The future of the left since 1884

The democratic promise of the labour movement

Political controversy over the trade union political levy is nothing new. Stanley Baldwin made a powerful speech in its defence in 1924, in response to a Tory private members bill which sought to legislate for union members contracting in rather...


Political controversy over the trade union political levy is nothing new. Stanley Baldwin made a powerful speech in its defence in 1924, in response to a Tory private members bill which sought to legislate for union members contracting in rather than out. Baldwin called for “a new atmosphere in a new parliament for a new age, in which people can come together.”

Today, the force of Baldwin’s argument flows in the opposite direction: the new atmosphere for a new age requires real democratic power in every sphere of public life; and that is as important within the Labour party as anywhere else. The problem with Labour’s industrial democracy is that it hasn’t felt very democratic. It has, for a long time, been difficult to make an argument to anyone not intimately involved in the labour movement that individual union members shouldn’t actively choose to support a political party. The arguments in favour always sound too much like self-interest – the impact on Labour’s finances; the retention of union power within the Labour party. Opting out rather than opting in has been a consistent thorn in the side of Labour’s attempts to negotiate from a position of political strength on party funding.  Yesterday’s move to “mend not end” Labour’s relationship with the trade unions are a huge step in the right direction.

Ed Miliband has been praised for maintaining the unity of the Labour party in opposition – no mean feat – and there is no doubt he is someone who instinctively prefers consensus. He has made some big and brave calls on going places where recent Labour leaders have feared to tread – taking on News International or Barclays bank – but there is a sense that when he talks about the societal need for responsibility at the top and the bottom, he is more comfortable talking about the former than the latter; that he shies away from confronting his own core constituencies.

There is a positive side to this tendency. Not only does Miliband draw political strength in forming what his old friend and now chief speechwriter Marc Stears calls “unlikely alliances”, which sees a much more positive role for Labour as a living, breathing movement – it is also a substantive shift from the New Labour political strategy which saw defining yourself against your own party the default setting of leadership. As Miliband wrote in his pitch to the Fabian Society to be Labour leader, New Labour had behaved as if the “role of the Labour leader was to protect the country from the views of the members of the Labour party”. Miliband has a much more powerful sense of the positive force that Labour could be around the country. But Falkirk showed that vested interests can be just as present within the Labour movement as without, and so it became crucial to Miliband’s status as a genuine reformer that he take on Len McClusky with the same zeal as he would Rupert Murdoch.

Not only is this the kind of move which demonstrates Miliband is truly best at his boldest – and is a big enough shift to decisively change an increasingly damaging story and get on the front foot – it also makes good on the democratic promise of the labour movement. The party’s historic link is maintained: very few in the Labour party would want to see otherwise, least of all the Fabians, who joined with the trade unions to form the Labour party at the beginning of the 20th century. But it brings with it the possibility of true democratic engagement with the working people Labour was formed to represent – and in a way that will make sense to the rest of the country. Opening up Labour politics was what the Fabians called for in Facing Out in 2007.

Primaries are also welcome. Because Labour’s problem with selection isn’t just about union stitch-ups; selections have been fixed for favoured advisers for years. The ever increasing professionalision of politics and the fast track to power of the insider, is perhaps the greatest barrier to a truly engaging democratic politics. As Nick Anstead and Will Straw argued in 2009’s Fabian pamphlet The Change We Need, the move to open primaries for candidate selection “would have two important impacts. First, it would ensure that the decision was not made by a small body but by everyone in the local community. Second, it would encourage exceptional individuals who have a background in broader public service and share Labour’s values to step forward and seek office”.

The Labour party also needs to revisit one of the core recommendations of its ‘Refounding Labour’ process, the rewriting of Clause 1 of its constitution so that the party no longer exists solely to win elections, but to “bring together members and supporters who share its values to develop policies, make communities stronger through collective action and support, and promote the election of Labour representatives at all levels of the democratic process”. This is a hugely significant change as part of the revolution in Labour campaigning Arnie Graf is bringing to the party, with a focus on building community power rather than knocking on doors and depositing leaflets. Fabian polling last year found the thing that would make those currently disengaged from politics most likely to vote at the next election would be “if people in political parties spent less time trying to win my vote and more time doing good work in my neighbourhood”.

Some are understandably concerned that Miliband’s proposals represent a weakening of Labour’s historic identity and risk leaving Labour in greater thrall to the political professionals. But actually it means that Labour can no longer take its union roots for granted: it has to work for the support of working people and show the importance of collective political action. In the last few years, the aftermath of the financial crisis, the continuing cuts, rising unemployment, squeezed living standards and falling opportunities all make the role of unions more important to people’s lives than at any time for a generation. But at the same time attempts to portray the movement as too powerful, reactionary and undemocratic haven’t been this frequent since the 1980s.

How unions look from the outside – often white, male, middle-aged manual workers – rarely matches up with the profile of their members, who are more often than not female graduates working in offices. Similarly despite the opportunity to capitalise on growing public resentment to an increasingly unpopular government, aggressively tribal opposition to the very notion of public spending cuts sits outside the zeitgeist of a public which is increasingly plural and applauds consensus. Recent Fabian polling showing overwhelming support for political actors to stop “arguing for a minute and work together to solve the big issues of the day”.

Yesterday could be a once in a generation moment to reset the relationship between Labour and unions for the times we live, that forces the labour movement to think about who it seeks to really represent and find out how to do that, rather than focusing its energy on getting certain ideologically pure people elected into certain seats. David Cameron’s relentless pursuit of Unite at prime minister’s questions last week was seen as a triumph of Lynton Crosby’s toughening of the Tory message. If it turns out the consequence has been to force Ed Miliband to get the barnacles off his own boat 18 months out from a general election campaign, the fulsome embrace of Crosbyism could end up being Cameron’s great gift to the Labour party.

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