Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 7 February 2014
Labour’s relationship with the trade unions has always been a problem.
The formalities of it date from 1918, when Labour was still, essentially, a means of getting working-class men (no girls allowed) elected to parliament – and when there was a vast number of trade unions, most of them either small or very decentralised. The party then drew up a new constitution (which also included the vague promise of socialism in Clause Four) giving the unions the defining role in the new structure at every level except electing the parliamentary leader.
The deal started to look creaky within a few years, as Ernest Bevin created a giant general union by amalgamation, the Transport and General Workers, in which power was concentrated at the top – and then other big unions, representing miners, engineers, railwaymen, local authority workers, more or less successfully emulated the T and G’s transformation into national centrally managed bureaucracies.
Union barons became fixtures in Labour politics, controlling local parties through their surrogates in much of the country and wielding decisive influence over the party conference – and between conferences they ran the National Executive Committee.
There’s no romantic narrative of class struggle. From the late 20s until the 50s, the unions were mostly bastions of the Labour right; in the 60s and 70s the left took control of many unions. But until the 80s the unions’ position in the party was taken as read by just about everyone – members, the party leadership and most MPs – as a fact of life. Yes, the block vote was ridiculous, yes the union bureaucrats acted as if they owned the show … but the unions had no role in leadership elections and they weren’t (generally) a co-ordinated bloc on policy. Anyone could get around them when necessary (well, most of the time).
Two things changed that happy world: Labour’s internal constitutional reforms introduced in 1980, which created an “electoral college” for leadership elections in which unions had a third of the vote; and the collapse of trade union membership as Tory Britain deindustrialised.
Changing the leadership election system was a left cause, the key victory of the idiotic left insurgency led by Tony Benn after Labour’s 1979 general election defeat to Margaret Thatcher. But it was a very dodgy business. Until 1993, actual members of trade unions had no right to vote unless their union boss decided otherwise. Fat blokes in pubs ruled supreme. It was a blessed relief for Labour that Neil Kinnock and John Smith were elected by massive margins under the system – and that the challenge to Kinnock from Benn in 1988 was so completely, utterly and totally inept in every respect.
Much more important, however, was the impact of the collapse of union membership during the 1980s and 1990s. There were 13 million trade union members in 1979: now the figure is half that. The main reason was simple: the closure of production in mining, steel, engineering; technological change in office work, printing, film and TV. And the way unions responded was simple too: merge.
Of the 6.5 million union members today, roughly half are members of three: Unite, with 1.4 million; Unison, with 1.3 million; and the GMB, with 600,000. Add the shop workers, the teachers, the civil servants, postal workers and construction workers and you’re over 5 million.
That makes Labour’s federal structure particularly difficult to sustain. I’m all in favour of the old Wobbly slogan of one big union – but amalgamations create a problem for a national social democratic party with affiliates. Federalism works only with a plurality of engaged organisations. There’s a point where an affiliate gets too big.
Unless Labour is prepared to say that Unite and Unison should dictate policy it has to change its rules. But that’s only part of the issue.
In general, given a choice, you don’t put idiots in charge of anything – but with very few exceptions, Britain’s unions do just that. They are appallingly run. Their leaders are the worst we’ve seen for years and their research departments largely inept. When was the last time a trade union report made a headline? With very few exceptions, they’ve done bugger-all organising for years and years.
Useless unions deserve no role in Labour politics. And we’ve got spectacularly useless unions right now. Ed Miliband is going for change where it’s least necessary. His experience in the 2010 leadership election obviously matters to him, but he would have won anyway. And under his proposed changes there is nothing to stop Unite or Unison sending out voting recommendations to their members…
He should have got rid of the block vote at party conference.