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Editorial from the Socialist 797 (full length internet version)
Trade unions - time to break Labour link is now!
Is this the end for the unions and Labour?
In response to the Collins Review proposals to 'reform' the link between the unions and Labour, Mirror columnist Kevin Maguire declared: "It is time for the trade unions to march proudly out of Labour's front door instead of being slowly bundled out of the back" (3/2/14).
Labour leader Ed Miliband has said that the Collins Review proposals "complete unfinished business of the last 20 years". They are both right.
The process of undermining the voice of the trade unions within Labour began 20 years ago, under John Smith's leadership, and was accelerated under Tony Blair.
Today, before the Collins Review, "unions have less influence over selection [of candidates] than they have had in 100 years", as Tom Watson MP put it (Guardian, 16/8/13).
However, if implemented, the Collins Review will mean the destruction of the last remnants of the trade unions' organised presence within the Labour Party.
Far from letting "people back into politics" as Miliband claims, this will conclude the already advanced transformation of Labour into one more party of big business.
Maguire continues: "Rather than enduring a thousand indignities, organised labour should take its money and people and abandon institutional links with the party it fathered, nurtured and continues to sustain.
"However Ed Miliband dresses up these far-reaching reforms, which were triggered by his blind panic over the selection of a parliamentary candidate in Falkirk, truth is he wants union cash but not the unions.
"The Labour leader elected on the back of members is terrified of the 'red Ed' tag, never forgiving those who awarded him the top job."
Until now Kevin Maguire has defended the idea that Labour gives trade unionists a voice via the union link, but now feels he can no longer do so.
Many trade unionists will no doubt feel the same. The Collins Review comes after the Falkirk fiasco, where Miliband's response to Unite's attempts to democratically influence the selection of a parliamentary candidate was disgracefully to call in the police to investigate. Now, it appears no case was found but Miliband refuses to release the report.
Kevin Maguire goes on to report that, "votes were fixed weeks ago to pass Miliband's package at this week's meeting of Labour's national executive committee and a shamefully short two-hour conference on St David's Day".
There is no doubt that there have been weeks of haggling behind the scenes in order to try to come up with a deal which Miliband hopes will mollify the demands of the capitalist class and Tory Party, but which the trade union leaders also feel able to vote for.
Of course, no matter what anti-union measures Miliband takes, the capitalists and the Tories will always demand more.
As Maguire puts it, Miliband is, "in La-La land if he thinks anything short of outlawing union membership and transporting activists to Australia would end Tory smears." Nonetheless, these proposals are what the capitalists have been baying for, and trade union leaders should vote en masse against them. The few crumbs that have been offered do nothing to change the fundamentals.
It is true that the unions will still have 49% of the vote at the conference - a concession Miliband could give because the conference has long been completely toothless.
The Labour leadership's immediate dismissal of the 2013 conference's vote in favour of renationalisation of Royal Mail is an example of this.
But even maintaining the 49% of the vote is only for the next five years, and the share of the vote going to different unions will be adjusted in the meantime on the basis of how many individuals in each trade union choose to become 'associate members' of the Labour Party.
The selection of the party leader, however, will now be conducted purely on the basis of One Member One Vote (OMOV) with no collective voice for the unions.
When OMOV began to be introduced, 20 years ago, John Prescott correctly said it was more important than the abolition of Clause IV in the process of moving Labour to the right.
OMOV meant using a passive membership - sitting at home and seeing debates within the party via the capitalist media - against the more active layers who participated in the democratic structures of the party.
At that time the union block at conference was reduced from 90% to 49%. Now the collective voice of the unions within the party is being reformed out of existence.
In the past the organised working class had been able to put pressure on the Labour leadership via the block vote.
It is true, of course, that right-wing union leaders often wielded it against their own members' interests.
That is why we called - as part of our programme for democratic, fighting unions - for democratic trade union checks over the block vote.
Nonetheless, the reduction of the block vote was an essential part of transforming Labour into a qualitatively different, capitalist party.
Not only will the leadership election be conducted on the basis of OMOV, to get on the ballot paper will require the support of 15% of MPs, compared to the current 12.5%, which in turn was increased from 5% in 1988 in order to prevent Tony Benn getting on the ballot paper.
In the last leadership election even the 12.5% bar prevented John McDonnell MP from getting on the ballot paper despite having the support of wide swathes of the trade union movement, including being endorsed by the national conference of Unite, the biggest trade union in Britain.
This is the reality of Miliband's supposed 'opening up of the party to the people' - a workers' organisation of over one million members is debarred from being able to vote for their candidate because of the right-wing views of a few hundred Labour MPs.
Oppose Collins review
To date most of the trade union leaders have remained quiet on the Collins proposals. The Labour leadership will be demanding that they toe the line in order to prevent 'disunity' ruining Labour's chances at the general election.
This is nonsense. The Labour leadership didn't worry about unity when it launched an all-out assault on the unions within the Labour Party including calling the police in to investigate!
And if Labour fails to win the election it will not be because the party is seen as divided, but because it is putting forward policies that are no different, in essence, from those of the Con-Dems.
Putting "a red rose on austerity", as Kevin Maguire puts it, does not help win elections.
Members of the affiliated unions should call for their union's representatives at the Special Labour conference on 1 March to vote against the Collins Review and to demand that Labour adopts anti-austerity and socialist policies.
If, as seems likely, the Collins Review is passed however, the trade union movement needs to draw the necessary conclusions and immediately call a conference to discuss launching a new mass workers' party, which stands clearly against austerity and for workers' interests.
Kevin Maguire points out that the left-wing unions could have the resources to start a new party, but argues that "creating a Ukip of the left would be self-defeating for trade unions".
Of course this is not an accurate description of a new workers' party. But the fear of Ukip has pushed the Tories towards the right whereas the best efforts of the Labour left have been able to do nothing to push Labour to the left. On the contrary, Labour politicians appear hell-bent on out-Torying the Tories.
Rachel Reeves' call for benefit claimants to have their benefit stopped if they can't pass exams in maths, English and IT came hard on the heels of Tristram Hunt's support for academies and attacks on teachers' rights.
Ed Balls met Osborne's announcements of £25 billion extra cuts, not with outrage but with an earnest reiteration of Labour's pledge to match Coalition pledges on cuts in its first year in office.
What would be self-defeating and unacceptable to trade unionists is for the trade unions to continue to fund Labour despite getting nothing in return.
This has long been the case with the Democrats in the US, although that is beginning to change, as the election of Socialist Alternative candidate Kshama Sawant in Seattle has shown.
In Britain, however, where the whole history of the Labour Party is of a party based on the trade unions, this proposal will create outrage from trade unionists, particularly beyond the general election.
The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), in which we participate, is preparing the ground for a new mass workers' party, gathering around it those forces that see the need for a working class alternative, including the transport workers' union, the RMT.
The challenge TUSC is mounting in this May's local authority elections will be the biggest left challenge for generations. We appeal to all trade unionists furious at the Collins Review to join us.
In The Socialist 5 February 2014:
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