McCluskey's warning to Miliband: if you want Unite's money, change your policies

The Unite general secretary signalled that he would no longer tolerate those who "welcome our money but don't want our policy input".

Those who watched the webcast of Len McCluskey's speech to Unite's executive and rank and file members this lunchtime were not left disappointed. The Unite general secretary turned his guns back on Labour over the Falkirk selection row, declaring that the union had "done nothing wrong", that the party's report into the contest was a "shoddy farce" and that he would ensure that "the truth" came out. He went on to denounce the "unelected millionaires" (in this case, Lord Sainsbury) who wanted to "stuff the Parliamentary Labour Party with Oxbridge Blairites" and "the Tory media and New Labour spin doctors" who would "never understand the solidarity of working people". 

But far more significant was the clear signal that he intends to use Ed Miliband's planned reforms to the Labour-union link to maximise Unite's influence over policy and shift Labour to the left. The introduction of a new opt-in system for trade union members will cost the party millions in individual affiliation fees, leaving it even more dependent on one-off donations from unions' political funds. But rather than casually doling out the cash as in the past, McCluskey intends to extract a price. He will longer tolerate those who "welcome our money but don't want our policy input" and expects "enhanced" influence under the new system because "our voice and our votes are looked as legitimate". 

This would not mean a party "that is a pinkish shadow of the present coalition" and that "embraces the austerity agenda" but one that "offers real hope, that stands up for the poor and vulnerable, that puts growth at the heart of its agenda, that confronts privilege." McCluskey's speech was short on specifics but his wishlist has previously included a break with "austerity spending" (defined as no further cuts in public spending), the repeal of the benefit cap, a million extra houses and a £1.50 increase in the minimum wage. 

The question now is how far Miliband will go to appease McCluskey's demands (most of which are worthy of support) and how the Unite head will respond if the party falls short. It's important to remember that Miliband has called for a cap of £5,000 on all political donations precisely so trade unions and others can no longer buy influence. But with no sign of a cross-party deal in sight, he will be forced to go cap in hand to the unions unless he wants to gift the Tories an ever bigger advantage in the funding race. 

For Miliband, whose planned reforms to the Labour-union link have been spun as a move to reduce the power of the general secretaries, it is a perilous situation. If he does shift policy in line with McCluskey's wishes, he will be accused by the Tories of caving in to the Unite "baron" and of undermining his own pledge to take big money out of politics (regardless of the the obvious hypocrisy of this charge). If he doesn't, the danger is that Unite, by far Labour's biggest financial backer, will respond by curtailing its funding.

In this game of chicken, who will blink first? 

Unite general secretary Len McCluskey. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.