Skip to main content

The battle for Labour's soul

Casting aside the trade unions that founded the party would be suicidal, says Mark Seddon

In the run-up to next year’s local government elections and as a springboard to the general election, Labour will hold a “special conference” next year.

Will it be to launch a popular campaign for jobs, growth and an end to the privatisation of our public services?

Might it be to roll out its anti-austerity manifesto?

Could it be to expose a developing Tory-Ukip pre-election pact?

Or could it be to take on the Tories and the SNP which between them want Scotland to take the lonely road to independence?

It won’t be any of the above, for as we know the party leadership is holding the special conference in the hope of effectively removing the collective voice of trade unions from the party.

These affiliates will then — in theory at least — magically transform into hundreds of thousands of individual trade union members of the party.

The special conference came about because Labour leader Ed Miliband panicked under ferocious Tory fire following the Falkirk debacle and conceded what the Tories have been trying to do ever since the 1926 general strike.

Sadly, instead of listening to level-headed trade union leaders and the party as a whole, Miliband listened to those who had brazenly cooked up claims that Unite was signing up members to the Labour Party without their knowledge in Falkirk.

A deeply flawed internal party report was sent to the Scottish police who abruptly said that there was no case to answer.

Now, finally, the Labour Party nationally has been obliged to admit that the Unite-backed candidate Karie Murphy and the chair of the Falkirk party Stevie Deans have nothing to answer for and will be reinstated immediately.

Yet that report, which provided the catalyst for Miliband to demand the trade union influence in the party be massively diminished, will still not be published.

It should be as a matter of urgency.

It’s no surprise that the Conservative Party wants to break Labour’s historic link with organised labour. The surprise is that there are some in Labour’s ranks, the unapologetic Blairites and Lord Sainsbury’s Progress front organisation, who want this rupture too.

They see this as their great opportunity to restore their weakening grip on the party. They were happy in the 1990s to persuade the unions that the need for unity demanded that policy-making should be taken away from the party conference and the national executive committee. But now they want to finish off the job they started and risk the party’s links with ordinary working people — shutting off one of the few supplies of honest money to the political process in this country.

They believe that after the general election, with the collective voice of the unions broken within Labour, with the power of selecting the leader back more with the Parliamentary party, that they will also have achieved full state funding of political parties.

Failing that, there’s another potential solution at hand. In the words of Tony Blair’s former aide John McTernan in the Daily Telegraph, “What’s a million pounds? It’s one payment from a union, but it’s also £1,000 a year each from a thousand people — and in modern prosperous Britain many people have that much money to donate.

“There are, to my knowledge, nearly 1,000 former staff or special advisers who trade at a premium in the jobs market because of their ‘connections’ to Blair and Brown.”

In other words Labour should simply become a party of back-scratching “mates.”

State funding of parties is incredibly unpopular and for good reason. Seeing the mess Labour has got itself into with the union link, doubtless Lynton Crosby and the Tories will even now be preparing to campaign heavily against it.

If the Tories win the general election, or enter into another coalition, there will be no state funding and if these proposed changes are agreed at the special conference, Labour will soon be bankrupt.

This is the politics of a kamikaze pilot. There is simply no other way to describe it.

I understand why the GMB has decided to slash its affiliation to Labour. What better wake-up call can Paul Kenny and his union send to the Labour leadership?

I can also understand those in the union movement who rightly feel that the Blair years in power let them down badly and that they are simply tired of being treated as embarrassing elderly relatives.

The temptation to target liberated political funds into other causes or even a new political party is a powerful one.

But British politics is littered with the corpses of breakaway parties, from the SDP to Respect.

The Labour Party is not the property of its leader.

It is by its own constitution a federal democracy.

It is the party that the trade unions created and it is the party that still has the ability to deliver for ordinary working people.

Now is not the time to walk away or reduce the unions voting strength.

Nor is it time to abandon collectivism just because a new generation has yet to appreciate that individualism was Thatcher’s discredited creed.

By all means let us see if we can get more trade unionists to join the party.

But let’s not pretend this can in anyway compensate for any loss of the collective union voice.

Across the country Labour and trade union branches and ordinary members have been signing up in droves to a new campaign, Defend the Link.

There is still time for good sense to prevail and for next spring’s planned special conference to flesh out policies that matter to ordinary people and which could carry Miliband and Labour into power.

Visit the Defend the Link campaign at


We're a reader-owned co-operative, which means you can become part of the paper too by buying shares in the People’s Press Printing Society.

Become a supporter

Fighting fund

You've Raised:£ 10,054
We need:£ 7,946
13 Days remaining
Donate today