Unite’s rejection and Labour’s dilemma…..
So, Unite has rejected the governments final offer on public sector pensions in the NHS. Due to its size, Unite isn’t in a particularly strong bargaining position with regard to the NHS and alot may depend on what the British Medical Association decide to do. If they strike then Unite’s hand will be greatly strengthened and further concessions may be won. If it doesn’t, then all will hinge on what Unison decides to do. If, as I expect, they vote to accept (and the membership follows suit) then Unite will be out on a limb and there is little prospect of them winning a protracted industrial dispute.
Nonetheless, it is a brave stand by Unite. The deal is a bad one. However, whether accreditation for showing valour is their only reward is yet to be seen. Certainly, it will put Labour in an interesting predicament with Unison likely to back the deal and one of its other ‘big three’ – Unite, potentially out on the picket lines. However, what is more interesting, and potentially worrying, from a Labour standpoint is the realignment it lays bare taking place in union politics. Particularly, it shows how Unite, under Len McCluskey is coming into the orbit of Mark Serwotka’s Public and Commercial Service union, which is, of course, outside the Labour Party.
Indeed, there has been speculation that Unite and the PCS will eventually merge. If this were to be the case then it’s not implausible to speculate that Unite’s attitude towards Labour could well undergo some radical changes. At the very least, the new union would be vigorous in making its presence felt within Labour (not necessarily a bad thing) but the worse case scenario is it would withdraw altogether. Even without the merger, this may well be the case as a consequences of current events as it is.
This would be a disaster for Labour (which would be left with a significant financial black hole to fill) and for Unite which would find itself on the fringe of politics. I can more than understand the frustrations within Unite and indeed within other unions but the plain truth is that the unions are not an effective campaigning force within Labour – for example, there is little meaningful interaction between them and the Labour left. Rather than seek to win a democratic majority for their ideas and policies and concerns, they lazily rely on the undemocratic conference bloc vote they still wield.
Frankly, I am deeply unimpressed by how the unions operate within Labour. It is simply wrong that they grumble and groan and threaten the Party with the withdrawal of money, which ultimately ends up alienating members as it reeks of attempted blackmail, and then act with surprised injury when Labour fails to represent them, as it often does. Although we on the left say often Labour needs to remember its roots, that does not mean that it should be viewed with a sense of automatic entitlement by the unions. If they want their cause represented then they are going to ensure that happens themselves by campaigning properly and effectively within the Party and winning a democratic majority for their policy platforms. Culturally and organisationally they have to change their outlook – they have to start engaging with their natural allies, the Labour left, for example and generally throwing their weight around within the Party. They have to invest their resources not just in writing Labour blank cheques but in building their own campaigning presence within the Party.
If they did this, they may well find their views more effectively and accurately reflected at Labour’s highest levels and they may well win more policy concessions than they currently do. The trade unions have cause for complaint about Labour’s attitude towards them but rather than potentially walk away they at least owe it to the Party to try properly to alter that. The relationship between Unite and Labour could be entering choppy waters – with or without the PCS merger – however, the fundamental principle of solidarity needs to be remembered – we are stronger together, and weaker apart.