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Friday, 23 August 2013 00:00

Our battle to keep Labour on the left

by Gregor Gall

Gregor Gall urges support for a campaign to defeat Miliband's attack on the union link

CWU union leader Billy Hayes aptly summed up Ed Miliband's proposals to reform the union-Labour Party link as "dog whistle politics." He meant that Miliband had acted like a dog when his master had blown his whistle - he had come running.

Out of the furore surrounding the Falkirk West selection process, and with indecent haste, Miliband had come out with proposals to go as far practically as ending the union-Labour relationship without formally severing the link altogether.

The master in this case was a coalition of right-wing forces - the media, the Tories and within Labour itself.

The indecent haste was one thing. The proposals are undoubtedly an attempt by Miliband at his own "clause four moment" especially when, with a looming election and a critical dependence upon affiliated unions for finance, Labour is not doing nearly as well as it should in the polls.

Miliband is evidently prepared to do what Blair never dared and only dreamed of - to effectively end the influence of organised political levy-paying union members within affiliated unions.

The proposals are, Miliband says, aimed at opening up Labour to members in a way that has not been true for generations.

But at one level, the proposals are utterly hopeless. Thousands of citizens will not join Labour simply because the mechanisms by which they join are different. To re-envisage Labour as a mass political party will take a change in the politics of the party.

Unless and until Labour returns to its social democratic roots at the least, it will never become that party. The unique selling point of Labour can only be as a party that unequivocally states it will not allow the processes and outcomes of the market to determine people's living standards and life chances.

But, at another level, the political intention of Miliband's proposals is clear and clever. Social democracy would be a turn to the left and while Miliband has formally repudiated new Labour, he has not developed an alternative to it.

Pre-distribution, responsible capitalism and one nationism are all bunkum where coherent and progressive politics are concerned.

Fundamentally, Miliband will not countenance using the state to rein in the market. This puts him squarely in the camp of new Labour and neoliberalism. And his cunning plan, as Baldrick would say, is to remove the only influence with Labour that both desires this kind of politics and is capable of trying to achieve them. You guessed it, I'm talking about the affiliated unions.

Fortunately, there is still the possibility of defeating these proposals and the affiliated unions do not have to be like turkeys voting for Christmas. The CWU and GMB are leading the way. But others like transport union TSSA and bakers' union BFAWU are also involved. Unison may come into their orbit too.

They disagree with Unite on the full implications of what Miliband is proposing. Yet Unite has a point when it says that the current system is one that does not work well enough.

But that does not mean that the affiliated unions should, as Unite intends to do, support the proposals. What the affiliated unions should do is oppose them and put forward their own for reinvigorating and regenerating the involvement of union members in Labour based upon social democratic politics.

If they only oppose and offer nothing but support for the status quo, they will be cast as defenders of the old way.

All this makes the Defend the Link initiative by the Labour Representation Committee so important (www.defendthelink.wordpress.com). After various conversations with labour movement activists at the Tolpuddle festival, it launched the statement below which is looking for signatories.

"The creation of the Labour Party opened up the possibility of political representation for working class people. The relationship between the trade unions and the party has been and remains central to the role of the party in representing the interests of working people.

"We therefore support:

The collective affiliation of trade unions to the party;

Collective decision making by trade unionists within the party;

Representation for, and involvement of, trade unions at every level of the party.

"We will campaign for this throughout the party and trade unions and call on all labour movement activists to make submissions to the Collins review in accordance with the above principles."

The aim is to put the campaign in the hands of a broad organising committee once significant support has been won. And there will be a meeting to discuss the campaign on September 3 at 7pm at Conway Hall, Red Lion Square in London.

Already the statement has the support of BFAWU and TSSA, Professor Keith Ewing of the Institute of Employment Rights, author Owen Jones, five Labour MPs, a large number of senior union activists and hundreds of Labour Party activists.

The campaign has until the special conference next spring to build the necessary levels of support.

If Miliband wins, politics in Britain will become almost identical to the US where two pro-capitalist parties, funded by capitalists, fight it out in a game of Tweedledee and Tweedledum.

The prospect of state funding to somehow alter this balance looks decidedly unlikely.

Gregor Gall is professor of industrial relations at the University of Bradford (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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