Some Fixers are Better than Others: Ed and the Unions

I was feeling a lot more positive about Ed Miliband’s proposed Labour Party reforms before yesterday’s speech than afterwards.

Intervening to change Labour’s relationship with the major trades unions is a bold (and necessary) move, but the devil will be in the detail of ensuing discussions between the party and the unions. That is where Miliband will really need to show his mettle.

It is too early to tell where this will lead, but I am not seeing a genuine attempt to reform the way the Labour Party works.

In public, Ed is using conciliatory language towards the major unions, rather than telling them the truth, which is that they are declining institutions, attached to a likewise declining Labour Party. This is understandable and perhaps necessary politically, but it puts him on the back foot.

The unions depend on Labour to do what they want when in power – the more the better (there is plenty of good common ground in looking out for ordinary working people, but this is only a part). In turn Labour depends on those same unions for funding.

Labour and those unions (not all – the shopworkers’ union USDAW is a noticeable exception) have been engaging in an increasingly drunken embrace, dragging each other down by concentrating on the relationship of power at a central level. Both struggle (if they even bother) to engage with most ordinary people in the unions or outside.

It is a diseased relationship and desperately needs reform.

Ed has made it clear that things need to change in Labour, but are the union bosses prepared to face up to their own failures and the poor state of the institutions they run? Are they prepared to open up and reform themselves to be more outward-looking and relevant to the ‘ordinary working people’ they claim to represent, or are they so weak that there is no spirit for renewal within them?

Specifically on Ed’s proposals, I am also concerned about the absence of genuine attempts to address Labour’s fixing culture. As the proposals stand, there will be a code of conduct for selection candidates, but nothing for party officials – so all the mechanisms of fixing by organised factions and others, including the unions, will remain in place. 

Labour’s paraphernalia of favouritism, which is a crucial component of the fixing apparatus (and of which the most visible manifestation is the All Women Shortlist for candidate selections) will also remain firmly in place. Open primaries may only take place where the local Labour Party is almost dead.

This is the new and improved version of Labour Party democracy.

At first sight, considering the proposals and listening to the mood music, the potential new compact doesn’t look much better than the previous version, and that is before the negotiations with the major unions begin. Barons like Len McCluskey will not give up their power without a fight.

It is also interesting in the fixing debate to look at the role of Labour’s ‘women’'s lobby, and in particular the Labour Women’s Network (LWN).

For me, the LWN seems to be doing what Unite and the other major unions have been trying to do, but a hell of a lot better: having a huge influence on the way the party goes about its business while remaining almost completely under the political radar.

Ed could not deliver a speech on party reform without proclaiming his support for the LWN’s agenda of female preference. If he did, he would be in serious trouble with a highly organised and mobilised interest group.

Whatever happens with Ed’s party reforms, institutionalised fixing will surely remain a core part of Labour’s internal machinery. It is partly a matter of some fixers being better than others.

In this context, Ed’s ideas are a step in the right direction, but we have a long way to go if we are to achieve a truly democratic and representative Labour party.


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