The Labour leadership contest and the unions

The candidates talk to the NS Trade Union Guide about funding, cuts, and the future of the labour mo

In our Trade Union Guide this week, all five Labour leadership candidates answer questions on the role of the unions in today's political landscape.

Ed Miliband may have acquired the most formal union endorsements, but all five are keen to emphasise the importance of the future relationship between the Labour party and union members, and their own role in it.

The candidates' attitudes to how party and unions should be linked reveal certain key differences between the candidates: predictably, Diane Abbott sees the unions as central to ensuring that "the voice of working people stays at the heart of Labour's vision for the future", while both David and Ed Miliband are more circumspect, Ed even going as far to say that the party and the unions "will not agree on every issue, but the link is essential".

On the financial relationship between the party and the unions, we see the same wariness from David Miliband, who says "the link between Labour and the unions isn't a transaction - it is a living, breathing relationship that rests on a shared vision of a good society." By contrast, both Diane Abbott and Ed Balls tackled this issue head on, expressing their belief that union contributions give the Labour party a transparent funding model, or as Balls put it, freeing the party from dependence on "tax-dodging billionaires like the Tories have done".

All five belong to at least one union, with Diane Abbott keen to point out that she is the only one to have "front-line experience" of actually working for a union -- she served as an equality officer for the film technicians' union ACTT in 1986. But Andy Burnham cited his first-hand experience of the miners' strike of 1984-5 as the event that really "politicised" him as a 14-year-old, inspiring him to pursue a political career.

In a further attempt to distance herself from her opponents (to whom she has previously referred as "geeky young men in suits"), Abbott responded to the question "what have you done for the unions?" by highlighting her support for the Agency Worker Directive and the Trade Union Freedom Bill. Her fellow candidates all chose instead to highlight measures they had implemented while in the cabinet that created jobs or protected pensions.

The Trade Union Congress (TUC) has today approved plans for co-ordinated strike action in protest at spending cuts, but Ed Balls was the only one to even allude to his opinion on this, giving the following advice to the TUC:

"Unions must stick together, carry the public with them and always build for the future."

Addressing the Congress today, TUC general secretary Brendan Barber was strident in his condemnation of the government's cuts:

"When ministers talk about progressive cuts, and tell us 'we're all in it together', let us expose this for the insulting claptrap that it is. Let's be clear about this: cuts always hit the poorest, most vulnerable, most disadvantaged people.

"This year's election did not give anybody a clear mandate to start slashing public spending. But what we've now got is not just a coalition government, but a demolition government."

With such rhetoric flying in the air, the new leader is going to have to work hard and early to forge an amicable partnership with the unions. The chances of a new and "symbiotic relationship" (as Andy Burnham put it) between unions and party will very quickly fade away if the new leader's opposition to the autumn spending review is not to the TUC's liking.

Read the full interviews with the candidates in the Trade Union Guide here.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

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Hannan Fodder: This week, Daniel Hannan gets his excuses in early

I didn't do it. 

Since Daniel Hannan, a formerly obscure MEP, has emerged as the anointed intellectual of the Brexit elite, The Staggers is charting his ascendancy...

When I started this column, there were some nay-sayers talking Britain down by doubting that I was seriously going to write about Daniel Hannan every week. Surely no one could be that obsessed with the activities of one obscure MEP? And surely no politician could say enough ludicrous things to be worthy of such an obsession?

They were wrong, on both counts. Daniel and I are as one on this: Leave and Remain, working hand in glove to deliver on our shared national mission. There’s a lesson there for my fellow Remoaners, I’m sure.

Anyway. It’s week three, and just as I was worrying what I might write this week, Dan has ridden to the rescue by writing not one but two columns making the same argument – using, indeed, many of the exact same phrases (“not a club, but a protection racket”). Like all the most effective political campaigns, Dan has a message of the week.

First up, on Monday, there was this headline, in the conservative American journal, the Washington Examiner:

“Why Brexit should work out for everyone”

And yesterday, there was his column on Conservative Home:

“We will get a good deal – because rational self-interest will overcome the Eurocrats’ fury”

The message of the two columns is straightforward: cooler heads will prevail. Britain wants an amicable separation. The EU needs Britain’s military strength and budget contributions, and both sides want to keep the single market intact.

The Con Home piece makes the further argument that it’s only the Eurocrats who want to be hardline about this. National governments – who have to answer to actual electorates – will be more willing to negotiate.

And so, for all the bluster now, Theresa May and Donald Tusk will be skipping through a meadow, arm in arm, before the year is out.

Before we go any further, I have a confession: I found myself nodding along with some of this. Yes, of course it’s in nobody’s interests to create unnecessary enmity between Britain and the continent. Of course no one will want to crash the economy. Of course.

I’ve been told by friends on the centre-right that Hannan has a compelling, faintly hypnotic quality when he speaks and, in retrospect, this brief moment of finding myself half-agreeing with him scares the living shit out of me. So from this point on, I’d like everyone to keep an eye on me in case I start going weird, and to give me a sharp whack round the back of the head if you ever catch me starting a tweet with the word, “Friends-”.

Anyway. Shortly after reading things, reality began to dawn for me in a way it apparently hasn’t for Daniel Hannan, and I began cataloguing the ways in which his argument is stupid.

Problem number one: Remarkably for a man who’s been in the European Parliament for nearly two decades, he’s misunderstood the EU. He notes that “deeper integration can be more like a religious dogma than a political creed”, but entirely misses the reason for this. For many Europeans, especially those from countries which didn’t have as much fun in the Second World War as Britain did, the EU, for all its myriad flaws, is something to which they feel an emotional attachment: not their country, but not something entirely separate from it either.

Consequently, it’s neither a club, nor a “protection racket”: it’s more akin to a family. A rational and sensible Brexit will be difficult for the exact same reasons that so few divorcing couples rationally agree not to bother wasting money on lawyers: because the very act of leaving feels like a betrayal.

Or, to put it more concisely, courtesy of Buzzfeed’s Marie Le Conte:

Problem number two: even if everyone was to negotiate purely in terms of rational interest, our interests are not the same. The over-riding goal of German policy for decades has been to hold the EU together, even if that creates other problems. (Exhibit A: Greece.) So there’s at least a chance that the German leadership will genuinely see deterring more departures as more important than mutual prosperity or a good relationship with Britain.

And France, whose presidential candidates are lining up to give Britain a kicking, is mysteriously not mentioned anywhere in either of Daniel’s columns, presumably because doing so would undermine his argument.

So – the list of priorities Hannan describes may look rational from a British perspective. Unfortunately, though, the people on the other side of the negotiating table won’t have a British perspective.

Problem number three is this line from the Con Home piece:

“Might it truly be more interested in deterring states from leaving than in promoting the welfare of its peoples? If so, there surely can be no further doubt that we were right to opt out.”

If there any rhetorical technique more skin-crawlingly horrible, than, “Your response to my behaviour justifies my behaviour”?

I could go on, about how there’s no reason to think that Daniel’s relatively gentle vision of Brexit is shared by Nigel Farage, UKIP, or a significant number of those who voted Leave. Or about the polls which show that, far from the EU’s response to the referendum pushing more European nations towards the door, support for the union has actually spiked since the referendum – that Britain has become not a beacon of hope but a cautionary tale.

But I’m running out of words, and there’ll be other chances to explore such things. So instead I’m going to end on this:

Hannan’s argument – that only an irrational Europe would not deliver a good Brexit – is remarkably, parodically self-serving. It allows him to believe that, if Brexit goes horribly wrong, well, it must all be the fault of those inflexible Eurocrats, mustn’t it? It can’t possibly be because Brexit was a bad idea in the first place, or because liberal Leavers used nasty, populist ones to achieve their goals.

Read today, there are elements of Hannan’s columns that are compelling, even persuasive. From the perspective of 2020, I fear, they might simply read like one long explanation of why nothing that has happened since will have been his fault.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.