Why Miliband's trade union reforms are good for the left and for democracy

If Labour is forced to compete with other progressive parties for millions in union funding, it is more likely to listen to what workers want.

It had been almost a decade since I’d last stood in Hyde Park to protest something terrible. On 20 October last year, it was bad to be back, desperately trying to stop another government ruining millions more lives, this time not with bombs but budget cuts.

Perhaps the most unusual sight that day was the leader of the Labour Party bravely taking the stage to provide, what then seemed, the first rumblings of opposition. When Miliband admitted that Labour, too, would have to implement cuts, he was loudly booed.

Today Miliband will face even louder boos as he bravely tells the TUC conference that he will press ahead with his decision to reform Labour’s link with the unions.

Another word for brave is stupid.

Miliband’s plan will do him no favours. It will lose him support from the trade unions who backed his increasingly isolated leadership, it will cost Labour millions in much-needed battle funds in the run up to what looks likely to be a closely fought general election, and it will do little to boost the party’s poll ratings among an electorate that regards Labour's internal machinations as fairly insignificant next to things like affording to eat.

But reforming Labour’s link with the unions is good for the left, both inside and outside of Labour, and, consequently, good for democracy.

The far-left has long been calling for trade unionists to break with a party that does not have their interests at heart. It is a curious irony that the link is being reformed from the Labour side, but as GMB and Unison have already moved to slash funding and party affiliations, the unions, too, are beginning to question that link.

The availability of millions of pounds of union political funds no longer being channelled into the Labour Party by default opens up space for smaller progressive parties, such as the Greens or the nascent Left Unity movement, to compete for union favour.

The Holy Grail of the left, union support, could see smaller parties wield increasing influence. But this is not just good news for those who have turned their backs on Labour. Despite their ostensibly competing priorities, a powerful movement to the left of Labour strengthens the position of the left in Labour. New Labour long ago made the tactical calculation that it could rely on its working class base no matter how far to the right it shifted. If Labour’s working class base abandons it, then the left in Labour will be able to make the case that only by reclaiming its old, progressive positions will it be able to regain the support of its base.

The reformation of the age-old link makes this ever more important. Now Labour cannot rely on some divine right to claim union support, it must compete for it by actually listening to the working class people it was founded to represent.

This, in turn, is good for democracy. For too long the main parties have fallen over themselves to trumpet the interests of big business. The concerns of multinational corporations have set the agenda, while those of the majority of British society - what Occupy might call the 99% - have gone unheard. But if Labour and other parties are forced to compete for millions in union funding, it will ensure they are at least listening to what workers want.

Miliband has done the right thing for the wrong reasons. The non-issue of Falkirk has already been forgotten, he will face a chorus of disapproval and he will cost his party millions. But he might just have inadvertently saved the left and British democracy. 

Salman Shaheen is a journalist who has written for the Times of India, New Internationalist, Liberal Conspiracy and Left Foot Forward

TUC members protest against the government's austerity measures on October 20, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Salman Shaheen is editor-in-chief of The World Weekly, principal speaker of Left Unity and a freelance journalist.

Photo: Getty
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The Tories play Game of Thrones while the White Walkers from Brussels advance

The whole premise of the show is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

If you’re a fan of asking “who’s that, then?” and “is that the one who killed the other one’s brother?”, I bring great news. Game of Thrones is back for a seventh series. Its vast assortment of characters was hard enough to keep track of before half of them got makeovers. But now the new Queen Cersei has reacted to the arrival of the long winter by investing heavily in the kind of leather ball gowns sold by goth shops in Camden, and Euron Greyjoy, once a fairly bland sailor, has come back as a Halloween costume version of Pacey from Dawson’s Creek, all eyeliner and epaulettes.

The show’s reliance on British character actors is the only thing keeping me vaguely on top of the cast list: what’s Diana Rigg up to these days in Highgarden? And what about that guy who was in Downton Abbey that time, who now has the scaly arms? (Luckily, the next thing I watched after the Game of Thrones series premiere was the first two episodes of the revived Twin Peaks, which put my confusion into perspective. There, Agent Cooper spent most of his time talking to a pulsating bladder attached to one of those fake trees you get from Ikea when your landlord won’t let you have real plants.)

The day-to-day business of Game of Thrones has always been power – answering the question of who will sit on the Iron Throne, forged by Aegon the Conqueror from the swords of his defeated enemies. But its backdrop is a far bigger threat: the arrival of a winter that will last many years, and the invasion of an army of the undead.

That might seem like an unkind way to think about Michel Barnier and his fellow Brexit negotiators – inexorably marching towards us, briefing papers in hand, while Liam Fox frantically rings a bell at the entrance to the Channel Tunnel – but nonetheless, the whole premise of Game of Thrones is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

The current internal Conservative struggle for power might be vicious but it is at least familiar to its contestants; they know which weapons to deploy, which alliances are vital, who owes them a favour. Meanwhile, the true challenge facing every one of them is too frightening to contemplate.

In 2013, this magazine celebrated the early success of the show with a cover depicting one of our terrifying painted mash-ups: “The Tory Game of Thrones.” Our casting has been strangely vindicated. George Osborne was our Jaime Lannister – once the kind of uncomplicated bastard who would push a child out of a window but now largely the purveyor of waspish remarks about other, worse characters. Our Cersei was Theresa May, who spent the early seasons of The Cameron Era in a highly visible but underwritten role. Now, she has just seized power, only to discover herself beset by enemies on all sides. (Plus, Jeremy Corbyn as the High Sparrow would quite like her to walk penitently through the streets while onlookers cry “shame!”)

Michael Gove was our Tyrion Lannister, the kind of man who would shoot his own father while the guy was on the loo (or run a rival’s leadership campaign only to detonate it at the last minute). Jeremy Hunt was Jon Snow, slain by the brotherhood of the Night Shift at A&E, only in this case still waiting for resurrection.

The comparison falls down a bit at Boris Johnson as Daenerys Targaryen, as the former London mayor has not, to my knowledge, ever married a horse lord or hired an army of eunuchs, but it feels like the kind of thing he might do.

We didn’t have David Davis on there – hated by the old king, David Camareon, he was at the time banished to the back benches. Let’s retrospectively appoint him Euron Greyjoy, making a suspiciously seductive offer to Queen Cersei. (Philip Hammond is Gendry, in that most of the country can’t remember who he is but feel he might turn out to be important later.)

That lengthy list shows how Conservative infighting suffers from the same problem that the Game of Thrones screenwriters wrestle with: there are so many characters, and moving the pieces round the board takes up so much time and energy, that we’re in danger of forgetting why it matters who wins. In the books, there is more space to expound on the politics. George R R Martin once said that he came away from The Lord of The Rings asking: “What was Aragorn’s tax policy?” (The author added: “And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone – they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?”)

Martin’s fantasy vision also feels relevant to the Tories because its power struggles aren’t about an “endless series of dark lords and their evil minions who are all very ugly and wear black clothes”. Instead, everyone is flawed. In Westeros, as in the Conservative Party, it can be difficult to decide who you want to triumph. Sure, Daenerys might seem enlightened, but she watched her brother have molten gold poured down his throat; plucky Arya Stark might tip over from adorable assassin into full-blown psychopath. Similarly, it’s hard to get worked up about the accusation that Philip Hammond said that driving a train was so easy “even a woman” could do it, when David Davis marked his last leadership campaign by posing alongside women in tight T-shirts reading “It’s DD for me”.

The only big difference from the show is that in real life I have sympathy for Barnier and the White Walkers of Brussels. Still, maybe it will turn out that the undead of Game of Thrones are tired of the Seven Kingdoms throwing their weight around and are only marching south to demand money before negotiating a trade deal? That’s the kind of plot twist we’re all waiting for.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder