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14 November 2013

Leader: Why trade unions have to be more than voices of reaction

The unions' "authentic" left is one of perpetual minority.

By New Statesman

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.

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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.