Leader: Why trade unions have to be more than voices of reaction

The unions' "authentic" left is one of perpetual minority.

Next spring, the Labour Party will convene a special conference from which there should emerge a renewed relationship with affiliated trade unions. That, at least, is the plan. The event was conceived in a moment of turmoil in Ed Miliband’s office earlier this year. A row about the role of the Unite union in selecting a candidate for the constituency of Falkirk had spiralled into a crisis of authority for the Labour leader.

To demonstrate irreproachable independence from those who bankroll his party, Mr Miliband set out an agenda to change the relationship drastically. If it works, it will help restore the party’s credentials as a democratic mass movement for ordinary working people. If it fails, it will open Mr Miliband to caricature as the weakling puppet of old-left reaction.

Although the outcome of the conference cannot be foreseen, the outline of negotiations is clear enough. The Labour leadership will tell union bosses that they will end up with another Tory government if they thwart its reforms. The union bosses will use their money to extract concessions. The likeliest result is a compromise that allows the Labour leader to claim victory with conspicuous changes to the way union members “opt in” to party membership while other measures that might dilute union influence at Labour conference (and thus in future leadership elections) will be kicked into the long grass.

Meanwhile, the truth about what happened in Falkirk is lost in ongoing factional warfare. Senior party figures want investigations reopened; Mr Miliband’s office does not. Separately, Unite has become embroiled in controversy over allegations that its officers encouraged the intimidation of management in an industrial dispute at the nearby Grangemouth refinery. Again, Mr Miliband felt obliged to distance himself from the institution that furnishes up to a quarter of his party’s annual funding. That the relationship is dysfunctional can no longer be disputed.

Many trade unionists understandably feel beleaguered. Their influence has declined precipitately in recent decades yet they are attacked by Tories as if they hold the whole of society to ransom. Their duty is to protect their members from exploitation. It is not obedience to the preferences of conservative commentators. If unions did not agitate for more candidates with ordinary backgrounds to stand for parliament, the Commons would be more stuffed with privately educated professional politicians than it is already.

And yet the nobility of the ambition is too often traduced by methods that range from the clumsy and ineffective to the bullying and corrupt. The reality is that behemoth unions – Unite, Unison, GMB – formed from multiple mergers of smaller groups have arrogated the right to speak on behalf of the “working classes”, which they define too often in terms of ideological purity rather than income or background. They have compensated themselves for diminished influence in the wider British workplace by inflating and consolidating their power within the Labour Party. Whenever Labour talks about modernisation and change – whether in the reform of public services or party structures – the trade unions allow themselves to be cast as the citadels of reaction; the homeland of a more “authentic” left, which happens also to be a left of perpetual minority and electoral defeat.

Ultimately that is the tendency that has forced Ed Miliband to convene his special conference. There are more trade unionists who understand that imperative than is commonly recognised. It is time they made their voices heard.

Sri Lanka is a rogue state

Something terrible happened in the final months of the Sri Lankan civil war in 2009, an ethnic war that had divided the country for 26 years. The Sri Lankan army – aided, it is said, by the Chinese – destroyed the resistance of the Tamil insurgents in a brutal offensive that enabled the government to reclaim the north of the country, where the Tamils, a mostly Hindu minority, had aspired to create a new independent state. Hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians were rounded into socalled no-fire zones. These zones were mercilessly shelled by government troops and there was huge loss of civilian life.

Since the end of the war, the Tamils have been harshly oppressed and there have been widespread human rights abuses and media censorship. The shadow foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander, on page 23, condemns these abuses and laments that David Cameron has missed an opportunity to agitate for change in Sri Lanka, ahead of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), which will be held in Colombo from 15 to 17 November. Yet Mr Cameron should have done more than condemn the abuses: he should have boycotted the CHOGM in an attempt to shame the rogue Sri Lankan state into reform.

Demonstrators take part in a TUC march in protest against the government's austerity measures. Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Are cities getting too big?

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How worried are Labour MPs about losing their seats?

Despite their party's abysmal poll ratings, MPs find cause for optimism on the campaign trail. 

Labour enters the general election with subterranean expectations. A "good result", MPs say, would be to retain 180-200 of their 229 MPs. Some fear a worse result than 1935, when the party won just 154 seats. Rather than falling, the Conservatives' poll lead has risen as the prospect of electing a government concentrates minds (last night's YouGov survey, showing the Tories a mere 16 points ahead, was an exception).

Though Conservative strategists insist they could lose the election, in an attempt to incentivise turnout, their decision to target Labour MPs with majorities as high as 8,000 shows the scale of their ambitions (a Commons majority of circa 150 seats). But as well as despair, there is hope to be found in the opposition's ranks.

Though MPs lament that Jeremy Corbyn is an unavoidable drag on their support, they cite four reasons for optimism. The first is their local reputation, which allows them to differentiate themselves from the national party (some quip that the only leaflets on which Corbyn will feature are Tory ones). The second is that since few voters believe the Labour leader can become Prime Minister, there is less risk attached to voting for the party (a point some MPs make explicit) "The problem with Ed Miliband and the SNP in 2015 was that it was a plausible scenario," a shadow minister told me. "It was quite legitimate for voters to ask us the question we didn't want to answer: 'what would you do in a hung parliament?' If voters have a complaint it's usually about Jeremy but it's not the case that he looks like he can become prime minister."

The third reason is the spectre of an omnipotent Tory government. MPs appeal to voters not to give Theresa May a "free hand" and to ensure there is some semblance of an opposition remains. Finally, MPs believe there is an enduring tribal loyalty to Labour, which will assert itself as polling day approaches. Some liken such voters to sports fans, who support their team through thick and thin, regardless of whether they like the manager. Outgoing MP Michael Dugher (who I interviewed this week) was told by an elderly woman: "Don't worry, love, I will still vote Labour. I vote for you even when you're rubbish."

Ben Bradshaw, the long-serving MP for Exter, who has a majority of 7,183, told me: "We're not anything for granted of course. On the current national polling, the Tories would take Exeter. But having covered five polling districts, although the leadership is undoubtedly a big issue on the doorstep, most people say they'll still vote for me as their local MP and we're not detecting any significant shift away from 2015. Which is slightly puzzling given the chasm in the opinion polls." Bradshaw also promotes himself as "the only non-Tory MP in the south-west outside Bristol": a leaflet shows a blue-splattered map with a lone red dot. The Labour MP warns voters not to be left in a "one-party state". 

As in 2010, Labour may yet retain more seats than its vote share suggests (aided by unchanged boundaries). But the fate of the Liberal Democrats in 2015 - when the party was reduced from 56 MPs to eight - shows that local reputations are worth less than many suppose. Theresa May has succeeded in framing herself as a figure above party interests, who needs a "strong hand" in the Brexit negotiations. At the very moment when a vigorous opposition is needed most, Labour has rarely been weaker. And when the public turn resolutely against a party, even the best men and women are not spared.  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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