The Labour Party was formed as a political wing of the trade union movement in 1900. It aimed to increase the representation of working class people who, without the help of the trade unions, would not be able to get to parliament to represent people in their constituencies. The basic premise was that the working classes would be represented in parliament by a Labour movement that had shared values between the trade unions and the party, it lead the party to assert the claim that it was the best party to represent working class interests in parliament and for most of the twentieth century, it did that well. The question for the upcoming Collins Report will be this: if the proposed trade union link changes from Ed Miliband go ahead, can Labour still claim to represent the interests of the working class?
It’s a conundrum for many Labour supporters and members on the left, who would like to see the trade union link to the party kept the way it is, it works well enough for most trade unions who hold the Labour Party to account without dodgy selection processes and questionable protest methods. The GMB union have recently done this by slashing funding for the Labour Party from £1.2 million per year, to just £450k. However, Unite, led by Len McCluskey, who have been involved in some pretty questionable practices over the summer, have stayed relatively quiet on the idea of cutting affiliation fees and McCluskey has even come out in support of Ed Miliband’s proposals.
Of course, Tony Blair absolutely obliterated the link between the trade unions and the Labour party, weakened their voting power and minimised any communication links between the general secretaries. Membership of the Labour Party fell from 405,000 in 1997 to 160,000 in 2009.
Under Ed Miliband, there has been little empirical evidence of any improvements within the Labour movement. However, the trade unions endorsed Ed Miliband as their preferred candidate for the Labour leadership election in 2010. Ed Miliband has always been seen to be on friendly terms with Len McCluskey and other union secretaries.
What impact would a change in the link have? Well, one of two things could happen. The findings of the Collins Review could be accepted and it could be that trade union members can opt out of funding the Labour Party or they can get involved directly with the Labour Party and us lefties will mumble an complain for another thirty years. Or, the findings of the Collins Review could be rejected and it could cause another great rift within a party where internal conflict is not uncommon. One would hope that does not happen.
The link between the Labour Party and the Trade Unions is important. For one, it keeps the Labour Party somewhat grounded. While our benches fill up with Oxbridge educated, white, middle class and middle aged men from middle England, we have to remember that there are people in this country struggling to make ends meet. We have to remember that our country is becoming more and more diverse, and so, we should have political parties that reflect that diversity. The trade union link also ensures that people who might not feel they have a voice, are represented in parliament. Trade unions are also a fantastic campaigning base for the party and in general. Lots of party members got involved with the STUC’s “A Future that Works” campaign against Tory austerity and it was a great day for Labour members and trade unionists alike.
An increase in Labour membership is to be welcomed, especially in the lead up to next year’s general election, but with less trade union members willing to vote Labour, we need to give them a reason to join our party and that’s why the trade union link to the Labour party must be maintained as it currently is.