The Labour Party’s relationship with its affiliated trade unions is a source of strength. The unions provide a connection, increasingly rare, between professional politicians and workers. The link keeps Labour rooted in the history of collective mobilisation against injustice. Yet it is naive to suppose that unions today inevitably embody those ideals. A dispute over the selection of a Labour candidate in Falkirk has exposed allegations of ballotrigging and coercion against Unite, the party’s biggest affiliated union – and, in that capacity, its financial lifeline.
Unite has an explicit strategy to influence Labour by placing sponsored candidates in important positions. This, says the union, is about advancing workingclass representation, although “working class” is defined by ideology, not income. It entails resistance to public-sector cuts that are inevitable whoever wins the next general election.
It is quite rational for the body that pays Labour’s bills to expect something in return, which is a reason why the party needs new sources of funding. That is not an argument for ignoring unions but for raising Labour’s ambitions to be a party that represents a wide cross-section of British society. Ultimately, union members will be better served by a Labour government that has a broad mandate to deliver wide-reaching social change. Unite’s strategy should focus less on increasing control over the Labour party machine and more on increasing union relevance in society.