Ian Allinson and Amy Gilligan report:
The Unite Executive Council (EC) voted on Wednesday to cut its affiliation to the Labour Party to 500,000 members, reducing its affiliation fee from over £3m to about £1.5m. The size of the affiliation will be reviewed annually. The move is a sign of the discontent within the unions caused by Labour’s failure to stand up for workers and a reaction to the attacks on the union links by the Labour leadership. It shows the potential for campaigning within the unions for a radical alternative to Labour.
The latest crisis in Labour-union relations began with the row over the selection of the parliamentary candidate in the Falkirk constituency in June 2013. The Labour right, and its leadership, lined up to attack Unite, with claims that the union had attempted to rig the selection process. The Labour leadership even referred a partisan internal Labour Party report to the police, whipping up attacks on the union by the Tory press. Unite was later cleared by both the police and an internal Labour party investigation.
Labour’s attacks on Unite over Falkirk gave the vicious management of Ineos at the Grangemouth petrochemical plant and refinery the pretext for their industrial assault on Unite, leading to worse terms and conditions for the workers, weaker union organisation and the victimisation of two convenors at the plant, Stevie Deans and Mark Lyon. Both convenors are well known and respected activists in Unite. Far from Unite making progress with its political strategy of recruiting activists to the Labour Party, many union activists have resigned in disgust, feeling that Labour is not on their side.
After Falkirk, Miliband decided to go on the offensive against the Labour link to the trade unions in an attempt to weaken union influence within the Labour Party and pander to the Tory press. He initiated a review by Ray Collins, the Baron who is currently Labour General Secretary and who was previously a right-wing official in the TGWU and Unite. His original plan was that union members would have to individually opt in to Labour affiliation, rather than just contributing to the political levy as is currently the case. This move was initially opposed by most of the unions, as well as the left in the party. The Labour left Labour Representation Committee argued to “organise to minimise or even prevent them” In September GMB responded to the proposals by cutting its membership affiliated to Labour from 420,000 to 50,000, reducing the union’s basic affiliation fee to the Labour Party by £1.1m per year. The left welcomed the GMB’s move, as it meant payments to Labour would be optional rather than automatic, which could increase leftward pressure on Labour.
Len McCluskey, Unite’s General Secretary, was unusual in welcoming the proposed changes, arguing that the status quo wasn’t worth defending. The proposals were watered down a little, and Miliband was eventually able to persuade most union leaders to support the Collins review. McCluskey didn’t have an easy time winning his position within Unite, with many activists recognising the reforms as the move to the right that they are. Unite held a special Executive meeting in February, where support for the Collins review was only passed by 22 votes to 14 with 3 abstentions, despite McCluskey playing the loyalty card with his supporters.
The Collins report was endorsed by a Labour Party special conference on 1 March. Union members would have to opt in to affiliate to the Labour Party, but the unions retained 50% of the votes at Labour conferences – for now. It is clear that once the principle of individual membership is established, the right will demand that union voting power is reduced if affiliated members make up less than half the total. The changes also make it easier for MPs to block leadership candidates. In the last leadership election left winger John McDonnell was unable to get the support of enough MPs to get on the ballot paper. Had the Collins proposals been in place, even Diane Abbott and Andy Burnham would have been excluded, leaving it a straight fight between the Miliband brothers.
The reforms have been welcomed by figures on right including Tony Blair and David Owen. Owen led the right wing SDP split from Labour in 1981, which played a big part in keeping Thatcher in power through the 1980s.
Unite’s decision to cut its affiliation should be welcomed. It gives Unite more control over its financial support to Labour, but the left cannot afford to be complacent about how this will be used. The statement issued following the Executive meeting authorises McCluskey to make further donations to Labour and argues that “It is not in the interests of democracy itself for Labour – the only Party which can offer such an alternative – to contest the election without the resources required to make the contest a “fair fight” against the parties of global capital and the super-rich”. McCluskey resisted calls for decisions on donations to be taken by the full Executive, and the statement leaves such decisions in his own hands, only requiring him to “consult” the Executive or its Finance & General Purposes Committee.
Over the years McCluskey has on many occasions promised members that he would not give a penny above the affiliation fee to Labour until they reflected Unite’s values. There is no sign of any such transformation, with the Labour leadership backing Tory spending plans and Gove’s education reforms. A little over a year ago McCluskey secure the backing of his Executive to bring forward the Unite General Secretary election by two years to avoid a clash with the General Election. At the time some pointed out that this would give McCluskey the freedom to give Unite’s money to Labour at election time. All eyes will be on McCluskey to see if he keeps his election promise.
The cuts in affiliation fees by Unite and GMB alone amount to around £2.6m a year. This could give the unions real leverage with Labour, if they have the guts to use it and don’t cave in to fears of leaving Labour underfunded for the 2015 general election. If they really wanted to pile the pressure on Miliband, the unions would spend their political fund money campaigning for their own policies – in defence of the NHS and public services, against the anti-union laws, to raise the National Minimum Wage. If Labour backed these policies, they would be the main electoral beneficiaries of the campaigning. If not, their problems would be of their own making.
Most union activists feel that there is no adequate political representation for working class people. Labour puts business first, like the other major parties. TUSC and Left Unity lack critical mass. McCluskey argues that if Labour doesn’t turn left it will fail to inspire voters to turn out and support them, and will lose the election – and that if that happens Unite will need to debate whether to give up on Labour and start something new. Whether Miliband wins or loses the General Election, while Labour remains a party of the establishment the appetite for an alternative will continue to grow.