Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/798/18151
What future for Labour and the unions?
Open letter to the Unite Executive Council from the Socialist Party
As we go to press the Unite Executive is preparing to discuss the Collins Review proposals to 'reform' the link between the unions and Labour. This is in anticipation of the Labour Party special conference on 1 March.
Reportedly three out of the four Unite delegates at Labour's NEC voted to endorse the Review. Apparently this was on general secretary Len McCluskey's recommendation.
The remaining delegate, Martin Mayer, abstained although we think that he should have voted against. This is both disappointing and alarming, for us and undoubtedly for many others on the left.
Unite members won't forget this stitch-up was triggered when Labour leader Ed Miliband called in the police against Unite in the Falkirk parliamentary selection process.
Unite members had been pursuing the union's strategy to democratically influence the selection of a parliamentary candidate.
Miliband's disgraceful step led directly to the sacking of the Unite convenor at Grangemouth, Stevie Deans, who was also the chair of Falkirk Labour Party.
His fellow convenor Mark Lyons has also lost his job. Incredibly, Labour's investigation into Unite in Falkirk was leaked to the press on the very day that Mark's sacking had been confirmed! Therefore the Socialist Party believes that the decision to endorse the Collins Review, if persisted with, is seriously mistaken and would undermine Unite's position and that of the unions generally.
One Unite activist wrote: "As a Labour Party member and trade unionist since 1981 I am dismayed by a decision which appears to be the very opposite of action to reclaim our party."
This indicates that the Unite leadership will be arguing that the Executive, on behalf of the union, votes to accept Collins' proposals.
The Socialist Party believes that would represent a further and decisive fundamental change in the relationship between Unite and the other affiliated unions with Labour - the party that the unions created over a century ago.
As you know, the Socialist Party has long disagreed with the view that Labour can be reclaimed for working people from the Blairites' grip.
We believe that it has fundamentally changed from the period that we, then as the Militant Tendency, worked with left allies like Len in the Labour Party in the 1970s and particularly in the titanic struggles in Liverpool in the 1980s when the socialist Labour city council faced down Thatcher.
The struggle that the left conducted in Labour then opened up the democratic structures of the party, allowing a whole number of left MPs to be selected.
Among them were Militant supporters who stood on a worker's wage: Dave Nellist, Terry Fields and Pat Wall.
There was a time when unions could use their collective voice inside Labour - famously to defeat the Harold Wilson government's attempts to bring in the anti-union 'In Place of Strife' laws.
Rank and file members made Britain's involvement in the Vietnam War impossible. But Miliband comes out against workers taking strike action to defend themselves from austerity - the tube strike is the latest example. Yet even Shirley Williams stood on the Grunwick picket line in 1977!
Unite's strategy defeated
Despite our belief that the union's efforts to 'change New Labour' were fruitless, we gave critical support when the Unite leadership argued to fight to maintain the union's collective voice and remaining power in the Labour Party.
At the national Unite United Left (UL) meeting last September, Socialist Party members argued for disaffiliation but voted to mandate UL members on the Unite Executive to oppose Collins.
The Unite North West Regional Committee was to the fore in getting a motion passed calling for this.
One Housing Group workers, members of Unite, on a second three-day strike against massive pay cuts, photo Naomi Byron (Click to enlarge)
The disgraceful treatment of suspended Warrington Labour councillor Kevin Bennett, who voted against cuts and is also a member of the Unite North West committee, reinforced the mood of opposition.
We predicted that Unite would find it incredibly difficult to convince the targeted 5,000 members, a tiny fraction of the union's membership, to join Labour.
On the other hand we said that Miliband's machine would not allow it to happen. Falkirk shows that Unite's strategy has been soundly defeated by the Labour leadership.
The campaign there was the model of what the union was hoping to achieve. But in a move that evoked the disgraceful and undemocratic witch-hunt against the Militant by Neil Kinnock in the 1980s, Miliband simply tore up the rule book, even stooping to call in the police.
We believe that the transformation of Labour into one more party of big business has already gone too far.
Under John Smith's leadership, 'One Member One Vote' for selection of MPs was introduced. This was a clear dilution of the ability of the organised working class to exercise its will in selection contests.
Then Tony Blair successfully ditched Clause IV which, on paper at least, gave Labour a socialist aspiration. A previous attempt by Gaitskell in 1960 was defeated by the unions.
The subsequent New Labour governments of Blair and Gordon Brown confirmed that Labour was a safe tool of the capitalists.
They followed Thatcher's' neoliberal agenda - legitimising and pursuing privatisation, school academisation, as well as wars of imperialist intervention.
Today Labour councils refuse to confront Con-Dem austerity, instead passing on eye-watering cuts. No wonder Unite struggled to recruit to Labour.
But now, following the Falkirk episode, while Miliband and the Blairites understood the significance of their victory and started a process that will end with the special conference, regrettably Len has glossed over its meaning.
This has only resulted in Unite activists being disoriented and disillusioned while the union's standing has been affected.
Decisive action necessary
This is disappointing considering the real positive changes that have happened in Unite since Len was elected.
There was an impasse in the union after it was formed out of the merger of the T&G and Amicus in 2007.
But after the supporters of ex-Amicus leader Derek Simpson were defeated, Unite is widely seen as a left militant union that has won significant victories.
The victory of the Sparks construction electricians against the Besna contract in 2012 and against blacklisting on Crossrail last year have been highlights for the trade union movement.
The Socialist Party has argued this - but we also made constructive criticisms of how the union faced the threat from bullying Jim Ratcliffe of Ineos in Grangemouth last autumn.
Our main issue was that the lack of preparedness for the massive attack by the employer and the decisive industrial action necessary to resist.
But the response to the political attack which Collins represents will determine how members view the future direction of Unite, both on the political and industrial planes.
Members will fear that complying with Miliband's counter-revolution could signify Unite putting major industrial struggle against austerity on hold for the mistaken 'strategy' of waiting for a Labour government.
This is while the Labour leadership 'Two Eds' have confirmed they will stick to Tory spending plans, including further cuts of £25 billion.
Working people can expect nothing from a new 'Labour government'. The conclusions of the Collins Review are connected to this.
We agree with Kevin Maguire's Daily Mirror column (3/2/14) when he said that the unions should at least disaffiliate from Labour.
But we disagree with his conclusion that the unions should not form a new party. He argues "the challenge for independent unions would be to issue bold agendas and seek to radicalise Labour from the outside, instead of swallowing abuse from the inside."
Kevin confirms the potential support a week later when he writes: "Ed Miliband should be frightened by the number of Shadow Cabinet members and union general secretaries who agreed with last week's column arguing Labour and unions should go their separate ways.
"I could form a government or new party with all those who told me they endorsed the call."
US shows the way
But not forming their own mass party is akin to how unions in the US are reduced to being just another Democrat lobbying group.
However, the historic election victory in Seattle last autumn of the co-thinker of the Socialist Party, Kshama Sawant, has clearly helped to challenge this situation.
In Minneapolis Socialist Alternative candidate Ty Moore showed that socialist candidates can win trade union support, on a local level at least at this stage.
Just as impressive an indicator of how working class political representation can be built in the 'belly of the beast' of capitalism was the stunning success of 24 'Independent Labor' candidates in Ohio at the same time.
The main task is to build a mass political alternative, in which the unions would play a critical role.
Maguire revealed that: "A Labour MP, a champion of the union link, whispered that he was afraid Ed is opening a Pandora's Box.
Left-wing unions withholding up to £4 million from Labour under a new membership system, he said, would have the resources to fund a rival party." We couldn't have put it better ourselves!
The Socialist Party along with others, such as the RMT, have been pioneering the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), which will this year be standing hundreds of candidates in the local elections in the biggest left of Labour electoral challenge for a generation.
Imagine the impact TUSC would have with a fraction of that £4 million? TUSC supporters would have every right to argue that the affiliated unions should be able to support candidates outside of Labour if Collins is passed.
Such a party or formation standing on a clear pro-working class and anti-austerity programme would totally transform the political agenda in Britain.
At least as a short-term by-product, it could also act as a left check on Labour. Of course, the forming of a new mass workers' party is not an end in itself but it would create a huge forum for debate and discussion in which we, as a distinct Marxist current, would argue and campaign for a socialist programme that is necessary to confront the brutal reality of capitalist crisis.
Waiting for Labour
Len has implied that should Labour fail to get elected in 2015 or if a Miliband government fails to deliver, he is in favour of the unions disaffiliating and forming a new party.
We welcome this, in what would be an historic development, but the starting point has to be to at least oppose Miliband's proposals now and to recognise what they mean.
At all times in politics, you have to tell the truth to the members. It is not an accident that Collins and the special conference follow on from Falkirk.
They are part of the same agenda - to nullify the collective voice of the trade unions within the party.
At first, with GMB in the lead, it appeared that the unions recognised the gravity of the attack and were prepared to fight it.
If they had come out with clear opposition at that stage, it was far from certain that Miliband would have got his way.
But even at this late moment, it would be far better for Unite and all the other unions to vote against Collins to send a clear message that these proposals are against the interests of the trade unions and the wider working class.
Actually as Len himself admits, most Unite members that he talks to openly question why the union is giving millions to this party.
These proposals will only increase this disaffection from the unions' political strategy. This is reflected in the other affiliated unions.
At last year's Unison local government conference, the leadership was overwhelmingly defeated when they opposed a motion supporting Labour councillors who oppose voting for cuts.
Two years ago, one of the 47 Liverpool councillors, Tony Mulhearn, was given a standing ovation at the GMB manufacturing conference, even though he attacked Labour's acceptance of the cuts.
Many CWU members are rightly angry that, after last year's Labour Party conference voted unanimously to commit Miliband to re-nationalise Royal Mail after Cameron sold it off for a song, shadow business minister Chuka Umunna rode roughshod over this and ruled it out.
Yet the fact that the unions will retain their 49% block vote for five years after this sham conference is given as a reason to be comfortable with the Collins Review! We have always been opposed to right-wing union leaders undemocratically using the block vote, usually against the left in the past.
We are in favour of it being democratised but the Labour leadership's proposals would do nothing to increase democracy, rather the reverse by taking away the collective voice of the unions.
Miliband knows full well that the 'opt-in' union affiliation would drastically reduce the numbers of members that the unions would affiliate to Labour, opening the door in five years' time to reducing the block vote.
If passed the proposals will also mean that party leaders in future will be elected by OMOV rather than the Electoral College in which Miliband relied on votes of individual affiliated union members to defeat his more Blairite brother! The threshold for the percentage of MPs needed to nominate candidates will be raised to 15% from 12.5% which last time would have ruled out Diane Abbott and Andy Burnham.
It had already been raised from 5% by Kinnock in 1988, which prevented left-winger John McDonnell even getting on the ballot paper in 2010.
The review by Lord Collins - previously a right-wing senior officer of the T&G who helped negotiate the merger that formed Unite - is an attempt by Miliband, reflecting the interests of capitalism, to complete the last remaining unfinished business of Kinnock, Smith, Blair and Brown to transform Labour into an openly pro-capitalist party.
Tory politicians like London Mayor Boris Johnson have asked for water cannons because he fears people taking to the streets against his government's brutal cuts.
Miliband's proposals amount to a beefing up of right-wing forces within New Labour to prevent the unions from applying any pressure and influence if a potential Miliband government comes to power and carries out Cameron's austerity offensive.
For union leaders such as Len McCluskey to go along with them and to cover up their true significance is to disarm members and activists ahead of the mighty events to come before and after the next election.
Despite our attitude to Labour, we support the fight to oppose the Collins Review proposals but if they are passed on 1 March as seems likely, there has to be an immediate debate and discussion throughout the trade union and anti-cuts movements on the need to build a new mass party that can stand up for the interests of working class people and the vast majority in society crying out for real change.
If anything, the passing of these proposals will only make that debate, particularly in the unions and especially in Unite, sharper.
In The Socialist 12 February 2014:
Socialist Party news and analysis
Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition
London Underground dispute
Socialist Party workplace news
Reviews and readers' comments
Socialist Party reports and campaigns