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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