Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Ed finally breaks the union link?

It would be an ironic twist of history that Ed-the-geek, the non-entity who crept into leadership only  because he was the least offensive option to the power-brokers of the Labour Party, should be the one who crosses the Rubicon and breaks the links with the unions.

Let's be clear that the arrangement whereby trade union members had affiliated membership of the party and where local branches affiliated to local parties and made up the general management committees of constituency parties never made Labour the worker-controlled party that the rhetoric would suggest. 

From its earliest days there was a mixture in the party membership of the middle class and workers. In earlier time the middle class component was drawn from intellectuals, bohemians and that layer of the middle class engaged in 'public service professions'. It is very different today. As both  UNITEs Len McCluskey and the CWU's Billy Hayes have pointed out in the past few days, Labour is now run by and for not working people but by a political class -  and politics has become a posh boy's game. 

Possibly the rot goes back to Harold Wilson - the working class grammar school boy who never actually worked outside of the union and party machine. Even coming from a working class background and having worked in a proper job has historically been no guarantee that individuals would continue to represent workers' interests - Ernest Bevin springs to mind as personifying the phenomenon of the thoroughly capitalist and collaborationist union baron.

But - in spite of all these caveats - the union link did mean something. The fact that local parties were structurally tied to local unions meant that at times some sort of control could be exercised. And so at certain times by a fragile,  indirect and imperfect process, the party was forced to reflect workers' interests - the 1945 government is the obvious example of this, but so too are the battles within the party in the 1970s.

Miliband's announcement yesterday  only goes to complete a process begun by Kinnock in the 1980s to make Labour finally free of this increasing  tenuous link. Surely nobody on the Left can now argue that there is any life still remaining in the Labour corpse. 

It defied all logic that some elements were arguing that this corpse could somehow be revived. Ironically it was McCluskey's own belief in this - brought to a head by the Falkirk affair - that has been the catalyst for Miliband's announcement. Incidentally McCluskey's welcoming reaction to the announcement may at first seem bizarre - but of course the removal of mass party membership will not represent the end of union funding only the breaking of automatic union funding. In fact it may even boost the power of union bosses in giving them the power to opt to make donations to party funds in return for influencing policies - possibly taking Labour even closer to the type of lobbying and power-play machinations seen in the Democratic party in the US. 

The only upside of all this is that it might just kill of the  few remaining illusions that people may have left in Labour.

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