Ed Miliband's trade union reforms are essential to building a fairer society

This isn't a diversion about process. Participative democracy is a key weapon in fighting poverty.

Ed Miliband’s proposed reform of Labour’s trade union funding is the culmination of an argument that’s been simmering for a hundred years. Two weeks ago it boiled over. But it began in 1909 when a notorious House of Lords ruling banned trade union from members automatically donating money to the Labour Party.  The judgement ruled that an automatic "opt-in" was illegal. Just as today, the row around trade unionists opting in or out was linked to MPs’ wages (settled at £400pa by Asquith in 1911). The House of Lords ruling threatened to remove a core source of Labour funding, and many feared for Labour’s survival. 

And so it is today. We are told Miliband risks the historic link between Labour and the trade unions, and that in financial terms, Labour may not survive. The main difference between now and 100 years ago (the House of Lords ruling was overturned in 1913) is that the call for reform comes from the Labour Party leader himself, something unimaginable even in Tony Blair’s day, never mind Keir Hardie’s. These proposals make Tony Blair’s reform of Clause IV look like timid toe-dipping. What began as a little (or a large) local difficulty in Falkirk has, on the leader’s say so, become nothing less than a debate around the nature of politics itself. 

At heart, this isn’t primarily an argument about Labour’s link with the trade unions; it is primarily about Labour’s link with democracy, and whether our internal governance is democratic. Democracy and open politics, allied to social justice, are Labour’s core values. The very first meeting of the Labour Representation Committee, created by the trade unions in 1900, voted by 102 votes to three that "this conference is in favour of working class opinion being represented in the House of Commons." Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite, is still in favour of that. So am I. So - I imagine - is everyone else in the party.

McCluskey’s angry response to the Falkirk allegations was to say that Unite simply worked within the rules to select a working class woman as Labour's candidate. Unite – and Labour – are right to look for more diverse parliamentarians.  It is a scandal that 60% of the Tory and Lib Dem cabinet that entered Downing Street in 2010 were privately educated (compared to 32% in Labour’s last cabinet). Only 7% of British people are privately educated; in the 21st century you’d expect the other 93% of us to have a bit more say in running the country. 

Yes I want more trade unionists in Parliament. I’m one of them, I was a full-time trade union regional organiser representing low-paid workers when I became an MP in 1997. But things change: it’s not just Labour that doesn’t have enough working class MPs. Trade unions themselves are not as working class as they used to be. As David Goodhart points out "astonishingly, 52% of union members now have a degree or some other higher education qualification, compared with just 41% of the workforce as a whole. So, in their 150 year history, the unions have moved from being mainly guilds for skilled craftsmen to being mainly guilds for public sector professionals, with a phase in the middle when they also recruited poorer, less skilled workers."

Ironically, it’s the recruitment of low-skilled and low-paid workers where the trade unions and Labour now struggle most. Engaging and recruiting this group is made harder by all sorts of economic, demographic and cultural shifts. But we must engage them, not least because prosperity for the rest, including the squeezed middle – and success for One Nation – depends on it. Keir Hardie said that "Socialism offers a platform broad enough for all to stand upon. It makes war upon a system, not upon a class." And here’s the rub: the system, the process, is often as important as politics itself. 

Some say Falkirk is a diversion about process. Who cares about Labour’s selection procedures when 6.5m workers in Britain subsist on poverty pay? Dave Prentis of Unison said in response to Falkirk "the real issues are 2.5m unemployed, families relying on food banks, payday loan sharks, massive cuts to public services." And he’s right. The mistake is to forget that the way we do politics impacts on poverty itself; on the number of people in jobs, using food banks, at the mercy of loan sharks. 

At first glance this might seem doubtful. But I spent almost a decade representing the constituency with the highest density of poverty in Britain and I realised that participative democracy is a key weapon in fighting poverty. I saw it with my own eyes. I chaired a project to regenerate the council estate with the highest child mortality rate in Europe, and I saw that if you engage people to find solutions, they rise to the challenge. They set up fresh food co-ops. They acquire new skills. They create new jobs. They give their kids new lives. They become politically active. Many of them escape poverty. 

In a nutshell, participative democracy reaches the parts the welfare state cannot reach: it engages the mind. In time we may find that inclusive governance and active citizenship are more effective in reducing poverty than increasing the top rate of income tax. The Labour Party, of all parties, must be genuinely democratic from the roots up. That is why it is so vital that Ed Miliband presses ahead with these reforms.  

If machine politics are the death throes of the old order, the old order is nowhere near dead. It’s alive and well on the left and right of the party. I’ve seen it up close in Tower Hamlets. I saw it during the London Mayoral selection (and although it’s not the reason I lost, it’s the reason I nearly didn’t stand; yet surely we want democratic contests, not coronations). I joined the Labour Party when I was 14, and I’ve spent my entire adult life campaigning for the party I love. But here’s what I hate: I hate knowing a contest is stitched up before it’s begun.  Or that a contest is fought where resources are massively unequal.  Most people feel the same.

The challenge for politicians is to re-imagine politics so that it appeals to the many, not the very few. Ed Miliband’s audacious attempt to directly engage millions of trade union members, and to actively persuade them to "opt-in", rather than opt-out, reflects the best of Labour’s values. It’s not the easy path. His audacity would have astonished members of the House of Lords in 1909 who wanted to destroy the Labour Party. Yet the prize will be a democratically robust party, energised and fit for purpose in the 21st century. Labour’s trade union founders would be proud.

Oona King is a Labour peer and a Diversity Executive at Channel 4. She was MP for Bethnal Green and Bow from 1997 to 2005

Ed Miliband delivers his speech on the Labour-union link at The St Bride Foundation in London on 9 July. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The new French revolution: how En Marche! disrupted politics

The rise of Emmanuel Macron's party has shattered the accepted wisdom.

Alexandre Holroyd bears many similarities to his new boss, Emmanuel Macron. Like the French president, a former banker, Holroyd started his career in the private sector, at the management consultancy firm FTI. At 39, Macron is the youngest ever French president; Holroyd is nine years younger. Both are strongly pro-European and confident in their common mission.

“The Assemblée Nationale is going to profoundly change,” Holroyd told me, sipping fizzy water in a café near St Paul’s Cathedral in London on 16 June. Two days later, in the second round of the French legislative election, he was elected France’s MP for northern Europe – one of the 11 constituencies for French expats around the world – representing Macron’s party, En Marche! (“Forward!”), which swept to a resounding victory.

“People said, ‘These newbies from En Marche! won’t know what to do,’” he told me. “But they will reflect French society: diverse, equal, with multidisciplinary experiences.”

Macron’s election in May capped a remarkable 12 months for the former economy minister, who left the Parti Socialiste (PS) government to run as an independent candidate. But the real power – of the kind that will allow him to implement the liberal reforms he has promised France – arrived only with the legislative election victory.

En Marche! won 350 of the 577 parliamentary seats, a majority that should enable the president to pass laws in the house easily. And the party did so by selecting younger, more socially diverse candidates than is usual in French politics. As with Holroyd, most of the candidates for En Marche! were running for office for the first time. When the National Assembly reopens, three-quarters of the faces will be new.

The renewal of the political class was one of Macron’s main campaign pledges. “There was this will to stop the two main parties’ [the PS’s and the Républicains’] sectarian obstructionism,” Holroyd said. “The French people are fed up with it.”

Much like a Silicon Valley start-up disrupting a sector of the economy – Uber with taxis, for instance – En Marche! sought to disrupt French politics. Macron launched it in April 2016 as a “political club” while still serving in François Hollande’s government. Three months later, more than 3,000 people attended its first event in Paris. The movement welcomed people of all political parties, allowing them to sign up for free online.

Today En Marche! has more than 240,000 supporters. The party’s main source of funding was individual donations and during the presidential campaign, it raised €6.5m. (Macron also took out an €8m personal loan.)

The rise of Macron and En Marche! has shattered the accepted wisdom of French politics: 39 is too young for a president; one cannot be “neither left nor right”; a career in the private sector does not lead to politics; no one can run for the presidency without the support of a pre-existing party.

Yann L’Hénoret, the director of the documentary Emmanuel Macron: Behind the Rise (available on Netflix), described En Marche! as a “very young” team in which “everyone could give their own view” before Macron had the final say. “Young people are said not to be politically engaged. I saw the inverse, every day, all the time,” L’Hénoret told me.

En Marche! members set up more than 4,000 local committees across France and beyond. Anyone interested in Macron’s project could create one and invite family members, friends and neighbours to take part. “Engage in a march, a conversation, a dinner,” the movement’s website suggested.

The groups then started “the Great March”, a canvassing initiative. “It was like an audit of the society,” said Holroyd. A dual citizen of France and Britain who grew up in west London, he became one of the early marcheurs in July 2016, when he quit his consulting job to set up the London committee. He had never been a member of any party before but Brexit acted as a trigger. “I saw my father’s country tearing itself off from Europe and realised I would regret it if I didn’t contribute to Macron’s project, whose European values I profoundly share.”

A graduate of London’s Lycée Français and Kings College, Holroyd could easily engage with his French expat peers – something that helped him win 70 per cent of the vote in the second round. “The only other party to go and talk to the people was the Front National,” Holroyd said. “The particularity of En Marche! is that many members came from the private sector. It’s exceptional in politics that people in the party have professional experiences. It spoke to many people.”

As En Marche! crowdsourced its candidates, it also ensured that its policies resonated with their locals. During the London “march”, 95 per cent of the participants told the committee that they were expats in the UK because of the economic opportunities here. Macron wants France to be able to entice professionals, too. Financially and socially, his goal can be summed up as: “Make France attractive again.”

Achieving a parliamentary majority has boosted Macron’s hopes of implementing major changes. Reforms may start as soon as this summer, with a liberal reorganisation of France’s rigid labour laws, which currently offer strong protection for workers. “France must invest in the industries of the future,” Holroyd said, quoting his president by the word. “Renewable energy, denuclearisation, ecological transition . . . We must become champions in these fields.”

Despite the scale of the victory, Macron’s team will have noted that the turnout was at a historic low on 18 June – at 42 per cent – suggesting widespread voter apathy. And despite its much-praised social diversity, En Marche! has only one working-class MP for every five middle-class ones. “We are conscious that we’ll be in a difficult situation if, by the end of the mandate, things have not changed for the people who have been left behind for years,” Holroyd said. “Those in outer suburbs, in post-industrial and rural lands.”

If they are to succeed, Macron and his MPs will have to find a way to win them over.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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