Many on the Labour left are keen to point out that the party owes its existence to the trade union movement. Likewise, the unions do their best to make sure Labour doesn’t forget its heritage. Traditionally, the unions have had a great deal of say in the election of the party leader. But the current contest has ignited debate about the unions' role in Labour’s future, after Unite union leader Len McCluskey said that his organisation would “rethink” its relationship with the party, unless it could represent “the voice of organised labour”.
The curious thing about Ed Miliband’s leadership was his redefinition of Labour’s relationship with the unions. The left-leaning Miliband was propelled into office with their help, after Unite orchestrated his election over his Blairite brother, David. Miliband went on to shift Labour further to the left than it had been for years, almost as a sop to the unions. Unfortunately, the May 7 election proved that “Project Miliband” – which rejected Blairism and the centre ground – has put Labour back years.
Now that Miliband has resigned, the main imperative for the Labour party is to elect a new leader. McCluskey told the BBC’s John Pienaar that “it is essential that the correct leader emerges”. The unions would prefer a short, sharp leadership contest as that would favour Andy Burnham, their preferred candidate. But acting Labour leader Harriet Harman has scuppered that dream with a longer contest, culminating with the party conference in September.
It’s true that there would be little point in electing a new leader until the party has done some soul-searching and re-established itself. The leader needs something tangible to lead. But when McCluskey called for a debate about the direction in which labour needs to go, there was no doubt that he meant a shift to the left. Even so, much of McCluskey’s tirade can be seen as bluff, bluster, and empty threats. Indeed, he has already made an attempt to backtrack on his comments, saying that the union has “no plans to disaffiliate from Labour”.
Whether they like it or not, the unions – while having an important role – have become detached from reality. David Miliband was right when he said that Labour lost the election because they failed to be the party of aspiration and inclusiveness. Yet the unions still cling to yesterday’s working class rhetoric, despite having less power in the workplace, because of stagnant membership. Likewise, they have less influence over government, because they speak yesterday’s language.
One member, one vote
Last year, Miliband also attempted to mitigate the unions' influence, by changing the leadership election rules. He introduced the one member, one vote (OMOV) system, under which every member – whether an affiliate or full member – gets an equal vote. The argument was that, in the wake of the Falkirk by-election scandal, OMOV would remove the block vote, giving the unions back to their members.
As a result of these changes, the unions have seen their collective power swept away. But if they are able to mobilise their members, they could be back in business. The problem for the unions is that they were caught napping. So confident were they that Labour would oust the Tories from government that, with the exception of Unison, they failed to encourage individual union members to join the party.
If they are successful in getting union members to sign up, it could give them more influence over who leads the party than they have ever had. There are around 4m members of Labour-affiliated unions and roughly 221,000 other party members. If the unions can get just 20% to affiliate and vote for their preferred leader, they will be calling the shots.
The unions may be optimistic but there will be a number of worried people in the Labour ranks. They know that a significant shift to the left could go against Labour at the polls in 2020. This is something the unions seem to be ignoring. There is no point in foisting a leader on the party who cannot win the next election. The main concern for Labour must be the prospect of losing the £11m donated by the unions last year. Without that they would find it difficult to operate, unless they can attract funding from business – and that wouldn’t go down well with the unions.
It could be that Miliband was right all along. The new rules could well ensure that the Labour leader is the choice of the membership, rather than that of the union leadership.
Alf Crossman does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
Authors: The Conversation