Labour Unite-Ed


Do allegations around what’s happening in Falkirk reveal a fight between two groupings using obsolete tactics to control a political party?

The matter has been referred to the police, so I’m not going to go into the specifics of Falkirk but look at some more generic issues around the structural links between the Labour Party and the trade union movement of today.

What are trade unions and why should they matter?

I have to start with the basics (see here by the Trades Union Congress) because not everyone knows them. The emergence of the trade unions that we know of today stems from the negative aspects of industrialisation. Exploitation of workers who had to work long hours in dangerous conditions to survive. It was pressure from trade unions that helped bring in laws on health and safety. Despite being much-maligned due to people misunderstanding what the requirements are, health and safety remains important today when viewed in the context of where we came from.

I used to be a member of both the PCS Union and the FDA Union when in the civil service – and was a workplace rep for both at different times. When I moved onto the Civil Service Fast Stream, I found that it was the FDA Union that was negotiating my pay and conditions for my grade. But having been a PCS rep prior to that and having learnt lots from them too, I stayed a member and paid two sets of trade union subscriptions. It was through this (unpaid voluntary) work as a representative taught me the importance of having trade union representation in the workplace – especially large organisations. A positive working relationship between the two can mean big problems can be nipped in the bud.

Historical links

To many Labour Party members, the trade union link is in their DNA. The party emerged from the trade union movement of the late 19th Century. In that sense, you have your trade unions representing ‘the workers’, and the Labour Party representing the trade unions in elected office – whether local councils or in Parliament. Remember too that this structure emerged from a time when ordinary working people could not afford to stand for, and if elected hold public office due to the expenses that they entailed. The structure  and line of accountability of workers-trade unions-Labour Party helped ensure that the political views of the working class could be represented in political institutions.

Today, there are a smaller number of larger trade unions following the decline of trade union membership since the 1980s – especially in the private sector, and mergers over the past few decades. Unite the Union is a culmination of a series of mergers.

“Yeah Pooffles, if Unite don’t like what Labour is doing, why don’t they form their own political party and stand for election?”

Because as far as many trade unionists are concerned, the Labour Party is their party – even though they may have strong issues with the leadership. It’s a bit like the Conservatives too. The balance the leaders of both parties have to strike is that their grassroots are more leftwing (in Labour’s case) or rightwing (in the Conservatives’ case) than their leadership.

ITV News quoted Unite the Union’s support including donations of £8million to Labour, supporting 90 MPs and 58 candidates. The way the media are reporting the whole debacle makes the whole thing feel like a small number of very wealthy individuals have a huge influence over the Labour party. The problem for both Unite and Labour is that their structures re-enforce this mindset.

Blarites vs Brownites

Throughout the 1990s & 2000s the two leading factions in the Labour Party were portrayed as those supporting Tony Blair – in particular the Progress section, against those backing Gordon Brown. The media gave little coverage to those to the left of Gordon Brown – such as the LRC, portraying them in negative terms. One of the things that both the current Labour leadership and the media have struggled to come to terms with is how to handle each other now that both Blair and Brown have gone. It’s as if for both there is a vacuum.

Top-down control

This is just as much about tactics as it is content and policies of the factions using them. For those seeking power and influence, the prospect of having a large number of loyal people working and campaigning for you is a very inviting prospect indeed. Loyalty stems from the history and workplace solidarity amongst other things.  One of those ways of gaining control is influencing who gets selected for which seats. Unite are being criticised for their behaviour in Falkirk – with allegations that they encouraged many of their members to formally join the Labour Party so as to have an influence on the candidate selected for an up-and-coming by-election. At the other end, Luciana Berger was criticised after she was seen as being parachuted into a safe Labour seat in an area she otherwise had not spent much time in.

Obsolete – even strategically damaging tactics

By obsolete I don’t mean that for a specific short-term aim a given tactic is not successful. I’m looking at it in a much broader sense. Imposing a parachuted careerist or packing the membership to get a specific candidate selected might be successful, but if in the longer term it leads either to the party losing the by-election or wider dissatisfaction with Labour or with politics in general, is it wise to act in such a way? John Harris in The Guardian expands on this further.

Social media, social change

I’m thinking less about the social media tools and more about how people are using them to drive social change – in particular their relationships with politicians and those in large organisations. One of the big social changes is that people can answer back – in a manner that can get a huge amount of publicity in very little time. People are less loyal and deferential to institutions than they might have been in the past. Structures and tactics that might have been effective in 1995 are found to be clumsy two decades later. Having a small central rebuttal unit giving out lines to take may have worked in the late 1990s, but in an increasingly connected world, conversations rather than press release lines matter more. Those that can only repeat press releases without engaging critical faculties – ie their brains – are found wanting in such an environment.

Is the structure of the trade union movement obsolete?

I’ve argued before that it is. At the same time trade unions are needed more than ever as the polarisation of wealth in society becomes more and more extreme. My simple question/challenge is how to make a trade union community one that suits people in insecure low-paid jobs and one where people move from job-to-job and switch careers more regularly rather than being in a job or profession for life. That is the really difficult challenge for the trade union movement. If that challenge isn’t met, then it makes it much easier for opponents of trade unions to portray unions and their leadership as being a symptom of a declining and outdated public sector that is resistant to ‘change’.

Engaging with non-members who might be sympathetic to different policies of different parties

This is something that impacts all political parties and is something that the Obama campaign tried to tackle in his recent re-election campaign. In such an environment, the calibre and the merits of individual candidates becomes more important – in particular their local impact. The more interesting contests for politics’ watchers happen at the faultline between the Tories vs UKIP, and Labour vs the Greens.

The problem for political parties here is that you are dealing with people who are interested in politics but who are often put off by some of the behaviours of the toxic brand of party politics. Prime Minister’s Questions makes for cracking panto, but that’s about it. It’s not the sort of proper scrutiny that can really get to the crux of issues that some of the Leveson scrutiny was able to get to.

Are open primaries the answer?

There is no one single answer – it would be a mistake to think otherwise. That said, if I was a member of a political party, I would be in favour of open primaries in principle because I would want to see how each of the candidates copes under scrutiny from the local public. How would they cope with some genuinely difficult big picture policy questions? For example on housing: Getting the ratio of rents/mortgages vs wages/salaries back to a more realistic level means wage rises or price falls. Which one do you tolerate to sort out the problem? I’d also want to see how candidates can relate to members of the public before casting my selection choice. A candidate popular with a local party might not be popular with a local electorate. Labour MP John Mann wrote an interesting article about open primaries for Labour here. At the other end, activists in both local Labour and Conservative Parties have told me that if people want to influence a political party, they should join it and pay their fees – a totally valid principle too.

Is there any ground between joining a party you have issues with and standing yourself

This is the bit that I want to explore, because I’m not comfortable with the either/or. This was something Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson mentioned at an event in Parliament I followed recently: What is the role for the likes of her and I? Because we clearly have one in our own niches as demonstrated by the number and nature of interaction we have with politicians and activists of political parties.


Bringing it back to the issue of Unite vs Labour, for me it isn’t really that at all. The Falkirk story is about the impact of two tactics that the public does not like: The artificial packing of meetings and memberships for a specific single purpose (in this case to get a candidate elected) vs the parachuting of a candidate with few local links by a distant head office. Both tactics may get candidates selected and even elected, but don’t think they’ll raise the public’s perception of politics. For me, raising the public’s perception of politics with a view to getting them actively and positively engaged matters more.


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