Len McCluskey speaks at the Labour conference in Brighton last year. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Unite's £1.5m funding cut means Labour will need to bargain with McCluskey

The union is prepared to reduce the shortfall but will expect policy concessions in return.

It looks like Labour might be needing that "large donation" from Tony Blair (which I revealed speculation about yesterday). After Ed Miliband's party reforms were passed at the weekend, Unite's executive has announced that it is reducing its annual affiliation fee from £3m to £1.5m. The cut is the automatic result of its decision to reduce the number of members it affiliates to Labour from one million to 500,000 (each contributes £3 a year). With the party now requiring all union levy payers to opt into donating, Len McCluskey rightly felt that it was "untenable" to continue to affiliate one million members when polls suggest no more than half of Unite members support Labour.  Following the GMB's earlier decision to cut its funding from £1.2m to £150,000, the total financial hit from Miliband's reforms now stands at £2.55m.

But significantly, Unite makes clear in its statement that it is prepared to reduce the shortfall through one-off donations from its enlarged political fund. It said: "The Executive Council is, however, also aware that we are now just a year from a General Election, in which it is vital that the British people are offered a clear political alternative to the ruinous economic and social policies of the Coalition government. It is not in the interests of democracy itself for Labour – the only Party which can offer such an alternative – to contest the election without the resources required to make the contest a “fair fight” against the parties of global capital and the super-rich.

"Bearing in mind the tight timescales in which decisions may need to be made over this next period, it therefore authorises the General Secretary to respond to any requests for additional financial assistance, beyond the affiliation fee, which may be made by the Labour Party, after first consulting the Executive Council or the Finance & General Purposes Committee."

The two key questions are how much Unite will provide in discretionary donations and what it will demand in return (although it is worth noting that the unions have always had the power to reduce the number of members they affiliate). As McCluskey said in his speech following Miliband's announcement of the changes last summer, he will (perfectly reasonably) no longer tolerate those who "welcome our money but don't want our policy input" and expects the union to have "enhanced" influence under the new system because "our voice and our votes are looked at as legitimate". On another occasion, he told the Guardian that while he was not "looking to bankrupt the party", future funding would depend on "the policies Labour themselves are adopting, and in the context of whether we would give donations that would be determined by my executive and my political committees. It is a collective decision".

McCluskey's policy wishlist includes an end to public spending cuts, the repeal of the benefit cap, and the building of a million extra homes. The challenge for Miliband will be adopting measures radical enough to satisfy the unions while also ensuring Labour sticks to its tough deficit reduction targets.

Alongside this, the party will obviously seek to attract more private donations - and that means welcoming money from Blair and other wealthy Labour supporters. The left of the party might complain (although it is worth remembering Miliband's pledge to introduce a cap of £5,000 on all donations), but when you're preparing to fight a general election against a well-funded Conservative machine, you can't be choosy. Until party funding reform is finally achieved, Labour can't afford to unilaterally disarm.

Here's Unite's statement in full:

"The decision of the Labour Party Special Conference on March 1 to adopt the proposals of the Collins review sets the collective relationship of Unite and other affiliated unions with the Party on a new course.

"The union will rapidly prepare a plan to ensure that we maximise the number of our political levy paying members who express support for our continuing collective affiliation, and who take advantage of the possibility of becoming associated members of the Party. Our representative on the Implementation Committee which will oversee the introduction of the agreed reforms will, among other things, work to ensure that the interests of our members are protected in the forthcoming selection process for Labour candidate for London Mayor and in any leadership election that may occur before 2020.

"When the Leader of the Party announced his intention to seek changes in the Labour-union relationship in summer 2013, he made it clear that he did not think it appropriate that the Party continue to accept affiliation fees from those who had not actively assented to such payments. Unite accepted that principle at the time.

"By the conclusion of the transitional period in 2020, it will be clear how many members of Unite and other unions actively support their political levy being used to affiliate to the Labour Party. Unite will work to make that number as large as possible. It is inevitable, however, that the final total will be considerably less than the present one million members affiliated. Opinion polling evidence suggests that, while Labour is by some way the most popular choice for Unite members at the ballot box, no more than half the membership in Britain vote Labour at present (many of the others not voting at all).

"The Executive Council therefore agrees that Unite’s affiliation will need to be reduced over the five-year period to 2020 to reflect this reality. It will therefore affiliate 500,000 members to the Party for 2014, and will review this number annually.

"The Executive Council is, however, also aware that we are now just a year from a General Election, in which it is vital that the British people are offered a clear political alternative to the ruinous economic and social policies of the Coalition government. It is not in the interests of democracy itself for Labour – the only Party which can offer such an alternative – to contest the election without the resources required to make the contest a “fair fight” against the parties of global capital and the super-rich.

"Bearing in mind the tight timescales in which decisions may need to be made over this next period, it therefore authorises the General Secretary to respond to any requests for additional financial assistance, beyond the affiliation fee, which may be made by the Labour Party, after first consulting the Executive Council or the Finance & General Purposes Committee."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.