New Statesman & Society, 4 May 1995

Will Tony Blair do anything significant to change his party’s relationship with the trade unions before the next general election? Paul Anderson has his doubts
“Change and modernisation doesn’t stop at four o’clock this afternoon,” declared Tony Blair at last Saturday’s conference to change Clause Four of the Labour constitution. “It goes on – in the development of the party, in the development of policy.”
His remarks were widely interpreted as indicating an intention to transform Labour’s relations with the trade unions – and at first sight it’s not difficult to see why. Nine out often individual Labour Party members who had been given the chance to vote had opted for the new Clause Four, and the only union to ballot, the Communications Workers Union, had voted for change by a similar margin. But two of the largest unions, the TGWU and Unison, had stuck to deci­sions to oppose the new Clause Four made after consultations with activists.
Blair was obviously disappointed that these unions had not changed their minds at the last minute – and it only took a little off-the-record briefing from sources generally believed to be close to the Labour leader to convince many com­mentators that a radical shake-up of Labour-union relations is on the way.
It might be, of course – but it’s far more likely that Blair will decide not to launch himself into forcing through sig­nificant modifications of the party consti­tution this side of a general election. The one change that is almost certain, partic­ularly now that it has the backing of deputy leader John Prescott, is a reduc­tion of the union vote at party conference from the current 70 per cent to 50 per cent – but Labour conference in 1993 more-or-less agreed to make this reduc­tion when individual party membership reached 300,000 (see below).
Although there is undoubtedly some scope for unions to argue that Blair is moving too fast on this, the indications are that he will get his way in time for the 1996 conference. GMB general secretary John Edmonds told NSS this week that he has no problem with the reduction, and his thinking is echoed elsewhere in the upper echelons of the unions.
Although symbolically important, reducing the union vote will not make a lot of difference to the way that the confer­ence operates: the big unions will con­tinue to get their way on the overwhelm­ing majority of conference business. Ironically, the more prescient of them believe that the reduction will increase the legitimacy of their participation.
Beyond this, there are two possibilities being given an airing. The first is that Blair will push for a change in the compo­sition of Labour’s National Executive Committee: he told the Guardian this week that he would “like to see a broader NEC, with local government members, and a greater role for the way in which ordinary members of the party are involved in policy-making through policy forums”. But even this is far from certain: he said in the same interview that he did not have a blueprint for NEC reform and went out of his way to deny that he wanted to reduce union representation on the NEC. There is obviously quite a lot of drafting work to be done if the composi­tion of the NEC is to be changed at this year’s party conference, practically the last chance for it before the election.
The second possibility is some rule change to ensure that unions ballot members on certain Labour Party mat­ters – a simple enough idea in theory, but likely to meet serious union resis­tance if the leadership tries to push it through. One reason is that the unions resent the criticism of their representa­tive democratic structures implied by the argument that only ballots can give them a legitimate voice in Labour affairs, a point made forcefully last weekend by Rodney Bickerstaffe of Unison. Almost as important is the cost to a union of bal­loting all members (£500,000 for the TGWU). If Blair proposes the introduc­tion of ballots for anything other than fundamental changes to the party consti­tution, he will find it extremely difficult to get through conference.
Other reforms to the Labour-union link are even more unlikely – and in any case, Blair has more important tasks in the next six months than messing with the party constitution. An economic pol­icy is due to be presented to Labour’s National Policy Forum in June, and there’s a serious argument to be had over what it should contain, with the unions pressing hard for commitments on reducing unemployment and on the level at which a Labour government would set a national minimum wage. It is more than possible that the leadership will get its way on economic policy – but its chances will be reduced if it tries to force through constitutional change against the unions’ will at the same time.
Then there’s the small problem of money – in particular the war chest for the next election (see box). Unless Blair is a reckless gambler, he’ll put off trying to change anything significant about the Labour-union link until well after the next election – and by then, the unions hope, he should have more important things on his mind.


One reason Labour is unlikely to break its links with the trade unions is its reliance on them for cash.

Trade union donations comprise more than half the party’s income nationally in a non-election year (£4.7 million out of a total of £8.8 million income in 1993, the last year for which figures are available, came from affiliated organisations) and the unions have pledged large sums for the party’s general election war-chest. The unions also contribute generously to local Labour parties and towards MPs’ research and administration costs.

Although Labour’s membership has increased in the past year, many of the new members are paying subscriptions at reduced rates(some of them so low that it costs more to service them than they pay in subs).The party’s income from corporate donors is minuscule.

So, despite the success that the party had in securing donations from individuals in the run-up to the 1992 general election (more than £2 million came in, mostly in small donations, during the election campaign), no one in the party believes that it could fight the next general election campaign without union support – although afterwards, if it wins the election, it could reduce its reliance on the unions by introducing state funding of political parties. The problem here, however, is that a subsequent Tory government could abandon state funding – and if Labour had by then alienated the unions, it could find itself in a financial crisis worse than anything it has seen in the past 15 years. 


All but one of the elements of the Labour-union relationship would be difficult to change

The role of the trade unions in Labour’s constitution has changed in recent years – but it remains crucial to the operation of the party at every level. There are four key areas where the unions play critical constitutional roles: the annual party conference, the National Executive Committee, constituency Labour parties and leadership elections.

Party conference The union role at Labour’s annual conference was modified by rule changes in 1993.The unions now have 70 per cent of the vote at party conference (as against 30 per cent for CLPs) and each union may, if it wishes, split its share of votes instead of wielding it as a block(although few do). According to the rules laid down in 1993: “The balance of voting between the two sections shall be reviewed by the National Executive Committee and annual conference once individual membership exceeds 300,000, with a view to changing the balance in favour of constituency parties provided that such adjustment does not reduce the proportion of the total vote cast by affiliated organisations to less than 50 per cent.”

Tony Blair seemed to interpret this as meaning that, now that membership has reached the 300,000 threshold, the union share of the vote at this year’s conference could be reduced to 50 per cent by a meeting of the NEC in the next couple of months: most others reckon that the rule implies that conference needs to approve the change before it happens (which would mean it could not take effect until the 1996 conference). Still others argue that the NEC should recommend not an immediate reduction to 50 per cent, but a phased reduction. How vigorous the argument about the interpretation of the rules will be is difficult to judge, but few believe that either the left or the trade unions will put up much of a fight if Blair insists on a rapid reduction to 50 per cent. No other reforms of the union role at conference have so far been suggested.

National Executive Committee Probably the most important role that unions have in Labour’s organisation is in the National Executive Committee (NEC), the body, 25-strong apart from the leader and deputy leader, that is responsible for the day-to-day running of the party and supervision of its policy-making. Through their membership of the NEC, trade unions are represented on all the party’s policy-making bodies: the domestic and international policy committee, the six NEC-shadow cabinet joint policy commissions and the National Policy Forum.

Twelve NEC seats are reserved for the trade unions: they are chosen by union votes at party conference (invariably after a little behind-the-scenes fixing). The unions also effectively determine who sits in the five-member women’s section of the NEC through their votes at conference. The unions have no influence over the election of the seven members chosen by constituency Labour parties or the single member chosen by affiliated socialist societies.

Proposals for changing the composition of the NEC have been recurrent, and have come from many different directions. In recent years, feminists and the left have argued that the women’s section should be elected by the Labour women’s conference, while Labour councillors have made the case for their own section of the NEC.

The problem with NEC reform for the leadership is simple: the massive union representation and the role of the unions in electing the women’s section act as a counterbalance to the constituency section whenever the latter shifts to the left (as it did from the mid-1970s until the mid- 1980s), and a simple reduction in the union role now could exacerbate tensions between party and government if the next Labour government loses popularity among ordinary party members. This problem might be overcome if reduction in the union presence on the NEC were compensated for by the introduction of a section for councillors and perhaps one for MPs and MEPs – but reform along these lines might create an unmanageably large committee or massive resentment among the unions or both.

Constituency Labour parties At the local level, trade unions affiliate to constituency Labour parties(CLPs), which allows their members to join at a reduced rate, gives them representation (up to a maximum of five delegates) on the constituency party’s general committee (GC), and allows them the right to nominate candidates in parliamentary selections. The GC handles everyday management of the CLP, can submit resolutions to annual conference, elects a CLP’s officers (including delegates to annual conference) and draws up shortlists in parliamentary selections. Before the introduction of one member, one vote for parliamentary selections and leadership elections, the GC also decided the CLP’s choice of putative MP and leader.

There have been no firm proposals from the Labour leadership for radical changes in the union role at CLP level-not least because, despite the recent increase in Labour Party membership, many local parties are too small to function without the participation of union delegates on the GC. There is some pressure for the extension of OMOV to the election of delegates to party conference, and there have always been complaints that the union delegate system is abused by political factions of left and right: the criterion for a union to have the right to representation on a CLP’s GC is merely that it has members registered in a particular constituency. How exactly such abuse could be stopped is difficult to workout unless union representation on GCs were to be removed entirely.

Leadership elections The role of the unions in Labour leadership elections was drastically reduced after uproar over the way that big union leaders announced their support for John Smith as leader after the 1992 general election. Under the system introduced by rule changes in 1993, Labour’s leader and deputy leader are elected by a three-section electoral college(comprising Labour MPs and MEPs, individual party members and affiliated unions and other organisations), with each section apportioned a third of the total vote and each section voting on a one person, one vote basis. It is extremely unlikely that any proposals for changing this system will emerge in the foreseeable future – not least because the Labour Party constitution forbids returning to constitutional changes for three years after they are approved except in emergencies.

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