Tribune leader, 18 December 1992
The draft report of Labour’s working group on relations between the party and the trade unions has had an unjustifiably bad press, largely because whoever first leaked it meant it to have a bad press.
The party is buzzing with accusations, counter-accusations and rumours about the report – despite Tribune‘s attempt last week to clear the air by publishing its most important sections verbatim. There is a real danger that, unless something is done quickly, there will be a spectacular bout of internal feuding.
The immediate task is to bring forward publication of the report. Then the party must allow a reasonable period for real consultation, so that everyone has a chance to air his or her views. To rush through large-scale constitutional change is to invite disaster.
It is crucial for everyone to recognise that an immediate divorce of party and unions, even if it were desirable (which it is not), is simply not feasible. Labour cannot survive in the short to medium term without union funding.
It is inevitable that the unions will exert an influence over Labour regardless of the formal relationship or lack of one. The question is how to ensure that the unions’ power is constrained. The answer is not to destroy the formal relationship but to democratise it.
Many of the suggestions in the draft working party report are eminently sensible if this is the aim, in particular the idea that trade unionists who pay the political levy should be allowed to participate in party elections and selections as “registered supporters”.
Other ideas are less attractive, particularly the retention of the block vote at party conference (albeit reduced to 50 per cent). There are also problems with the retention of electoral college systems for leadership elections and candidate selections: it would be more democratic to give registered supporters one-third of a vote each and add these to full members’ votes in a single ballot.
Nevertheless, the working party is thinking along the right lines: there is no need for the discussion of its proposals to be other than friendly. Meanwhile, everyone involved should recognise that the party-union relationship is not the most urgent question facing Labour. Put simply, it would do no harm for some of the energy now being put into internal Labour Party matters to be diverted into coming up with an election-winning economic policy.