Defend the link but democratise it too….

Certain things do leave you wondering exactly what goes on at strategy meetings of the Labour leadership. I am currently going with the hypothesis that the main activity is in fact the completion of a giant colour-by-numbers bumper activity book. It certainly isnt the discussion of anything approaching joined-up political thinking. What else can explain the fact that, having had a good ‘Hackgate’, the leadership team and Ed Miliband now seem to think the prudent thing to do is fritter away the good will they earned amoung Labour activists (and even though I don’t agree with Ed’s responsibility riff, he did have a good innings) by staging a full-frontal assault on the Party’s historic links to the trade unions. As an aside, it’s also very, very sloppy communications work because now, if these proposals are not made, Ed will look weak and the ‘Red Ed’ tag returns, if they are, there is a very real chance they will be defeated (also making Ed look weak). One wonders if Tom Baldwin is worth is salary.

I digress. Let’s start from the top. I actually concede the central point that critics of the bloc vote make; it is undemocratic. Furthermore, it doesn’t actually empower trade unionists within the Labour Party – it empowers the trade union bureaucracy and that is a different thing. In fact, the bloc vote not only makes the union leadership congenitally lazy but it aids them in keeping their members at arms length from politics and the Labour Party. The only possible reason I can see for defending it is that it is better than nowt and even then that is not a reason to not actually fight for something better to supersede it.

Similarly, with the electoral college, I have had a stated position of opposing it in favour of One Member, One Equal Vote. It’s undemocratic; there is no way around it and not primarily because of the famous ‘multiple votes’ issue. In the weightings it gives to the different sections of the college, it enshrines the undemocratic dominion and sometimes less than benign tyranny of the Parliamentary Labour Party over the rest of the Party and the movement. Leftist defenders of the college have to realise that what they are in fact defending is the utter subervience of the trade unions within the Party and the leadership election process because of the pathetic weighting the votes in their section have.

In some things Ed is actually right. It is totally unacceptable for trade unions to refuse to hand over membership lists if they are actually serious about engagement with this Party. However, in others he is totally wrong and the union leaders are right; it is totally unacceptable to undermine not just trade unionists but also Labour Party members and their democratic rights through the creation of a ‘registered supporter’ category. As things stand as well, the proposals to reduce the unions bloc vote and regarding the electoral college are things that should be opposed. They are not aimed at ‘democratising the Party’ but are, in fact, are as they are widely and correctly perceived, an assault on Labour’s historic ties to the trade unions.

However, resistance to this does not mean we cannot promote an alternative of our own; we should not just be cheerleaders for a status quo which does contain a democratic deficit. In this regard I propose the following:

  • All payers of the political levy be given automatic Labour Party membership (with the emphasis being on ‘opting out’, not ‘opting in’). They already are in all the senses that matter accept this one, they make a financial contribution and in many cases are committed activists and this would also make sharing lists unnecessary because they would be on Labour Party lists as a result of this measure.
  • Following this, the abolition of the electoral college and the introduction of one member, one equal vote.
  • The restoration of the sovereign powers of Labour conference and after, only after, the completion of step 1 (the granting of all levy payers individual Labour membership)  the phasing out of the bloc vote.

Again, I would not submit this is an exhaustive list of ideas and necessary measures but it is a start we can make in defending to the hilt the trade union link but also democratising it and in doing so, democratising the entire Party.


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14 responses to “Defend the link but democratise it too….”

  1. john reid says :

    I half feel that in the early Blair years, he new that as teh unions only funded 30% of the party and that if the unions played up and said give us what we want or we will withdrawl our support he, woul d have just said goodbye, now where they fund 70% Ed is playing a silly game as Ed hasn’t got the power to stand up to them and isn’t prepared to say out loud (at least )that he wants them to have more powers,


  2. darrellgoodliffe says :


    I think your right, Ed is playing a very silly and dangerous game here. Either he is very silly indeed or he is being very badly advised.


  3. Redshift says :

    “It is totally unacceptable for trade unions to refuse to hand over membership lists if they are actually serious about engagement with this Party”

    Well other than it firstly being a clear breach of data protection legislation and secondly, likely to lower the number of people who pay the levy.


  4. darrellgoodliffe says :


    Not if they are handed over to duly nominated officers it clearly isn’t. Why? If they are paying the levy then they are committed to Labour in any case.


  5. Redshift says :

    When you sign up to a union you are usually given the chance of opting out of a political levy that doesn’t just cover Labour Party affiliation but also backing of specific MPs (which even unaffiliated unions like the RMT and PCS do – they have groups in parliament), anti-racist work, international campaigns (Justice for Columbia for one example) and more.

    Nowhere on that form does it state that you are allowing yourself to be contacted directly by the Labour Party. No consent has been given. It is therefore a breach of data protection legislation. If the forms said differently it would be a different matter but they don’t and even if we started doing it, it would obviously only change this situation for new union members and those that specifically make an effort to allow themselves onto another list.

    Believe me, I like your sentiment but what is being proposed here is a massive legal headache. It would be far smarter to actually engage with union officers better in the first place. I know of few CLPs where the TULO officer position is regarded as important – some don’t even bother electing one.


  6. darrellgoodliffe says :

    Then change the forms?


  7. John Reid says :

    red 1754, first paragraph, if labour wanted the list for the first bid ,it might make the likes of the PCS ,have to stop funding such groups


  8. Redshift says :


    Like I say, even if they did that it would only mean that newly recruited unionists would be contactable directly, so it would take more than a generation to make access legal for all the levy-payers on the union’s membership list. It just isn’t a thought through proposal for getting serious numbers of levy-payers active in the party in anything like the near future.

    The more obvious answer involves rebuilding the grassroots links between CLPs and local union branches. As a TULO officer in my CLP (and the first time they have bothered electing one in recent years – because I specifically wanted to do it), I know how much this has fallen by the wayside. We don’t even have all the local branches affiliated, nevermind having regular delegates to meetings and regular discussion with their members. It is no wonder that unionists don’t get more involved really and to be perfectly honest its the party’s fault. Very much a result of the decline of grassroots party activism during our years in power.


  9. darrellgoodliffe says :


    I think your making up excuses for the unions here to be honest. Is it not perfectly possible, and worth the investment politically, to write to people retroactively and deal with this? I actually think the union bureaucracy doesn’t want ordinary trade unionists involved in the Party and that is why there is no action on this and why the decline you note has happened and that is because it is lazy and partially complicit in its creeping marginalisation.


    • Redshift says :

      Is the onus on affiliated trade unions or the Labour Party to make the effort to get people involved in the Labour Party? You make it sound like trade unions have nothing better to do than spend their time acting as recruiting sergeants for us.

      I tell you where the decline I mentioned comes from – BLAIR! He centralised the party’s decision making, campaigned predominantly through the media and attacked our own affiliates. The effect that has had on the ground to general levels of local activism is really something that we have only just started recovering from – and with our local activism gone (with a large decline in membership), the active communication between CLP and union branch broke down as well.

      If we want things to change, we should get off our collective fat arse and start encouraging union branches to reaffiliate, to send delegates to our meetings, perhaps send speakers (Unite bus worker branch officers would make good speakers on local public transport issues for example). We seem to expect unwavering, unquestionable support not just from the union head offices but from the unions’ memberships. Its not realistic to expect that without some genuine work on the ground.

      The laziness here is on our part as a party, not from the trade unions. Asking them to hand over their membership lists is a lazy shortcut so we can bombard their membership with our propaganda without actually listening to what they have to say. What is actually wrong with going through union branch officers?

      So look, could the unions send stuff out asking people to give permission for the Labour Party to have their details? Yes, although as I’ve said that’s more complex than what Ed seems to think is possible (which as I’ve highlighted he is wrong about). But why are we asking them to make this effort when to be frank, our efforts are beyond pathetic?


  10. darrellgoodliffe says :


    This doesn’t immediately concern the PCS. They are not affiliated to Labour.


  11. darrellgoodliffe says :


    Bit of both surely?

    They do actually have a responsibility to interact and struggle within the Party they have chosen to represent them, yes, rather than just whine about its state and/or financially blackmailing it which is a passive stance which is also deeply unacceptable.

    No, the unions are lazy too so its both sides of the equation that are lacking. Put simply, the unions don’t punch their weight within the Party. But errr you have just said it is possible so thats good enough for me, it can be done. Errr we should because we are supposed to be in this together, and that kind of implies a two-way relationship not one party doing all the work and making all the effort.


  12. Redshift says :

    The Labour Party is purely a political organisation. The trade unions are primarily industrial organisations – that is why they formed the Labour Party.

    Labour leaders (in particular Blair) have actively tried to weaken that link and sideline the unions. Lowering their democratic influence on the party, pursuing unnecessarily antagonistic policies and regularly joining in the right-wing press’ anti-union myth-fest. We actually managed to lose the affiliation of two unions during our time in office (FBU and RMT – both 100% avoidable) as well as severely damaging relations with most of those that remained affiliated at different times.

    To make things worse, we contributed to our own self-destruction by neglecting grassroots campaign work, trying a media-intensive campaign strategy. This also, exasperated our loss of faith with trade unionists perhaps more so than it did with the average member of the public.

    Now we get a leader who was elected with support from the biggest 3 unions in the country. And yet he tells striking workers that they are ‘wrong’ to exercise their democratic right and now he tries to ‘curb’ the unions influence on the party.

    We are actually lucky that more unions haven’t disaffiliated and I think not only is this demand about membership lists shockingly ignorant of data protection law, it is also fucking cheeky, given the above circumstances. The least we can do before making any demands like this, is make a concerted effort up and down the country to rebuild bridges on a local level. We might find that with a bit of engagement, local union members start joining (or rejoining) the party – except without trying to bypass and therefore outrage their branch officers. We might find that having some improved membership discount for levy payers, like you suggest above, will improve relations and the link with unions far more than bombarding them with unsolicited emails.

    So the question comes back to the proposals. Why has Miliband gone on this antagonistic collision course with the unions, when there are so much more constructive options? Really, he should be doing something as a show of faith saying, ‘brothers and sisters, we’re on your side’ but instead he’s burning the few bridges that are left. The unions feel they have been taken for a ride already, why slap them in the face when he could hold out his hand?


  13. darrellgoodliffe says :


    I don’t disagree at all to be honest BUT all I am saying is that it is important we place demands on the trade union leadership. After all, it’s all very well saying all you say BUT who errrr voted with the leadership at conference after conference if not the union bureaucracy?


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