Labour's leadership candidates are well placed to lead that debate.

Richard Darlington is head of the Open Left project at Demos

Richard Darlington is Head of News at IPPR. Follow him on Twitter @RDarlo.

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Rarely has it mattered so little if Manchester United won; rarely has it been so special they did

Team's Europa League victory offers chance for sorely needed celebration of a city's spirit.

Carlo Ancelotti, the Bayern Munich manager, memorably once said that football is “the most important of the least important things”, but he was only partly right. While it is absolutely the case that a bunch of people chasing around a field is insignificant, a bunch of people chasing around a field is not really what football is about.

At a football match can you set aside the strictures that govern real life and freely scream, shout and cuddle strangers. Football tracks life with such unfailing omnipresence, garnishing the mundane with regular doses of drama and suspense; football is amazing, and even when it isn’t there’s always the possibility that it’s about to be.

Football bestows primal paroxysms of intense, transcendent ecstasy, shared both with people who mean everything and people who mean nothing. Football carves out time for people it's important to see and delivers people it becomes important to see. Football is a structure with folklore, mythology, language and symbols; being part of football is being part of something big, special, and eternal. Football is the best thing in the world when things go well, and still the best thing in the world when they don’t. There is nothing remotely like it. Nothing.

Football is about community and identity, friends and family; football is about expression and abandon, laughter and song; football is about love and pride. Football is about all the beauty in the world.

And the world is a beautiful place, even though it doesn’t always seem that way – now especially. But in the horror of terror we’ve seen amazing kindness, uplifting unity and awesome dignity which is the absolute point of everything.

In Stockholm last night, 50,000 or so people gathered for a football match, trying to find a way of celebrating all of these things. Around town before the game the atmosphere was not as boisterous as usual, but in the ground the old conviction gradually returned. The PA played Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, an Ajax staple with lyrics not entirely appropriate: there is plenty about which to worry, and for some every little thing is never going to be alright.

But somehow the sentiment felt right and the Mancunian contingent joined in with gusto, following it up with “We’ll never die,” – a song of defiance born from the ashes of the Munich air disaster and generally aired at the end of games, often when defeat is imminent. Last night it was needed from the outset, though this time its final line – “we’ll keep the red flag flying high, coz Man United will never die" – was not about a football team but a city, a spirit, and a way of life. 

Over the course of the night, every burst of song and even the minute's silence chorused with that theme: “Manchester, Manchester, Manchester”; “Manchester la la la”; “Oh Manchester is wonderful”. Sparse and simple words, layered and complex meanings.

The match itself was a curious affair. Rarely has it mattered so little whether or not United won; rarely has it been so special that they did. Manchester United do not represent or appeal to everyone in Manchester but they epitomise a similar brilliance to Manchester, brilliance which they take to the world. Brilliance like youthfulness, toughness, swagger and zest; brilliance which has been to the fore these last three days, despite it all.

Last night they drew upon their most prosaic aspects, outfighting and outrunning a willing but callow opponent to win the only trophy to have eluded them. They did not make things better, but they did bring happiness and positivity at a time when happiness and positivity needed to be brought; football is not “the most important of the least important things,” it is the least important of the most important things.

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