The Unions are “too big to bail”

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Even by Ed Balls’ standards, the mess he has got himself into explaining Labour’s economic policy really is quite spectacular.

As far as I understand it, Labour’s policy hasn’t actually changed. They are opposed to the way the government is tackling deficit reduction but accept they are unlikely to be able to reverse all the cuts they oppose after the next election. But Balls appeared to somewhat overegg the pudding over the weekend when he stated that his “starting point” is that Labour would have to “keep all these cuts”.

Milliband, Balls and Harman have since clarified, ad nauseum, that that this doesn’t mean keeping every single cut, just that they can’t all be reversed. But nobody seems to be listening. It would appear that half the Labour party are up in arms over what they perceive to be a massive u-turn. The reality is that Balls has spent the last 18 months looking in every direction on the economy while saying nothing of substance; this is merely the latest iteration.

It is the lack of substance that ought to be worrying Labour supporters; instead it is a statement of the bleeding obvious that is exercising them. Rightly or wrongly, if they won the next election they would be inheriting a deficit which they were committed to reducing even before the last election. The idea that they could do that while spending all their time reversing the previous half-decade’s worth of cuts is laughable. Yet a great many people appear to have seriously believed that was Labour’s policy.

Chief among them are the union general secretaries, with first Unite’s Len McClusky and then the GMB’s Paul Kenny putting the boot in today. Paul Kenny’s intervention was the most silly, threatening as he did to disaffiliate from Labour altogether.

Let’s get this right: a far left union which tolerated Tony Blair for a decade is seriously considering leaving Labour in the lurch having imposed on the party a leader which most of its MPs and member didn’t actually want. Seriously?

The truth of the matter is that the unions are, to coin a phrase, too big to bail. It’s their own fault. Back when the Labour-union link actually meant anything, there were hundreds of unions all vying for attention. Now, due to a series of mergers and, let’s face it, a decline in union membership, the unions have become dominated by just four mega unions.

The theory of this drive towards gigantism was that the larger the unions became the more powerful they would be. What they failed to appreciate was that it was their very diversity which gave them strength. A diverse union movement spoke to the working public in a way that these super unions never could. Smaller unions would understand a specific trade or industry; now they are all lumped together in a one-size-fits-all format.

In terms of influencing Labour, if there were 100 equally sized unions all tussling for influence right now, disaffiliation threats would really mean something. Each individual union could walk knowing that by doing so they’re absense would be felt by Labour but wouldn’t be fatal. But imagine if a super union like the GMB or Unite left? Given the current financial situation of the party, it would enter a death spiral from which it would struggle to recover.

Paul Kenny knows this, and knows that killing Labour is not in his union’s interest; therefore his threat is hollow. What we have instead is a pantomime game in which he threatens to pull out, the Labour front bench stick to their guns, he gains some totemic concession, and we return to business as usual. We’ve seen this so many times before, it is barely worth commenting on.

The Tories are wrong in this respect to say that Labour is in hock to the unions; that is to play down how fundamentally disfunctional the relationship truly is. It is a loveless marriage in which neither side can bare the caress of the other, yet both are dependent on keeping the relationship alive.

What could they do to move forward? The simple thing would be to accept the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s report on party funding and allow union funding only if each affiliation fee is subject to each union member agreeing to it; in essence treating it like an individual donation. The move to such a system would mean that instead of having to court the union secretaries, Labour leaders would have to appeal to members directly.
Far from hurting Labour, this would transform its relationship with the unions. Instead of empty threats from general secretaries, a leader’s performance would be measured by quite how many union members chose to affiliate. No individual member would kill the party by opting out, and Labour would have to decide whether they could cope with the decline in union membership caused by an unpopular decision or whether they needed to respond. The relationship would be far more real and rooted in what ordinary workers actually think rather than what their general secretaries claim they think.

Of course, those self-same general secretaries have up until now managed to block this and similar reforms, because it is their influence which is under threat. The result has not only meant a stagnant Labour-union relationship but has meant that it has not been possible to take action on limiting donations from rich donors either.

The bottom line is that the current Labour-union relationship is a toxic one which has rendered the union movement an irrelevance and the party with an unwelcome albatross around its neck. Historians will puzzle why people on both sides are so determined to see it continue.

1 comment

  1. I wondered if this is a well managed stage play. Both Labour and The Unions have benefitted from this charade. Labour are now “serious on the economy” and in loggerheads with The Unions, much to the appeasement of the right wing press. Meanwhile the Union leaders are seen to be doing the job asked of them by trying to drag the Labour party leftwards. It’s win-win.

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