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?

Show Hide image

The biggest divide in politics is not left against right, but liberals against authoritarians

My week, including a Lib Dem membership rise, The Avalanches, and why I'm putting pressure on Theresa May over child refugees.

It is a boost for us that Nick Clegg has agreed to return to the front line and be our Brexit spokesperson. I hadn’t even had a chance at our meeting to make him the offer when he said: “Before we start, I’ve been thinking about this and want to take on the fight over Europe.”

With Labour apparently willing to give the Tories a free pass to take us out of Europe, the Liberal Democrats are the only UK-wide party that will go into the next election campaigning to maintain our membership of the EU. The stage is remarkably clear for us to remind Theresa May precisely what she would be risking if we abandon free trade, free movement, environmental protection, workers’ rights and cross-border security co-operation. More than a month on from the referendum, all we have heard from the Tories is that “Brexit means Brexit” – but they have given us no clue that they understand what that means.

 

Premature obituaries

Not long ago, the received wisdom was that all political parties were dying – but lately the supposed corpses have twitched into life. True, many who have joined Labour’s ranks are so hard left that they don’t see winning elections as a primary (or even a desirable) purpose of a party, and opening up Labour to those with a very different agenda could ultimately destroy it.

Our experience has been happier: 20,000 people joined the Liberal Democrat fightback in the wake of the 2015 general election result, and 17,000 more have joined since the referendum. We now have more members than at any time this century.

 

Breaking up is hard to do

Journalists have been asking repeatedly if I want to see the break-up of the Labour Party, with moderates defecting to the Liberal Democrats. I have been clear that I am not a home-wrecker and it is for Labour to determine its own future, just as I focus on advancing the Liberal Democrat cause. Yet I have also been clear that I am happy for my party to be a home for liberals of whatever hue. I enjoyed campaigning in the referendum with a variety of progressive figures, just as moderates from different parties shared platforms in 1975. It struck me that far more unites us than divides us.

That said, not all “moderate” Labour figures could be described as “liberal”, as John Reid demonstrated as Labour home secretary. The modern political divide is less left v right than authoritarian v liberal. Both left and right are looking increasingly authoritarian and outright nasty, with fewer voices prepared to stand up for liberal values.

 

What I did on my holidays

Time off has been virtually non-existent, but I am reading A Wilderness of Mirrors by Mark Meynell (about loss of trust in politics, the media and just about everything). I’m also obsessively listening to Wildflower by the Avalanches, their second album, 16 years after their first. It’s outstanding – almost 60 minutes of intelligently crafted dialogue, samples and epic production.

During the political maelstrom, I have been thinking back to the idyllic few days I spent over half-term on the Scottish island of Colonsay: swimming in the sea with the kids (very cold but strangely exhilarating ­after a decent jog), running and walking. An added bonus is that Colonsay is the smallest island in the world to have its own brewery. I can now heartily recommend it.

 

Preparing for the next fight

The odds are weirdly long on an early general election, but I refuse to be complacent – and not merely because the bookies were so wrong about Brexit. If we have learned one truth about Theresa May as Prime Minister so far, it is that she is utterly ruthless. After her savage cabinet sackings, this is, in effect, a new government. She has refused to go to the country, even though she lectured Gordon Brown on the need to gain the endorsement of the electorate when he replaced Tony Blair. Perhaps she doesn’t care much about legitimacy, but she cares about power.

You can be sure that she will be keeping half an eye on Labour’s leadership election. With Jeremy Corbyn potentially reconfirmed as leader in September against the wishes of three-quarters of his MPs, Mrs May might conclude that she will never have a better chance to increase her narrow majority. Throw in the possibility that the economy worsens next year as Brexit starts to bite, and I rule nothing out.

So, we are already selecting candidates. It is vital that they dig in early. As we are the only party prepared to make the positive case for Europe, such an election would present us with an amazing opportunity.

 

Sitting Priti

David Cameron pledged to take an unspecified number of unaccompanied children from camps across the Continent. I am putting pressure on Theresa May to turn that vague commitment into a proper plan. Having visited such camps, I have been fighting for Britain to give sanctuary to a minimum of 3,000 unaccompanied children, who are currently open to the worst kinds of exploitation. We have heard nothing but silence from the government, with underfunded councils reporting that they are not receiving the help they need from Whitehall.

Meanwhile, it remains government policy to send refugees to Turkey – whose increasingly authoritarian government has just suspended human rights protection.

As if all of this were not grim enough, we have a new Secretary of State for International Development, Priti Patel, who has said that she thinks aid should be used largely to promote trade. As someone who wants our country to be respected around the world, I find this plain embarrassing. Actually, it’s worse. It’s shaming. As with Europe, so with the world: the ­Conservative government is hauling up the drawbridge just when we need more than ever to engage with people beyond our shores.

Tim Farron is the leader of the Liberal Democrats. To join the party, visit: libdems.org.uk/join

Tim Farron is leader of the Liberal Democrats.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue