Dissent from the attack on the traditional union link comes from varied quarters:
From Tim Stanley in the Telegraph…..
Ed Miliband is planning to (slightly) sever the Labour/union link, or at least to weaken it by chewing wetly on the rope with those tombstone teeth. Some clever types are calling this his Clause Four moment. It could be better described as “stabbing your friends in the back”. That’s what it’s called when you turn on the very people who helped elect you because you think kicking a friend in public is worth a few points in the polls. Yes, Tony Blair did this to the unions all the time, and he won three elections in a row because many voters admired him for it. But this isn’t the early noughties, and Ed is no Tony. He’s barely a Gordon or a Neil.
Let’s start by clearing up a few facts. It looks like something bad happened with the Unite candidate in Falkirk, but an internal Labour report also found that another candidate seeking selection had done something dodgy when it came to recruiting new members – and this has been oddly underreported. If Unite was trying to fix an MP’s selection, so what? It’s a labour union and this is the Labour Party. It’s axiomatic that unions should try to exert influence upon the selection of candidates for the party that their money finances, and it has been ever thus. Unite, by the way, is not an exclusively public sector union (there’s been a lot of nonsense talked about a public sector takeover of the Labour Party) and it’s not even very good at fixin’ things (only nine of 41 United-endorsed candidates have won Labour nominations). And I would much rather that candidate selection was controlled by the unions than by a narrow clique in Westminster. Remember that whole Blairite thing in the 1990s, when a bunch of media consultants and PR gurus forced supine, dull and dumb candidates upon constituencies ? Those Blair babes and Blair eunuchs were the boys and girls who voted for the Iraq War, PFI, tuition fees and the war on civil liberties. I’d take a thousand Dennis Skinners over one of them.
No, Ed Miliband’s troubles don’t come from the unions, which are dwindling in number and have enjoyed only minimal influence in Labour politics since 1992. His problems begin with two rather more contemporary sources. First, the Blairites. Labour would be doing a lot better in the polls if the public could only trust it. But bitter memories of the legacy of Blairism – specifically an illegal war in Iraq and pandering to financial institutions with all the moral restraint of Caligula on the pull – make it very difficult for Miliband to overcome the general suspicion that Labour post-Blair is a lacking in either character or principle. It wasn’t the Left that destroyed Labour’s reputation in the last decade; it was the Right – the very Right who are agitating for a war on Unite. I don’t write that as a call for a return to socialism; voters don’t want to nationalise M&S just yet. But Labour needs to confront the mistakes made in its Blairite past as much as it does its Militant tendency.
That would require genuine leadership, something that Ed has hitherto lacked. For Miliband’s second big problem is himself. He is the Julia Gillard of UK politics – worthy, probably quite nice, but lacking in fibre, unconvincing and fundamentally unlikeable. There’s that strange accent that wanders from region to region in search of words to kill (he is the first man to pronounce the word “year” with three syllables). There’s the hair that can’t decide if it’s grey, black or Dalmatian dog. And there’s his odd tendency to lose track of the world mid-sentence and break away from his speech to contemplate some elusive spot in the far distance that the rest of us can’t see. Where does your mind go to in those moments, Ed? I like to imagine he sees monkeys frolicking on swings.
What his mind does not contemplate is history, for Miliband eschews this with adolescent ego. He lacks care for Labour’s bifurcated philosophical tradition. One half is its working-class protectionism: patriotic, anti-globalisation, populist, “jobs for the boys” etc. The other is its socialist romanticism – its endless, often hopeless, quest to banish poverty and end war. The two halves combined produces a British socialism that is less dogmatic than it is spiritual. After the collapse of Marxist economics, the Labour movement’s historic crusade became to civilise capitalism, to foster a society that puts people before profit and encourages the individual to aspire to something more than just making money. Ed Miliband seems disconnected from this politics of the heart; he prefers to find comfort in detail and wonkery. You get the impression that he goes home at night and snuggles up to a warm bar chart.
Ed’s latest war on the union smacks of cold calculation, that clever-clever tendency among some Labourites to think they can strategise and triangulate their way to victory. It won’t work. Only a total severance of the union link would satisfy the pundits and earn him the badge of Blairite courage, and by falling far short of that, his proposals will irritate his base and create a new narrative of Labour internal division. If he does agitate the troops, Ed will deserve all the aggravation he gets. He doesn’t understand that Labour is, in its gut, about loyalty – loyalty to a class, a region, a people, a movement. If Labour turns its backs on the unions then it isn’t worth very much at all. It becomes yet another neo-liberal party led by a sad man with a lisp.
…to the solid Kevin Maguire in the Mirror
He’s a leader carelessly splitting his own party by foolishly treating Unite’s Len McCluskey as an enemy within
He’s a leader carelessly splitting his own party by foolishly treating Unite’s Len McCluskey as an enemy within.
Miliband forgetting that his opponent is called David William Donald Cameron and leads the Conservative Party, not a trade union, suggests he needs a long holiday.
He divided Labour’s top team with his ill-judged decision to escalate the Falkirk parliamentary selection row by calling the police.
I’m reliably informed that Iain McNicol, Labour’s general secretary, was among those against dialling 999.
And if Miliband is genuinely concerned about how wannabe MPs are picked, he could start by cutting out the promises of safe Labour seats in return for favours.
Parachuting a chosen elite into Westminster is the big Labour fixing scandal of the past 20 years, northern England’s working-class communities abused as a landing site for too many ambitious politicians with no love for the region. Miliband has blundered into a conflict he’ll never win because those egging him on, inside and outside Labour, will never declare his victory.
The cheerleaders, describing his stand against Unite as brave, aren’t Miliband’s supporters. They mainly want him to be the Julia Gillard of British politics, to follow the ousted leader of Oz Labor into the wilderness.
How to lose friends and alienate people isn’t a winning strategy.
Why does Miliband swallow Cameron’s ruinous austerity programme? Why isn’t he voting against a cruel £250million ConDem cut by forcing the jobless to wait a week for the dole? Why doesn’t Labour’s leader vow to scrap horrendous zero-hours contracts, which leave people unpaid for weeks on end? Why hasn’t he declared that hugely profitable supermarkets will be forced in law to pay a £7.45 (£8.55 in London) hourly Living Wage? Why no pledge to reverse the poisonous privatised fragmentation of the NHS by kicking out the Bransons? And why don’t we hear Miliband declare that if the ConDems flog off Royal Mail, Labour would simply re-nationalise it? My phone rang yesterday moments after Harriet Harman, Miliband’s deputy, announced that the leadership had decided, unilaterally, to review the party’s links with the trade unions.
The angry caller, a Labour MP and former minister under Blair and Brown, warned that the threat will go down like a ton of bricks in the Parliamentary Labour Party when many are proud to be card-carrying union members and are fed up with timid Labour’s political cowardice.
Behaving like Blue Ed is self-defeating for Red Ed when scapegoating trade unions is symptomatic of a deeper Labour crisis.
Disunited Labour’s biggest problem is Ed Miliband losing the plot.
…and our own Mike Phipps
Ed Miliband says he is “incredibly angry” about what has happened in Falkirk. To many, it might seem an odd set of priorities that our leader is “incredibly angry” about a remote constituency selection process. All the more so, as it’s just a week after the latest round of Coalition spending cuts, about which the whole Labour front bench seemed a great deal more relaxed. Indeed, many of the attacks on the poorest in society, such as the vicious requirement that newly redundant workers should wait seven days before being eligible for benefit, have been hailed as irreversible. Now that’s what makes many ordinary Party members angry.
But what exactly did happen in Falkirk? The leadership’s refusal to publish an internal inquiry means we are unlikely to get a balanced view of events. Yet as Owen Jones points out in The Independent, “The focus has almost exclusively been on Karie Murphy, the Unite-backed candidate. But Labour’s internal Falkirk report is said reveal that her opponent, Gregor Poynton, recruited 11 new members, submitting a single £130 cheque to pay for their subscriptions. He wasn’t said to have done anything wrong.”
Instead, we have the suspension of the local party, a police investigation and the resignation of a member of the Shadow Cabinet, Tom Watson, whose campaign against illegal phone-hacking has made him a prime target in the eyes of the Murdoch press, a scalp they have long sought. Now they will want more.
Yet, leaving aside the specifics of Falkirk, what’s so terrible about trade unions that are affiliated to the Party at all levels having some say in its internal affairs? This is, of course, a privilege which a hostile media takes for granted for itself. Len McCluskey defends his union’s role primarily in terms of the needs to have a broad spectrum of candidates, who have life experience from outside the Westminster bubble.
Writing in the Sunday Mirror, he pointed out, “If your son or daughter fancies becoming a Labour MP, forget it. They have more chance of cleaning in the Commons than being elected to it. That is what the row over Labour selection procedures is really about – who can play a part in our politics. Today, Parliament is increasingly the preserve of an out-of-touch elite – Oxbridge-educated special advisers who glide from university to think tank to the green benches without ever sniffing the air of the real world. That is what Unite is trying to change. We want to give our democracy back to ordinary working people.”
Others – although so far, way too few trade union leaders – have stood up to defend the union link as a good thing, because unions generally make a positive political and useful financial contribution to the Party.
Now, let’s not be too defensive. The money unions give to Labour – when you think how little union members have been given in return during thirteen years of New Labour governments keener to do the bidding of the city, the multinationals and George W. Bush – well, that money has got to be among the cleanest in UK politics. It’s hard to find examples of cash for favours and access where union donations are involved.
And the alternative? As Owen Jones again points out: “It is better to be bankrolled by millions of dinner ladies and care assistants than hedge fund managers, City bankers and legal loan sharks – like the Tories. That is exactly what would happen to Labour if the union link was severed. When Tony Blair attempted to dilute Labour’s reliance on union funds, it ended in the cash-for-honours scandal and a sitting prime minister being questioned by police in Downing Street. Before Labour’s 1997 election victory, the key Blairite ally Stephen Byers floated severing the union link: he ended his political career offering himself as a ‘taxi for hire’ to corporate lobbyists. These union-bashers are completely beholden to private interests, and they want Labour to be, too.” (http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/this-attack-on-labours-union-links-must-notsucceed-8693653.html).
But it’s not just about money, it’s about politics. There are many who are happy to see the union link preserved within the Party as long as the unions don’t try to exert influence over policy. The LRC is not among them.
Imagine a Labour Party committed to the policies of most its affiliated trade unions – well-funded publicly accountable services, an end to costly and wasteful privatisation, a clampdown on tax dodgers, greater social equality, a huge programme of affordable house building, sustainable jobs.
“Is this a pipedream?” asked Martin Mayer, Chair of United Left and a Unite delegate on Labour’s NEC, writing in a recent edition of Labour Briefing. “Policies such as these are supported by the British trade union movement and endorsed by the TUC Congress which represents seven million trade union members.” (https://labourbriefing1.wordpress.com/2013/07/07/archive-what-if-the-trade-unions-reclaimed-labour/)
And they are popular policies too. Don’t forget that an estimated five million voters deserted Labour at the last election. If the Party is to be successful again, it needs to be rebuilt from the bottom up, in their interests. Unite at least have a strategy for doing this. The Blairites of course prefer moribund local structures where elite careerists can be parachuted into safe seats, the only basis on which they can replicate their discredited policies. All of which analysis is entirely absent from most of the press, which has orchestrated an avalanche of attacks on the Party’s union link in recent days.
The offensive is being fed firstly by a Tory leadership, keen to draw attention away from its own mismanagement of the economy and internal troubles, driven by their new hireling, strategist Lynton Crosby, notorious for negative and dirty campaigning. But it is also being fuelled by a right-wing rump within the Labour Party that has never forgiven the trade unions – the rank and file s much as their leaders – for helping Ed Miliband win the leadership election in 2010 against his far better funded Blairite brother.
With the frenzy being driven by both the Tories and the last discredited remnants of ‘New Labour’, grouped around the ever-divisive unelected Lord Mandelson, the media have gone into hysteria mode. All pundits agree that this is the biggest test of Ed Miliband’s leadership. Guardian commentators Nicholas Watt and Rajeev Syal even evoked Neil Kinnock’s 1985 denunciation of Militant-controlled Liverpool Council, which they gushingly described “as one of the greatest political speeches of the postwar period.” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2013/jul/05/ed-miliband-unite-falkirk-selection)
The comparison with Kinnock is salient. This is a man who was elected by the Party, against the wishes of its entrenched bureaucracy, on the basis of a track record of opposition to attacks on the working class. But then as now, the entrenched interests don’t go away – they simply intensify the pressure. Under their pressure, Neil Kinnock buckled horribly. He ended up, aided by Peter Mandelson and others, using the most divisive tactics to force the Party to the right, alienating much of the grassroots in the process. During his nine years, he led the Party to two electoral defeats, the second of which his own hubris and incompetence seemed to snatch from the jaws of victory.
So this is something of a test for Ed Miliband’s leadership. Is he, like his useless 1980s predecessor, going to allow himself to be dictated to by the Murdoch press and the Blairites he defeated, or will he stick up for what he said he believed when he won the 2010 leadership election?
Past experience teaches that if you cave in once, your enemies will come back for more – and more. Those who hold the economic power in this country know that those who don’t want an alternative to the current unelected and unpopular government. Those with power want that alternative to be 100% safe for their interests, almost indistinguishable from the current lot, a change of faces only.
Haven’t we been here before? Isn’t it about time Labour offered a real political alternative, both in policy and the kind of people it seeks to represent? That’s what lies at the heart of this controversy.