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. She writes a weekly podcast column.

Ukip's Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall. Photo: Getty
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Is the general election 2017 the end of Ukip?

Ukip led the way to Brexit, but now the party is on less than 10 per cent in the polls. 

Ukip could be finished. Ukip has only ever had two MPs, but it held an outside influence on politics: without it, we’d probably never have had the EU referendum. But Brexit has turned Ukip into a single-issue party without an issue. Ukip’s sole remaining MP, Douglas Carswell, left the party in March 2017, and told Sky News’ Adam Boulton that there was “no point” to the party anymore. 

Not everyone in Ukip has given up, though: Nigel Farage told Peston on Sunday that Ukip “will survive”, and current leader Paul Nuttall will be contesting a seat this year. But Ukip is standing in fewer constituencies than last time thanks to a shortage of both money and people. Who benefits if Ukip is finished? It’s likely to be the Tories. 

Is Ukip finished? 

What are Ukip's poll ratings?

Ukip’s poll ratings peaked in June 2016 at 16 per cent. Since the leave campaign’s success, that has steadily declined so that Ukip is going into the 2017 general election on 4 per cent, according to the latest polls. If the polls can be trusted, that’s a serious collapse.

Can Ukip get anymore MPs?

In the 2015 general election Ukip contested nearly every seat and got 13 per cent of the vote, making it the third biggest party (although is only returned one MP). Now Ukip is reportedly struggling to find candidates and could stand in as few as 100 seats. Ukip leader Paul Nuttall will stand in Boston and Skegness, but both ex-leader Nigel Farage and donor Arron Banks have ruled themselves out of running this time.

How many members does Ukip have?

Ukip’s membership declined from 45,994 at the 2015 general election to 39,000 in 2016. That’s a worrying sign for any political party, which relies on grassroots memberships to put in the campaigning legwork.

What does Ukip's decline mean for Labour and the Conservatives? 

The rise of Ukip took votes from both the Conservatives and Labour, with a nationalist message that appealed to disaffected voters from both right and left. But the decline of Ukip only seems to be helping the Conservatives. Stephen Bush has written about how in Wales voting Ukip seems to have been a gateway drug for traditional Labour voters who are now backing the mainstream right; so the voters Ukip took from the Conservatives are reverting to the Conservatives, and the ones they took from Labour are transferring to the Conservatives too.

Ukip might be finished as an electoral force, but its influence on the rest of British politics will be felt for many years yet. 

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