Len McCluskey told Westminster journalists at a press gallery lunch that if Labour lost in 2015 he could envisage the possibility of Unite voting to disaffiliate from the Labour Party. The Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD) annual general meeting briefly burst into life over a resolution backed by leading lights Jon Lansman, Pete Willsman and Christine Shawcroft for the opening of a discussion about establishing a new “trade union party”.
The cynics among you may dismiss this as post-Collins, pre-election hot air and many on the outside left of Labour will no doubt be vastly over-excited by Len’s comments.
Diplomatic gymnastics of Olympic standard culminated in Unite supporting the Collins Report at Labour’s two hour special conference. On the other hand Len McCluskey has made no secret of his disgust at the Falkirk and Grangemouth events. Like many in his union he’s undoubtedly had a gut full of the sabotage and backstabbing Unite has endured from some within Labour over the past year.
The CLPD AGM voted to remit Jon Lansman’s resolution which proposed opening a discussion to explore the possibility of a pro-Labour trade union party, something like the existing Co-op Party, which has its own structures and policies but supports Labour candidates.
Resolutions had to be rushed through late at HS2 speed, but there was almost a debate on this most sensitive of issues. Francis Prideaux, Barry Gray and others opposed the resolution, but an open split was avoided by Gary Heather’s proposal to remit it to the executive. Maybe it will go there to die but only if Jon Lansman and Pete Willsman choose to let it.
Interestingly the following day’s Morning Star gave the sixty strong conference and the ‘trade union party’ resolution surprising prominence; with a front page lead, another article inside and a reference in the editorial.
Though Unite’s Martin Mayer attended and spoke from the platform from United Left there is no connection between the CLPD resolution and Len’s comments, beyond frustration at the Labour leadership’s attacks on the union link. CLPD’s experts at reading Labour runes know more trouble is likely to follow despite the temporary truce around Collins and the implementation committee (on which Mayer sits).
Across the Party there is disquiet at failure to establish a decisive opinion poll lead, and conflict over a suitable policy response. Inevitably trade union members ask what is the point of paying for a party which fails to win or, when elected, doesn’t deliver.
The non-Labour left remains characteristically riven and ineffective at elections. We are likely to have No2EU, TUSC and Left Unity candidates standing against Labour and each other in the European and parliamentary elections but garnering only a tiny vote and many lost deposits. Of the unions unaffiliated to Labour only the RMT has supported any electoral challenge to Labour. But it still organises a parliamentary group of MPs because unions need political representation.
If disaster strikes and Labour loses in 2015, it’s not inconceivable that a Labour affiliated ‘trade union party’, drawing up its own policies and supporting Labour candidates who support them, like the Co-op Party, could prove an ingenious compromise. It would have attractions both for those who want to strengthen unions’ collective representation in Labour and those who see it as a half-way house to a new party. But it would be a huge task to establish and get it affiliated.
» Ian Ilett is a member of the Labour Representation Committee and the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy.