Now, to be fair, during every conference season I can remember, I swear that at least one journalist has used the phrase “limbering up for a fight” to describe the mood of union leaders, only to be followed by their crushing disappointment at the relatively peaceful and harmonious Labour Party conference which usually results.
This time, however, it seems for once that the phrase might just be accurate. The return of the far left during the past couple of years, as evidenced by the Bradford West by-election and the resurgence of unpleasant views on the fringes of the labour movement and of the party, means the possibility of confrontation, although by no means certain, looks higher than it has been for some years.
That’s not to say our unions are overflowing with hard-left fruitcakes: they’re not at all. But they have a few, the few make a lot of noise and they’re highly organised. Furthermore, thanks to most unions’ resolution-based conference format, a few well-organised fruitcakes can suddenly get a fruitcake motion passed.
What a union leader would be wise to avoid is to take that fruitcake motion and run with it.
Earlier this week, Unison’s Dave Prentis, not to be outdone by the GMB’s Paul Kenny, opted to pour oil on the flames ignited by the latter’s attempt to have Labour outlaw Progress, the self-styled New Labour pressure group. By saying he will support the GMB motion, Prentis is inviting other big union leaders to close ranks with their block vote and attempt to press a banning motion through Conference. Despite Ed Miliband having made a clear statement this weekend that he did not support the outlawing of anyone whatsoever, his statement was little reported in the media; and it looks from the outside, at least, like the unions might be in serious danger of getting their way.
And it’s not just how it looks, either: there’s real political power there. The overwhelming domination of unions in the party funding equation now means that they know they have Miliband in an awkward position. If they push, they force him into either accepting their demands (or electoral suicide, as it’s known in the trade); defying them altogether and ending up even more broke than before; or, more likely, confronting them, and ending up with the whole conference – and even, in extremis, the party’s whole programme – being blown off course by the row. Union relationships can be tricky for any party leader, but Miliband’s position is unusually pernicious.
Kenny’s was – let’s be honest – a poor decision to start with. It was poor because he could simply have ignored the motion from his members (let’s face it, union conferences are not exactly immune from the passing of wacky motions, almost invariably ignored) but chose, on the contrary, to get behind it and take it further. It was poor because he chose to ignore the effect it might have on the party’s programme and electoral credibility. It was poor because he, and his successors, will one day need to face down those same hard left entryists within their own organisation, whereas this merely feeds their hungry mouths.
But most of all it was poor because it missed what is staring us all in the face: that, right now, we are sitting in the middle of a fragile window of opportunity for Labour, to get ahead. Kenny and Prentis are not bad men, and I am sure they believe they are serving the interests of their members and the wider movement. It is fortunate, at least, that Unite’s Len McCluskey, according to LibCon, will not be joining them. But others may, and they are all playing with fire.
With the party riding high in the polls – even if that lead might be soft and largely down to the Tories’ current terrible handling of Hunt, Leveson, the Budget, Warsi and just about everything else – the media are finally, against all odds (currently 6-4, if you’re interested), starting to talk about Miliband as a future prime minister.
Now, let’s be clear: this is all unlikely to last. So the smart move would be to grasp the moment, get some definition on our somewhat woolly policy agenda and kick the Tories while they’re down, by looking together while they are still off-balance.
In the midst of all that, what do we least need? Well, how about a conference full of internecine warfare – the first in years – which reminds the country just how unready to return to government we still are, and why perhaps they should stick with the Tories? As Hopi Sen points out, it is not just the usual suspects (i.e. people like him and me) who have criticised Kenny’s move, but those who you might describe as “soft left” too.
And that’s because this is nothing to do with defending Progress for its politics and where they stand on the left-right axis: it’s about plurality. It’s about being able to have grown-up discussions within the party, without one side or the other going off in a huff. Say what you like about Progress’ politics, but its members have never shied away from robust debate, are usually prone to nothing but the most mild-mannered criticism of unions or leadership, and I don’t remember them ever asking for anyone to be banned, either.
And finally, it’s about not wasting our golden opportunity.
It’s about us looking like a government-in-waiting in front of the electorate in October. And not, as they say in my native Yorkshire, a bunch of daft ha’porths.
This post first published at LabourList