Eighteen months before a General Election, with only a modest lead in the polls over the Tories and the real pre-election economic debate only just starting, the leader of the Labour Party decides this is the ideal time to pick a completely unnecessary fight with the largest group of our supporters in the country.
It’s difficult not to drift into hyperbole about how crass this decision was on the part of the Labour leadership, but let’s just try to understand how we got here and what the options are for getting the Labour and trade union movement out of this mess.
What’s worrying for the future if Labour does get into government in 2015 is that Ed Miliband allowed himself to be panicked into this mess by Cameron. It doesn’t bode well for when a real crisis occurs in government under Ed Miliband. Cameron exploited a few inaccurate headlines in the gutter press about the Falkirk selection and Miliband reacted not with a considered view rising above the unfounded allegations but, fearful of a goading at Prime Minister’s Questions, he panicked and dug himself into a hole.
Once in the hole he then allowed his ex-Blairite friends to seize upon the opportunity they have been waiting for for years to demand a break in the link between Labour and the trade unions. An argument about principle then got diverted into a grubby row over trade union funding for the Party. The issue of funding is the least of the concerns.
The Labour and trade union movement has been the most successful movement for progress in the history of this country. By linking the collective strength of working class people represented by their trade unions at work with their collective political strength represented by the Labour Party, the lives of working class people have been dramatically transformed for the better. This collective strength, combining representation in the workplace and representation at every level of government, has proved it can be an unbeatable force. That is why one of the key objectives of our political enemies has always been to divide our movement by breaking the powerful alliance between the Labour Party and trade unions.
It’s the same old divide and rule strategy that they always try. It is taken up by the ‘enemies within’ the Labour Party because these covert Tories simply want a party that maintains the status quo, gives them a handsome living in Parliament and elsewhere, and renders them unaccountable to any rank and file membership.
Now that the Labour leadership has got us into this mess, and with so little time before the next election, it’s down to us to sort things out. If we don’t, there is little chance of mobilising the six million trade unionists in this country we will need in 2015 to get out and vote out the Tories.
The special party conference in the spring of 2014 is the deadline imposed by Miliband for agreement on changes in trade union involvement in the Party. Negotiations now need to start in earnest on the deal needed to satisfy Ed Miliband that he has sufficiently reformed the relationship with trade unionists while we maintain the principle of the collective representation of trade unions within the Party. The shape of this deal should not be beyond the creativity of the trade union negotiators we possess in the movement if the goodwill is there from the Labour leadership.
The trade unions and rank and file members of the Party are in an incredibly strong position over the next six months to secure radical policy commitments to address the needs of our people, further reforms to democratise our Party, and firm agreements with the Labour leadership, not only on the future role of trade unions in the Party but also on the actual mechanisms of government when we go into government next.
This can all be achieved if we approach the coming struggle within the Labour Party with skill, confidence and determination. If the leader of the Labour Party rejects negotiation and compromise he will alienate a mass base of support and render the Labour Party unelectable. Crudely it’s always important to bear in mind that the Labour leader needs us more than we need him. At that stage, if it comes to it, Labour Party members and many trade unions may decide to move on without him or the Labour Party.
John McDonnell is MP for Hayes and Harlington and Chair of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs and the Labour Representation Committee.