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.

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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.