Trade Unions are the force which will make Labour electable again….
Billy Hayes, General Secretary of the Communication Workers Union, told the Green Party conference quite a staggering statistic; in 2010 just over 40% of CWU members voted Labour, compared to 63% in 2005. Spot the difference between the two elections? Well, in one Labour squeaked over the finishing line with nothing that could be called a democratic mandate but at least the largest number of seats in Parliament and still in government. In the second Labour was kicked-out of government and consigned to the opposition benches. I am not saying the massed ranks of the CWU made the difference but the trend their falling support represents without question actually did and that is a significant decline of support from ‘core’ voters.
Of the leadership contenders the only candidate not to feel this is a significant problem is David Miliband. The others have, in their varied ways, sought to address it and recognised its existence which is the first step to dealing with the problem. What the above shows us is that no matter how charming and how polished a new leader may be they will not be electable until this problem is a) recognised and b) addressed. Serious and deep-seated gaps exist between Labour and whom it is supposed to represent both in its external policies and internal practices.
The cultural and political predominance of the Parliamentary Labour Party (through things like weighted votes in the leadership contest) is something that must be ended. Representatives serve the people and parties they represent; not the other way around. We are told the unions have to subordinate themselves to being part of a wider movement but the PLP; sealed-off from the real world inhabited by Labour’s activists and voters in the Westminster bubble as it is, seems to accept no such restriction. The electoral college should be abolished and policy making powers need to be devolved; also, the PLP should lose the power to elect the shadow cabinet. However, things need to go much further than that and this is where the issue becomes a two-way concern.
Ed Balls call for more working class candidates and description of the problems they face at the recent TUC hustings was admirable and prescient. Here the unions have a role because they have organisation and that gives them power they should use; for far too long they have been lazy, relying of the bloc vote to get their way. Fine, said the leadership, we will neuter conference and that renders the bloc vote impotent. Unions seem to go from one extreme to another; from non-engagement to shrill sounding threats and until they change this they will struggle to get their voices heard and struggle to set the agenda for the changes Labour needs to make to be electable again. Trade unions, who have been treated consistently like the embarrassing relative by Labour’s cultural elite can become the agency which reconnects Labour with its lost voters both working and middle class.