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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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage