What is the future of the Labour-union link?

By Pete Willsman

20 March 2014

After Collins, what of the future? Of the collective link between the Labour Party and the trade unions as organisations representing the organised working class? The composition of the implementation committee is quite encouraging, and its actions may avert our worst fears in the immediate future. For example, Labour Uncut have suggested that the implementation committee might change the basis of the London mayoral primary, and any early leadership election so that union members can be fully involved. They, of course. wish to prevent that. So the battle continues to preserve effective union involvement in party decision-making.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the collective link may be on a slippery slope. For the first time since they set up the Labour Party, the trade unions face being slowly edged out. It is true that the unions have the power at the moment to prevent this happening, but it has often been the case in the past that when push comes to shove, some trade union leaders prefer to fight the next battle rather than the one they’re faced with.

In the consultation document, Ray Collins made it clear what is coming: “we need to consider how, once this new system is in place, we would address consequences for other structures in the party, such as the conference.” Alan Johnson also weighed in: “there is no earthly reason why affiliated unions should have 50% of the vote at conference“. On 5 February, the Guardian editorial gave “two cheers for democracy” but complained that it left “block vote system intact” and the “system of elections to the NEC unreformed“. The misnamed Progress had spelt it all out in their statement of 5 September:

"... the unions currently hold 50% of the vote on the conference floor. This is unsustainable. Instead, the union and CLP share should fall to one-third, with parliamentarians and councillors taking the final third. Finally, the electoral college, which elects Labour’s leader, should be scrapped. In its place, the party should adopt one member, one vote, with MPs shortlisting the candidates."

There is also the matter of state funding. You do not have to have a crystal ball to predict that the party leadership will go for state funding once we have a Labour (or Lab-Lib) government. Watch for the reference in the manifesto if you don’t believe me. Rather than accept subs and donations from millions of hard-working levy-payers, they prefer to be ‘spongers on the state’. Accepting money from tax payers, many of whom are Tories, UKIP, BNP and worse, who would have no opportunity to opt in or opt out. Already trade union leaders, activists and members are demoralised. With one attack after another on their role in the party, the real danger is that trade unions will just walk away. Progress and certain Labour Uncut bloggers will have got what they seem to want. An SDP Mark II.

We must not let this reactionary situation develop. To preserve their political voice, trade unions cannot afford to be passive and reactive. We have to find a way to change the whole basis of the relationship between the unions as organisations and the party. A relationship where the unions are proactive, and are properly in the driving seat alongside the party leadership.

The implementation committee

Jon Ashworth (MP/Leader’s rep)

Johanna Baxter (CLP rep)

Keith Birch (Unison)

Ann Black (CLP rep)

Angela Eagle (MP/NEC Chair/NPF Chair)

John Hannett (USDAW)

Billy Hayes (CWU)

Diana Holland (Treasurer/Unite)

Jim Kennedy (UCATT)

Martin Mayer (Unite)

Conor McGinn (Socialist Societies)

Ellie Reeves (CLP rep)

Dave Sparks (Local Government)

Cath Speight (GMB)

Keith Vaz (MP/BAME Labour)

Glenis Wilmott (MEP)

plus Steve Rotherham MP

Originally published on Left Future