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.
YouTube screengrab
Show Hide image

Interview: Momentum’s vice chair Jackie Walker on unity, antisemitism, and discipline in Labour

The leading pro-Corbyn campaigner sets out her plan for the party.

As Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters celebrate after his second win, Jackie Walker – vice chair of the pro-Corbyn campaign organisation Momentum, a Labour member and an activist – talks about the result and the next steps for Labour’s membership.

Walker is a controversial figure in the party. Her history as a black anti-racism activist and advocate for Palestine, and her Jewish background on both sides of her family, did not keep her from being accused of antisemitism for a February Facebook post about the African slave trade. In May, she was suspended from the Labour party for her comments, only to be reinstated a few weeks later after a meeting of Labour’s National Executive Committee.

Anger was reignited at an event hosted by Momentum that she spoke at during Labour party conference, on whether Labour has an antisemitism problem. Walker said the problem was “exaggerated” by Corbyn’s critics, and used as a “weapon of political mass destruction” by the media. (We spoke to Walker before this debate took place).

After a summer plagued by suspensions of Labour members, accusations of hateful speech on both sides, and calls for civility, Walker discusses what steps need to be taken forward to help bring the party together.

Jeremy Corbyn spoke in his acceptance speech about wiping the slate clean and the need to unite the party. What steps can members from all sides take to unite the party?

I think people have got to stop using antagonistic language with each other, and I think they’ve got to stop looking for ways to undermine the democratic will of the membership. That has now been plainly stated, and that’s even with something like 120,000 members not getting their vote because of the freeze. He has increased his majority – we all need to acknowledge that.

Is there anything that Corbyn’s supporters need to do – or need not to do – to contribute towards unity?

I can’t speak for the whole of Jeremy’s supporters, who are numbered in their hundreds and thousands; I know that in my Labour group, we are always bending over backwards to be friendly and to try and be positive in all of our meetings. So I think we just have to keep on being that – continue trying to win people over by and through our responses.

I was knocking doors for Labour last week in support of a local campaign protesting the planned closure of several doctors’ surgeries – I spoke to a voter on a door who said that they love the Labour party but felt unable to vote for us as long as Corbyn is leader. What should we say to voters like that?

The first thing I do is to ask them why they feel that way; most of the time, what I find is that they’ve been reading the press, which has been rabid about Jeremy Corbyn. In all the research that we and others have done, the British public agree overwhelmingly with the policies espoused by Jeremy Corbyn, so we’ve got to get on the doorstep and start talking about policies. I think that sometimes what happens in constituency Labour party groups is that people are saying “go out there and canvass but don’t mention Jeremy”. I think that we need to do the opposite – we need to go out there and talk about Jeremy and his policies all the time.

Now that Corbyn has a stronger mandate and we’ve had these two programmes on Momentum: Channel 4’s Dispatches and BBC’s Panorama, which were explanations of the group, Momentum’s role will be pivotal. How can Momentum contribute towards party unity and get its membership out on the doorstep?

I think we have to turn our base into an activist base that goes out there and starts campaigning – and doesn’t just campaign during elections but campaigns all the time, outside election time. We have to do the long campaign.

The Corbyn campaign put out a video that was subsequently withdrawn – it had been condemned by the pressure group the Campaign Against Antisemitism, which has filed a disciplinary complaint against him. What are your thoughts on the video?

I find their use of accusations of antisemitism reprehensible – I am an anti-racist campaigner and I think they debase the whole debate around anti-racism and I think they should be ashamed of themselves. There is nothing wrong with that video that anyone could look at it and say this is antisemitic. I would suggest that if people have doubt, they should look at the video and judge for themselves whether it is antisemitic.

There’s been a compliance process over the last several months that’s excluded people from the party for comments on social media. Now that Corbyn is in again, how should compliance change?

One of the issues is that we have gotten Jeremy back in as leader, but control of the NEC is still under question. Until the NEC actually accepts the recommendations of Chakrabati in terms of the workings of disciplinary procedures, then I think we’re going to be forever embroiled in these kinds of convoluted and strange disciplinary processes that no other political party would either have or put up with.

There have been rumours that Corbyn’s opponents will split from the party, or mount another leadership challenge. What do you think they’ll do?

I have absolutely no idea – there are so many permutations about how this game could now be played – and I say game because I think that there are some who are Jeremy’s opponents who kind of see it as a power game. I read a tweet somewhere saying that the purpose of this leadership election – which has damaged Labour hugely – has nothing to do with the idea that actually Owen Smith, his challenger, could have won, but is part of the process to actually undermine Jeremy. I think people like that should really think again about why they’re in the Labour party and what it is they’re doing.

Margaret Corvid is a writer, activist and professional dominatrix living in the south west.