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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This election has sparked a weird debate – one in which no one seems to want to talk

 The noise level hasn’t risen above a low gurgle in the background.

If this is a general election in which the tectonic plates are shifting, they’re the quietest tectonic plates I’ve ever heard. All the parties are standing on pretty radical platforms, yet the noise level hasn’t risen above a low gurgle in the background, like a leaking tap we can’t be bothered to get fixed.

Big issues are being decided here. How do we pay for care, or health, or education? How do we square closed borders with open trade, and why isn’t anyone talking about it? Democracy is on the line, old people are being treated like electoral fodder, our infrastructure is mangled, the NHS is collapsing around us so fast that soon all that’s left will be one tin of chicken soup and a handful of cyanide capsules, and we face the prospect of a one-party Tory state for decades to come. All this and yet . . . silence. There seem to be no shouts of anger in this election. It’s a woozy, sleepy affair.

I knew something was afoot the moment it was called. Theresa May came out of No 10 and said she was having an election because she was fed up with other parties voting against her. No one seemed to want to stand up and tell her that’s a pretty good definition of how functioning democracy works. Basically, she scolded parliament for not going along with her.

Why were we not stunned by the sheer autocratic cheek of the moment? With news outlets, true and fake, growing in number by the day, why was this creeping despotism not reported? Am I the only one in a state of constant flabbergast?

But the Prime Minister’s move paid off. “Of course,” everyone said, “the real argument will now take place across the country, and we welcome,” they assured us, “the chance to have a national debate.”

Well, it’s a pretty weird debate – one in which no one wants to talk. So far, the only person May has debated live on air has been her husband, as Jeremy Corbyn still wanders the country like an Ancient Mariner, signalling to everyone he meets that he will not speak to anyone unless that person is Theresa May. Campaign events have been exercises in shutting down argument, filtering out awkward questions, and speaking only to those who agree with every word their leader says.

Then came the loud campaign chants – “Strong and stable” versus “The system’s rigged against us” – but these got repeated so often that, like any phrase yelled a thousand times, the sense soon fell out of them. Party leaders might as well have mooned at each other from either side of a river.

Granted, some others did debate, but they carried no volume. The Ukip leader, Paul Nuttall, achieved what no one thought possible, by showing the country that Nigel Farage had stature. And there’s a special, silent hell where Tim Farron languishes, his argument stifled at every turn by a media bent on quizzing him on what sort of hell he believes in.

Meanwhile, the party manifestos came out, with titles not so much void of meaning as so bored of it that they sounded like embarrassed whispers. Forward, Together; The Many Not the Few; Change Britain’s Future: these all have the shape and rhythm of political language, but nothing startles them into life. They are not so much ­clarion calls as dusty stains on old vellum. Any loosely connected words will do: Building My Tomorrow or Squaring the Hypotenuse would be equally valid. I still pray for the day when, just for once, a party launches its campaign with something like Because We’re Not Animals! but I realise that’s always going to stay a fantasy.

Maybe because this is the third national vote in as many years, our brains are starting to cancel out the noise. We really need something to wake us up from this torpor – for what’s happening now is a huge transformation of the political scene, and one that we could be stuck with for the next several decades if we don’t shake ourselves out of bed and do something about it.

This revolution came so quietly that no one noticed. Early on in the campaign, Ukip and the Conservatives formed a tacit electoral pact. This time round, Ukip isn’t standing in more than 200 seats, handing Tory candidates a clear run against their opponents in many otherwise competitive constituencies. So, while the left-of-centre is divided, the right gets its act together and looks strong. Tory votes have been artificially suppressed by the rise of Ukip over the past few elections – until it won 12.6 per cent of the electorate in 2015. With the collapse of the Ukip vote, and that party no longer putting up a fight in nearly a third of constituencies, Theresa May had good reason to stride about the place as cockily as she did before the campaign was suspended because of the Manchester outrage.

That’s why she can go quiet, and that’s why she can afford to roam into the centre ground, with some policies stolen from Ed Miliband (caps on energy bill, workers on company boards) and others from Michael Foot (spending commitments that aren’t costed). But that is also why she can afford to move right on immigration and Brexit. It’s why she feels she can go north, and into Scotland and Wales. It’s a full-blooded attempt to get rid of that annoying irritant of democracy: opposition.

Because May’s opponents are not making much of this land-grab, and because the media seem too preoccupied with the usual daily campaign gaffes and stammering answers from underprepared political surrogates, it falls once again to the electorate to shout their disapproval.

More than two million new voters have registered since the election was announced. Of these, large numbers are the under-25s. Whether this will be enough to cause any psephological upsets remains to be seen. But my hope is that those whom politicians hope to keep quiet are just beginning to stir. Who knows, we might yet hear some noise.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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