6 July 2013

Falkirk: Why Unite is not the enemy.

Whenever the workings of trade unions are put in the spotlight, there is a default media/commentariat position which presumes that every single trade union member is a brainless drone who does exactly what their leaders tell them to do.

So when Unite backed Ed Miliband for Labour leadership in 2010 - and put a letter in the voting pack suggesting members should vote for him - this is translated as being akin to a North Korea style election mandate. It is a truism that Unite members would simply see that letter and, in the privacy of their own home ignore any and all critical thought they may have had over which candidate to vote for, and simply obey their union executive and vote for Ed.

Similarly, when trade union members vote over whether or not to take or support industrial action, they do so in a secret postal ballot from their own home. Not, as portrayed in the press, in some show-of-hands mass meeting with mythical union thugs watching over them ready to beat up anyone who votes the wrong way.  

And there are presumptions about Falkirk that go down the same path. 

Is it against the rules?

Assuming Unite had signed-up 100 or so individuals to the Labour party, regardless of who paid the fees, those individuals would ultimately have had to have had to vote for their preferred candidate for Parliamentary candidate in a secret ballot - as specified in Rule 5c of the Labour Rule Book.

Unite would not have been able to station an official in each members' house to intercept their post or attend the meeting with each individual to fill out the voting slips for them.

I'm not naive enough to suggest this gets Unite off the hook in terms of what is looking like a fairly straightforward attempt to flood the local party with sympathetic members to ensure it gets a result it wants. In fact, this is a stated aim of the union. Had Unite been trying to do this sort of thing in secret, it would perhaps have been sensible not to print documents setting out the plan. 

But it simply cannot be taken for granted that those individuals would do what their union officials wanted them to do when faced with an actual choice of who to vote for. This is an important point to remember. When we talk about the trade union link to the Labour Party, we need to differentiate between the support of a union executive and bureaucracy, and the free choice individual trade union members actually have when it comes to voting in internal Labour elections through one-member-one-vote. It's difficult to explain all of this in less than 140 characters of course.

UPDATE: It is being suggested this morning by the pugnacious sitting Falkirk MP Eric Joyce that Unite were signing up members to Labour against their knowledge. But even if this turns out to be the case, Unite would still NOT control those member's votes in a Labour parliamentary selection - those people would have had to take the effort to consciously vote as individuals.

What cost membership?

The fact of the matter is that when you cheapen party membership in the way the Labour leadership has done, you invite this kind of thing going on. You cannot on the one hand claim to want to sign up millions of people for the cost of 1p, then complain when some of them don't behave in the way you want them to.

The most disgraceful abuse of this open-ended subscription system, in my view, was the appeal to members of the army to join Labour for £1. Presumably had the army organised itself to join soliders up to Labour en-masse to ensure its own officers became electoral candidates this would be being heralded as a major success for Miliband. However, as it is a trade union doing the same thing, it is seen as a sordid scandal.

This whole thing reinforces my belief (gleaned from those heady days of my youth in the Socialist Party) that every individual signing up to a political party should agree to make a serious and substantial financial contribution to that party which is linked to income and personal wealth. This would reduce opportunist entryism but also help in part to weaken the sway of a few individual rich donors. 

It's also sensible to have some kind of limit on membership privileges (such as voting in internal elections) relative to the amount of time a person has been in membership. Trade unions, for example, will often not represent or assist people over matters that have occurred prior to them signing up and paying subscriptions - in much the same way as insurers will not retrospectively cover you after you have been burgled.

However, the Labour party actually encouraged non-members to join the party simply to take part in the 2010 Leadership election - presumably not worried at all about the terrifying potential for organised entryism from disruptive elements. With this being so, I don't see how Labour can now complain too much about trade unions taking advantage of this same open-door policy.

Where next?

There are so many agendas at play here it is impossible to know where this will all end. Getting the police involved and invoking the spectre of Murdoch as Ed has done is adding more fuel to a fire that would otherwise burn out by itself - silly season is already upon us and there is really no need for anyone to carry on with all this.

They often say the best form of defence is attack.

If Labour wanted to go on the attack back over funding then why, on earth, are shadow cabinet members not screaming from the rooftops about Wonga and pay-day lenders buying Tory influence? Where is the advertising campaign pointing out the same scumbags enslaving the working poor through usury are buying home-counties crypto-fascists to protect their interests in parliament?

The targets and weak points are there if only Labour wanted to go for them. But for some reason, it doesn't.


Steve Funnell said...

A very sober blog Loz. Don't understand 'they would have had ultimately to have had voted for the preferred candidate.' Tried looking at chapter 5 of the rule book but still no clearer! But I agree Unite have tried to use the system to their best advantage and why not? All this media coverage is doing the labour movement no good. Surely calling in the police is a terrible error of judgement? I can't believe Ed M really wants to break the link with Unite or vice versa.

Anonymous said...

Depressingly good piece - optimism of the intelect etc.

Anonymous said...

intellect . . . it's getting to me!

Anonymous said...

Where next - disaffiliation. When someone keeps kicking you in the teeth it's probably best to stop buying them new boots!