Defend the link

LABOUR leader Ed Miliband has pulled a fast one with his proposed changes to the relationship between the unions and the Labour Party. The changes will not break the link but they will seriously undermine it. But they have been presented in a complex and confusing package that has seen some Labour MPs complaining that they will potentially give the unions more power within the party.

Miliband says he wants one-member-one-vote on leadership selection and MPs are screaming that this will reduce their influence — currently the party has an electoral college with the unions, the constituency branches and the MPs as one group each having an equal third of the vote. But he has raised the barrier for leadership nomination so no one gets to be a leadership contender without the support of at least 25 per cent of MPs.

Unions will continue to be affiliated to the Labour Party but their power to influence policy decisions will be diminished. Currently unions debate major national and international issues that affect — or are of concern to — their members at branch and national level in union conferences and vote on them. The union leadership then speaks with one voice within the Labour Party, representing all the members who have opted to pay their political levy.

At least this is how it should be. Today union mergers have resulted in a handful of giant unions — with giant branches that are remote and unwieldy so that only a handful of dedicated and determined activists get to play a role in the debates.

The system does need improvement but not the way that Miliband wants. And for all their failings the unions’ process of determining policy is far more democratic than the processes in other political parties — meaning that union money given to Labour is still the cleanest money and influence in politics because it represents the interests of vast numbers of workers who are directly affected by Government policies. It is the only political power in the country that does not come from vast corporate or individual wealth.

Miliband wants to change this process so that union members will have to opt in to paying their political levy and then will have to opt to become associate members of the Labour Party and pay £3 to do so. The lists of these associate members will be held by the Labour Party. If these members want to exert any influence on Labour policy or selection of parliamentary candidates they will have to become active in their local constituency Labour Party branches. The union affiliation fee will match the number of members who do opt to become associate members.

Miliband is claiming that this will re-invigorate the party and put ordinary working people back in touch with the political processes in this country.

Yet last year, when the union Unite urged members in Falkirk to join their local Labour Party in order to promote a working class agenda within the party, Miliband screamed blue murder and called the police, accusing the union of corruption and trying to rig elections. He plainly does not really want working class people getting active in the party.

Unite general secretary Len McCluskey is supporting the move, claiming it will force Labour to adopt policies in favour of the working class in order to get its funding and lead to a higher level of active working class involvement in the party. In theory if the unions could get only 10 per cent of their members active in their local party they would easily out vote the party’s 180,000 regular constituency members on all issues.

Most union activists think McCluskey is being very unrealistic. Motivating union members to become active associate Labour Party members will not be so easy. The unions are giving away the power of the block vote, which for all its faults is the product of some level of real debate and voting, for an impossible dream — and one that Miliband has shown he is very hostile to.

This would leave the Labour Party further under the control of middle class careerist university graduates who have no idea what life is like for working class people.

Labour’s NEC voted in favour of Miliband’s proposals with only two votes against: Dennis Skinner and Christine Shawcross, with Skinner warning that the change is a big step towards the ruling class goal of separating the unions from the political party they created and leaving them with no party political voice in the country.