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Labour and trade unions – it doesn’t have to be this way

Only by working together can we present a real alternative for Britain, says Jim Sheridan

I genuinely believe that Ed Miliband is sincere when he says he does not want to break the link between Labour and the trade unions.

However, what concerns me is what role he expects the unions to take within the party.  

For me, working class means someone who gets out of their bed to make a contribution to society, if they are able.

This is contrary to the deliberate language of some in the media, who describe welfare claimants as shirkers.

The media also describes union leaders as “bosses” despite the fact that they are elected.

Contrast this with “business leaders” who are given this title but who are appointed, not elected, with massive salaries and other benefits.

And language in the press continues to present a confrontational agenda in its reporting, such as describing the way in which Miliband is trying to “force” through party reforms.

This is no coincidence but a deliberate attempt to smear trade unions.

The last I looked we had set up a consultation process to examine and discuss constitutional change, but this appears to have simply not got through to the right-wing press.

This may be, in part, due to those within the party who have suddenly come alive again at the prospect of them not being allowed to hold two jobs under Miliband’s reforms.

They want to stop the process before it gets anywhere.

Unfortunately, some in our party, particularly those in Lord Sainsbury’s branch, are happy to perpetuate these myths and validate this language.

At a time when people are being subjected to food banks, zero-hours contracts, the most relaxed employment legislation in Europe, energy and transport bills soaring while at the same time wages and living standards are at best frozen, at worst cut, what do we have to offer?

It is no secret that some within our party would be happy to comply with the current government’s agenda, supposedly on the basis that we need the support of the right-wing element within the press.

Trade union members of Parliament who believe in progressive politics are often accused of being luddites and resistant to change.
I have often challenged proponents of this accusation, asking what they mean by the term “modernisation.”

I suspect they mean that modern trade unions should fund the party and be cheerleaders for the party, but should refuse to question the leadership or their elite advisers.

Many of these people do not understand the difficult job that union leaders have in maintaining their membership’s support for the party, who many see as becoming more and more distant from their own world of work.

If Miliband is to succeed in reforming Labour into a mass party of activists, then he has to give us the tools to do it.

By becoming, or remaining, a pale version of the Liberals — some kind of social democrats promoting the status quo, shadowing the Tories and reacting to some within the popular press — I don’t believe we will achieve it.

We must demonstrate that we are different. Our values are different, our priorities are different and, more importantly, we give hope to those who need it — not a party of lost causes but a party of just causes.

I supported and campaigned for Miliband and will continue to work to ensure he leads us to victory at the next election.

I just hope that is a victory in which we have worked together with our trade unions.

Jim Sheridan is Labour MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire North.

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