First published on LabourList
Update: Unite’s Jennie Formby replies on LabourList
Last week, I – and 2,000 others – were followed by a new Twitter account, Break the Link. Using Progress branding, it claims to represent the views of members of the organisation of which I am the director. It purports to be for those who want to sever Labour’s relationship with the unions.
However, I suspect that Break the Link – which was last active at the time when Aslef and the GMB were attempting to ban Progress – is actually a false flag: a none-too-subtle attempt to detract from our analysis of how Labour comes back from its devastating election defeat by painting Progress as somehow anti-union. Perhaps those behind Break the Link were also the authors of the anonymous dossier about Progress, full of smears and inaccuracies, which somehow found itself in the hands of every CLP secretary and many councillors in early 2012?
While a Twitter account followed by a couple of hundred people is hardly a threat to Progress and the politics we represent, it does symbolise the manner in which any debate or concern about the behaviour of some trade unions in the aftermath of the general election is being characterised as ‘anti-union’.
It’s nothing of the kind. In fact, the only person currently threatening to break the link is Len McCluskey – if he doesn’t get his way in the leadership election. It is somewhat galling that Labour is being subjected to lectures about what its true values should be by some a small cabal at the heart of Unite which seems to pick and choose when it will stand by them. If its outcome wasn’t so tragic, Len’s successful campaign to destabilise Jim Murphy in Scotland would have been laughable. While Jim was out fighting for the United Kingdom and the Scottish Labour party last summer, Unite chose to sit on its hands, refusing to back and, sniping at, the BetterTogether campaign. It was, of course, the momentum the Yes campaign generated during the referendum campaign which led to Labour’s implosion in Scotland in May.
And let’s not forget that, even after Lutfur Rahman was stripped of office, Unite’s chief of staff, Andrew Murray, rushed to support the disgraced Tower Hamlets mayor. While many might have hoped that Unite would be throwing its weight behind John Bigg’s election, Murray was busily addressing a rally supporting Rahman. In his speech, he made clear that: “I am not speaking in a personal capacity, I am speaking on behalf of the union … and I am sending a message of support from our general secretary, Len McCluskey. Unite is proud to associate ourselves with Lutfur Rahman.” But, then again, perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised: Murray, the author of Unite’s political strategy which determines the union’s attitude towards Labour, isn’t even a member of the Labour party. He’s a member of the Communist party of Britain.
This behaviour is intolerable and there’s nothing ‘anti-union’ about saying so. Labour’s relationship with the trade unions cannot be determined by one man and one man cannot be the voice of a movement of 6.5 million people – especially a man with the mandate of just 9.7 per cent of his own members.
I disagree with those who suggest that Labour should treat the unions as just another lobby group. They’re not: the unions are an organic part of the Labour party. At their best, they’re our direct link between the party and millions of working people. And the unions have a right to play a role in shaping Labour’s direction. Indeed, it was the unions – through the St Ermin’s group – who played a critical role in dragging the Labour party back to sanity in the 1980s. To that extent, the unions not only founded the Labour party, they also stepped in to guarantee its very survival. Anyone who’s been out on the doorstep over the past six weeks knows, too, the commitment that trade unions and their members, both locally and nationally, put into helping to elect our Labour MPs.
That’s why it is so important that Labour maintains and builds its relationship with trade unionists.
As a former trade union official, I want to see hundreds of thousands of trade unionists taking part in the election of the next Labour leader. But it is critical that they have the chance to interact with all of those who are standing – rather than having their communication with candidates filtered and restricted because certain members of their union’s executive have decided who they want to win and thus who can and cannot talk with to their members.
I want to see the trade unions as part of the conversation about how Labour recovers, rebuilds and wins in 2020. But that conversation can’t be conducted while one trade union threatens to throw his toys out of the pram if he doesn’t get his way and the party doesn’t make what he believes to be “the right choice”.
And, when the time comes, I want to see Labour selecting parliamentary candidates who look more like Britain – especially many more working-class candidates. But that means more shopworkers, electricians and care workers, not simply more centrally chosen trade union officials, ‘rewarded’ for their service with a safe seat. And, we will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with fellow trade unionist as they and the Labour party come together to fight the Tories ideological attack on long-standing workers rights, to defend facilities time and support modernisation of the way industrial action ballots operate. For a party which is always lecturing us all about the need for our economy to move with the times, I cannot see the logic in their objection to online ballots to resolve work place disputes. In fact, their quick resolution is good for employers and employees alike.
So, as part of the debate about Labour’s future, let’s discuss what a modern link looks like. But let’s not get distracted by the myth that anyone who doesn’t share Len McCluskey’s view of it is anti-union. We’re not.
Richard Angell is director of Progress