Friday, 5 October 2018

Tiny step by tiny step, the unions reassert themselves as ballast against the hard left

by Rob Marchant

If last year’s party conference was an unabashed love-in for Corbynites and the party’s leader, this was the conference where – as always happens eventually in all environments where the far left runs the show – the cracks started to appear.

Ok, it may not be enough to stop the party from self-immolation. But, after the shock to Labour’s system of the tsunami of new members and a leadership dragging it off to the far left, the tectonic plates appear to be slowly, infuriatingly slowly, moving back towards their traditional positions.

There are reasons why the power structure within the Labour Party has grown up as it has. The party came out of the unions and the unions have always had a seat at the top table – some times more powerful than others, but always there.

Now, in general, unions and the union movement have so far been widely supportive of Corbyn. Why? Because the decline in union membership (and thus the accountability of union leaders to their members) has allowed the bigger unions to drift sleepily to the left, into a misty-eyed, 1970s nostalgia where globalisation never happened. Corbyn plays to the worst and most self-indulgent instincts of the left-leaning unions: he tells them they were right all along.

But the smarter ones among the leaders, left and right, are starting to wake up and see that not all is roses. They are realising that, first of all, a strictly member-led party may not pay attention to their views on, say, the leadership of the party. And the more power goes to the members, the less there is for them. Hence why they voted to dilute the rule changes for a more “member-run” party and actually increased their own say in leadership elections.

Second, that said members, although they are mostly pro-EU and have voted at conference for a second referendum, that is a mere conference motion. And that new, vastly-expanded membership may not be sufficiently assertive to secure an actual change to Corbyn’s position on that topic and hence protect the economy, jobs and workers’ rights (by the way, if anyone in the Leader’s Office can point to a paper which explains why a “jobs-first Brexit” is anything more than a breathtakingly meaningless slogan, it would be great to see it. Thanks).

Hence deep concern in the unions over Europe. Union members, by the way, back a second referendum by two to one. Of course, it is hardly unheard of for the big union leaders to go against their members (let’s face it, most are elected on a pitiful turnout) but eventually strong feelings bring some pressure to bear on their views, too.

Third, that, in slavishly following the Corbynite “anti-Semitism, what anti-Semitism?” position, those members may actually encourage the racism that the British labour movement has spent its whole history fighting against. It was no coincidence that the abstruse, yet symbolically vital, issue of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism finally caused unions to break cover against St Jez, in the form of Unison’s Dave Prentis and GMB’s Tim Roache (who memorably told him to “get his head out of his backside”).

All these things tend to put distance between union leaders, looking out for their union’s interests, and the party (we should probably exclude from this Unite’s Len McCluskey, who is generally looking out for Len McCluskey). But the bottom line is that unions have a long, long history in the party, and thousands of activists who will still be around when hundreds of thousands of dilettante Jezuits (most of whom are not, for the record, hard left) have long gone from the membership. They provide a continuity and, very often, a ballast against extremist views. As historian Professor Andrew Thorpe put it, “the unions have, on the whole, kept ‘the Left’ of the party at bay”.

And so it was, on September 30th 1935 – 83 years ago to the day – that a barnstorming speech by the T&G’s Ernie Bevin saved the party from the dangerous hands of its naïve, pacifist leader, George Lansbury, at a time when fascism was on the march in Europe. In the late 50s, after initially imposing unilateralism, they helped save the party from the unilateralists. And in the end, although they foolishly helped advance them in the beginning, they closed ranks to kick out Militant in the 80s.

Indeed, there is something of a pattern of unions, often naively, supporting a caucus or policy position and, in the end, rounding on that same caucus to defeat it, for the greater good of the party.

Let’s hope the unions have not fundamentally changed so much over the decades. The signs are that they haven’t and, if there were ever a time when their political ballast were needed to swing the party back to common sense, it’s now. It really is.

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