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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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.