Unite’s approach to politics is an utterly bankrupt strategy

For once I’m going to make an overtly political comment. Here goes…

The history of the trade union movement in the United Kingdom has been heavily influenced by Christians and Methodism in particular at various points.  The leader of the Tolpuddle Martyrs back in the 1830s was George Loveless, a Methodist local preacher.  His faith and desire to see social justice cost led to him and the others paying a heavy price for their willingness to make a stand against the pitiful wages they received as labourers.  Their plight caused a national outcry.  The fledgling trade union movement came together to fight the Tolpuddle worker’s cause.

In essence trade unions serve an important role to defend the rights of workers from being exploited and to make sure their working conditions are suitable and safe.  Back in March of this year, Len McCluskey who is General Secretary of Unite, the biggest trade union in the UK, said: ‘Unions must use all the means at their disposal to fight for social justice.’  He went on to say that the values of trade unions is ‘decency and fairness’.

Listening to the news over the last few days about Unite and the allegations that it tried to rig the selection of a candidate for the party in Falkirk, one wonders how the values of decency and fairness fit into it.  Those allegations of swamping the Labour membership lists by paying for subscriptions in order to force through Unite’s chosen candidate in the Falkirk by-election have led to a series of further revelations and speculation about Unite’s conduct.  The Times has reported that Labour has seized control of 14 of its constituency parties as a result of attempts to manipulate selections and exert unfair influence, whilst the Telegraph tells of a leaked report from the union’s political director that discloses that Unite has plans in place to do the same in another 40 constituencies.

With over 1.4 million members and having donated more than £7 milliion to the Labour party since the last election, Unite wield a great deal of power and they have not been secretive in their aims.  Back in May a disgruntled Len McCluskey wrote in the Guardian that Unite’s aim was to recruit members and then encourage them to endorse union-supported candidates in selections.

Irrespective of whether Unite have been breaking Labour Party rules or not, is it in anyone’s interests to have one union seeking a strong level of control over Labour in such an aggressive way?  An anonymous Labour Party activist has sent this to me:

When I was alerted to the Falkirk story a few days ago, I was a bit shocked as I thought this kind of thing went out with the other problems Labour faced from the Hard Left in the 1980s. Now I am not saying that Unite are hard left, but what I am saying is that this kind of behaviour is not conductive to good democracy whoever does it!

The Labour Party has a long and good relationship with the Trade Union movement and long may that continue, but equally it is there to serve the voters first with an emphasis on helping the poor and vulnerable in our society, it is not there to follow the edicts of some who try to make sure they get preferential interest by filling Constituency Labour Parties with their members. At the very least this plays into opposition hands. Those who want Labour to be the Party of government after the next general election should reflect on what must be done to achieve that and how one can win over voters who are not tribal Labour Party supporters to our cause, because if true, what Unite have been doing is not conductive to that! They should therefore spend more time helping the disadvantaged in the workplace rather than making backroom deals.

At least Ed Miliband has now been sensible enough to scrap the ‘union join’ scheme.  In a Labour Party statement yesterday it was described as ‘a mistake to have a scheme where others pay for people to join the party.  In the light of the activities of Unite in Falkirk we will end [it].’

Unite’s actions are largely due to their dissatisfaction with the direction the Labour Party is travelling and are an attempt to take the political initiative to gain power and control. The backing of the unions and Unite in particular gave Ed Miliband his leadership victory over his brother, but they have been unhappy with his broad support for the austerity drive that the Coalition Government has implemented.  Dave Quayle, Chair of Unite’s National Political Committee, was quite clear about this in an interview in 2012:

“We give millions of pounds to a party we have little control over, and we get nothing back… We want to shift the balance in the party away from middle-class academics and professionals towards people who’ve actually represented workers and fought the boss… We want a firmly class-based and left-wing general election campaign in 2015. We’ve got to say that Labour is the party of and for workers, not for neo-liberals, bankers, and the free market. That might alienate some people, but that’s tough.”

Unite’s chosen stance, if they continue to follow it through, is taking them into a battle that will only end in tears.  They may think that they are taking Labour back to its roots, but there is next to no appetite for this sort of politics beyond their own circles.  The Guardian, known for its left-wing leanings published this comment this week from its associate editor:

‘The overwhelming problem with the Unite strategy is simply that it is suicidal. A Labour party campaigning on an old industrial class-based agenda, with extra powers for unions that are in other respects withering across British life, led by quisling politicians manipulated by union officials who in some cases are old Stalinists, in pursuit of a state-owned economy that would not work and would not be popular, may appeal to a few romantics. But it is an utterly bankrupt strategy. Britain has changed even if Unite has not. The electorate won’t vote for it. They will turn their backs on it, and look elsewhere.’

There are two examples I can immediately think of how Unite (and also some of the other unions) are becoming increasingly out of touch with both the political process and the public at large.

The first was at the People’s Assembly in London two weeks ago where an alliance of anti-austerity groups came together at Westminster Central Hall with the intention of launching a resistance against the Government’s austerity plans through ‘co-ordinated industrial action and national demonstrations’.  The alliance consists of a number of unions, socialist campaign groups and the Green Party.

During the speeches, Len McCluskey called for a program of civil disobedience:

“If it is right to strike against austerity in Greece, in Spain, in France, then it is right to strike against austerity here. When Unite members are ready and willing to take that industrial action to make the politicians change course, then we will not let the anti-union laws get in our way.”

The National Union of Teachers’ general secretary Christine Blower demanded marches, rallies, flash mobs, direct action, strike action whilst Mark Serwotka,  General Secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union,  issued a call for a general strike, and finished his speech with “Let’s sock it to these vicious ruling class bastards!”

None of us enjoys the effects of austerity, but given the size of this country’s public debt, something needs to be done to address it to avoid the debilitating situations we have seen in some of the Euro countries.  Sticking your head in the sand and wishing it away without offering any valid alternative solution is living in a fantasy that ultimately will most likely turn into a nightmare.  Calling for chaos and instability in the hope of bringing a government down is highly irresponsible and smacks of a spoilt child who throws a tantrum because they cannot get their own way.

I am increasingly coming to the conclusion that trade union leaders are alienating even their own members, which brings me to the second example.  I am myself the member of a teaching union and have been constantly frustrated with the literature I receive from them that has a limited amount of content that relates to education in this country.  Most of it instead is filled with attack after attack on the government, only some of which can be genuinely justified.

The latest talk is of increased industrial action with a series of regional strikes leading up to more national ones, the first of which was in the North West last week.  And yet we are seeing a diminishing appetite for this in the ballots.  Last year’s NUT vote on strike action produced a turnout of 27%.  Leading up to the last national strike, teachers at my establishment decided to ignore it as they felt it would do more harm than good.  Prior to that limited numbers have genuinely wanted to strike, with some just treating it as an opportunity to have an unpaid day off.

I wonder what George Loveless and the other Tolpuddle Martyrs would make of the state of some of our trade unions if they could see them now.  Would they feel any affinity for the actions of Unite that we have seen recently?  Unite have dealt the founding roots of the trade union movement a huge injustice, but they are not the only ones.  Trade unions should be there to serve their members, but instead for the likes of Len McCluskey, are we witnessing nothing more than a series of egotistical power trips based on a fanciful notion that only trade union leaders have the keys to a better future for our country?

Categories: Party politics

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5 replies

  1. I tend to agree, but that’s pretty much how our political system works everywhere. Local party associations, which tend to be a pretty small group of activists, select their candidate, and in a safe seat they are really the ones who choose our politicians.
    It would be very easy for a sufficiently large group of people (like, say, churches) to dominate those local associations and gain effective control of our democracy.

    • I agree with you on this Tom. I sometimes think what it would be like if Christians for example suddenly started becoming members of a particular constituency association in order to get a particular candidate nominated. In theory this is fine specially if such people were genuinely wanting to engage and not just trying to force something through to suit their interests. Democracy allows for this, but if churches were paying for people to join I would be very worried, especially if it were a large church with lots of resources. A lot of it come down to motivation to do such a thing. The fact that Labour have reported the Falkirk incident to the police suggests Unite’s actions were not above board and not morally sound, if we want to consider it from a moral point of view.

  2. I have a problem with unions supporting Labour, or any particular party if they supported others. I want a union that will support and fight for me, independent of political parties. The last Labour government showed the perils of unions being too closely tied to Labour, their wings were clipped somewhat.

  3. I’m really glad you have tackled this prickly issue, Gillan.

    I actually don’t have a problem with trade unions supporting their members in Labour Party selections. Selections are exhausting, back-breaking work and the trade unions have the campaign infrastructure to be really useful when it comes to the practicalities of designing leaflets, websites, writing speeches etc.

    The reason I have a problem with what went on in Falkirk (beyond the obvious irregularities of signing up members without their consent) is because of the blatant attempt to rig the process by stuffing the local party with probable supporters. Imagine you are an opposing candidate going through the arduous work of a selection campaign only to discover that you never stood a chance in the first place. I think I’d be pretty furious!

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