Why Miliband's trade union reforms are good for the left and for democracy

If Labour is forced to compete with other progressive parties for millions in union funding, it is more likely to listen to what workers want.

It had been almost a decade since I’d last stood in Hyde Park to protest something terrible. On 20 October last year, it was bad to be back, desperately trying to stop another government ruining millions more lives, this time not with bombs but budget cuts.

Perhaps the most unusual sight that day was the leader of the Labour Party bravely taking the stage to provide, what then seemed, the first rumblings of opposition. When Miliband admitted that Labour, too, would have to implement cuts, he was loudly booed.

Today Miliband will face even louder boos as he bravely tells the TUC conference that he will press ahead with his decision to reform Labour’s link with the unions.

Another word for brave is stupid.

Miliband’s plan will do him no favours. It will lose him support from the trade unions who backed his increasingly isolated leadership, it will cost Labour millions in much-needed battle funds in the run up to what looks likely to be a closely fought general election, and it will do little to boost the party’s poll ratings among an electorate that regards Labour's internal machinations as fairly insignificant next to things like affording to eat.

But reforming Labour’s link with the unions is good for the left, both inside and outside of Labour, and, consequently, good for democracy.

The far-left has long been calling for trade unionists to break with a party that does not have their interests at heart. It is a curious irony that the link is being reformed from the Labour side, but as GMB and Unison have already moved to slash funding and party affiliations, the unions, too, are beginning to question that link.

The availability of millions of pounds of union political funds no longer being channelled into the Labour Party by default opens up space for smaller progressive parties, such as the Greens or the nascent Left Unity movement, to compete for union favour.

The Holy Grail of the left, union support, could see smaller parties wield increasing influence. But this is not just good news for those who have turned their backs on Labour. Despite their ostensibly competing priorities, a powerful movement to the left of Labour strengthens the position of the left in Labour. New Labour long ago made the tactical calculation that it could rely on its working class base no matter how far to the right it shifted. If Labour’s working class base abandons it, then the left in Labour will be able to make the case that only by reclaiming its old, progressive positions will it be able to regain the support of its base.

The reformation of the age-old link makes this ever more important. Now Labour cannot rely on some divine right to claim union support, it must compete for it by actually listening to the working class people it was founded to represent.

This, in turn, is good for democracy. For too long the main parties have fallen over themselves to trumpet the interests of big business. The concerns of multinational corporations have set the agenda, while those of the majority of British society - what Occupy might call the 99% - have gone unheard. But if Labour and other parties are forced to compete for millions in union funding, it will ensure they are at least listening to what workers want.

Miliband has done the right thing for the wrong reasons. The non-issue of Falkirk has already been forgotten, he will face a chorus of disapproval and he will cost his party millions. But he might just have inadvertently saved the left and British democracy. 

Salman Shaheen is a journalist who has written for the Times of India, New Internationalist, Liberal Conspiracy and Left Foot Forward

TUC members protest against the government's austerity measures on October 20, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Salman Shaheen is editor-in-chief of The World Weekly, principal speaker of Left Unity and a freelance journalist.

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Jeremy Corbyn supporters should stop excusing Labour’s anti-immigration drift

The Labour leader is a passionate defender of migrants’ rights – Brexit shouldn’t distract the new left movement from that.

Something strange is happening on the British left – a kind of deliberate collective amnesia. During the EU referendum, the overwhelming majority of the left backed Remain.

Contrary to a common myth, both Jeremy Corbyn and the movement behind him put their weight into a campaign that argued forcefully for internationalism, migrants’ rights and regulatory protections.

And yet now, as Labour’s policy on Brexit hardens, swathes of the left appear to be embracing Lexit, and a set of arguments which they would have laughed off stage barely a year ago.

The example of free movement is glaring and obvious, but worth rehashing. When Labour went into the 2017 general election promising to end free movement with the EU, it did so with a wider election campaign whose tone was more pro-migrant than any before it.

Nonetheless, the policy itself, along with restricting migrants’ access to public funds, stood in a long tradition of Labour triangulating to the right on immigration for electorally calculated reasons. When Ed Miliband promised “tough controls on immigration”, the left rightly attacked him.  

The result of this contradiction is that those on the left who want to agree unequivocally with the leadership must find left-wing reasons for doing so. And so, activists who have spent years declaring their solidarity with migrants and calling for a borderless world can now be found contemplating ways for the biggest expansion of border controls in recent British history – which is what the end of free movement would mean – to seem progressive, or like an opportunity.

The idea that giving ground to migrant-bashing narratives or being harsher on Poles might make life easier for non-EU migrants was rightly dismissed by most left-wing activists during the referendum.

Now, some are going quiet or altering course.

On the Single Market, too, neo-Lexit is making a comeback. Having argued passionately in favour of membership, both the Labour leadership and a wider layer of its supporters now argue – to some extent or another – that only by leaving the Single Market could Labour implement a manifesto.

This is simply wrong: there is very little in Labour’s manifesto that does not have an already-existing precedent in continental Europe. In fact, the levers of the EU are a key tool for clamping down on the power of big capital.

In recent speeches, Corbyn has spoken about the Posted Workers’ Directive – but this accounts for about 0.17 per cent of the workforce, and is about to be radically reformed by the European Parliament.

The dangers of this position are serious. If Labour’s leadership takes the path of least resistance on immigration policy and international integration, and its support base rationalises these compromises uncritically, then the logic of the Brexit vote – its borders, its affirmation of anti-migrant narratives, its rising nationalist sentiment – will be mainlined into Labour Party policy.

Socialism in One Country and a return to the nation state cannot work for the left, but they are being championed by the neo-Lexiteers. In one widely shared blogpost on Novara Media, one commentator even goes as far as alluding to Britain’s Road to Socialism – the official programme of the orthodox Communist Party.

The muted and supportive reaction of Labour’s left to the leadership’s compromises on migration and Brexit owes much to the inept positioning of the Labour right. Centrists may gain personal profile and factional capital when the weaponising the issue, but the consequences have been dire.

Around 80 per cent of Labour members still want a second referendum, and making himself the “stop Brexit” candidate could in a parallel universe have been Owen Smith’s path to victory in the second leadership election.

But it meant that in the summer of 2016, when the mass base of Corbynism hardened its factional resolve, it did so under siege not just from rebelling MPs, but from the “Remoaners” as well.

At every juncture, the strategy of the centrist Labour and media establishment has made Brexit more likely. Every time a veteran of the New Labour era – many of whom have appalling records on, for instance, migrants’ rights – tells Labour members to fight Brexit, party members run a mile.

If Tony Blair’s messiah complex was accurate, he would have saved us all a long time ago – by shutting up and going away. The atmosphere of subterfuge and siege from MPs and the liberal press has, by necessity, created a culture of loyalty and intellectual conformity on the left.

But with its position in the party unassailable, and a radical Labour government within touching distance of Downing Street, the last thing the Labour leadership now needs is a wave of Corbynite loyalty-hipsters hailing its every word.

As the history of every attempt to form a radical government shows, what we desperately need is a movement with its own internal democratic life, and an activist army that can push its leaders as well as deliver leaflets for them.

Lexit is no more possible now than it was during the EU referendum, and the support base of the Labour left and the wider party is overwhelmingly in favour of free movement and EU membership.

Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott are passionate, principled advocates for migrants’ rights and internationalism. By showing leadership, Labour can once again change what is electorally possible.