Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Labour’s not just for public sector workers

I would die in a proverbial ditch to defend the link between Labour and the trade unions. It’s one of the reasons for my decision to back Ed Miliband rather than David in the leadership election – I was concerned that David might undermine the link. I’m old enough to have joined Labour at the time when an alternative social democratic party – the SDP – which was not linked to the unions existed as a potential choice for people on the centre-left to join. The SDP’s fate – oblivion – is what would welcome a Labour Party that was not rooted in the wider labour movement through the union link.

I cherish the historical contribution of the unions. Setting up Labour not just as a national party but founding most CLPs. Keeping the party alive at the worst of times in the 1930s and 1980s. Providing the moderate votes to see off left forces from the Bevanites to Militant. Providing great working class MPs from Ernie Bevin to Jim Callaghan to Alan Johnson.

I value the contribution of the unions to Labour now. Not just the hard cash, without which we would be bankrupt with no staff and no ability to campaign. But also the practical campaign support at a grassroots level. The policy input bringing bread-and-butter workplace issues to the table. The level-headed trade unionists on our NEC and regional boards who bring measured common sense to our deliberations. The ability to involve hundreds of thousands of ordinary working people in our democracy, not least in our leadership elections.

I am a proud trade unionist and have been for my entire working life. I’m the fourth generation in my family to be a union member. I am proud to have recruited colleagues to Unite. I am proud to have served on the old Amicus’ London Regional Political Committee for many years. I am proud to have marched for an alternative to the coalition’s cuts on the TUC demo on 26 March 2011.

But the link involves give-and-take and mutual respect and boundaries.

And I feel that the attack by Len McCluskey, general secretary of my own union, Unite, on Ed Balls and Ed Miliband, as well as Stephen Twigg, Liam Byrne and Jim Murphy, overstepped those boundaries.

The timing, language and style was not appropriate for the general secretary of Labour’s largest affiliate. I hope Len will take a deep breath and step back from this kind of confrontation.

Our union affiliates rightly have a strong voice in our policy making.

But they cannot have a veto over a Labour shadow chancellor or chancellor’s macro-economic policy.

They particularly cannot reasonably expect a Labour shadow chancellor to embrace a policy of ‘no cuts’. Because that is the formal policy of Unite, which Len expects the two Eds to embrace: ‘Unite’s Executive Council unanimously confirms its opposition to all Government spending cuts.’ All, not some. Not a position that the cuts are too deep and too fast as Labour has been saying ever since the general election. But that nothing at all should be cut.

That’s not a policy. That’s a slogan. That’s a transitional demand – a Leninist concept whereby you cynically call for something that sounds really attractive (in 1917 it was ‘Peace. Bread and Land’) but you know to be unattainable under capitalism and democracy.

It’s also a political suicide note. Even after the very sensible remarks by Ed Balls at the weekend that provoked Len’s response, our position on the deficit is not to the right of public opinion. The public don’t like the cuts, they agree with our ‘too far, too fast’, line but they want the deficit cut. Any party that doesn’t go into the next general election promising to balance the books will be seen as not credible on the economy. Any party that makes promises now about reversing cuts in 2015 without knowing what the books will look like then will be seen as not credible on the economy. And if you are seen as not credible on the economy, history shows you cannot win a general election.

What was the Unite executive council thinking of when they passed a ‘no cuts’ policy? Was it one of those moments you get when someone turns up at a meeting with something so ‘motherhood and apple pie’
that everyone is too embarrassed to oppose it and point out its a load of drivel?

If the slogan looks like a Leninist transitional demand, is this and the apparent cavalier willingness to talk about breaking a 112 year history of affiliation to Labour something to do with Unite’s ‘chief of staff’ being Andrew Murray, a member of the Communist Party of Britain, not of the Labour Party? Mr Murray’s unusual political views include being an apologist for Stalin and for North Korea.

On the second issue raised by Len, pay restraint for public sector workers, the unions have an entirely legitimate case to make for higher pay for their members, and every right to lobby Labour to support them.

But Labour’s frontbench also has the right to say it won’t.

That’s because Labour doesn’t just represent the public sector workforce.

It has to take decisions on public spending as an actual employer in many local authorities and a prospective, shadow employer in central government, not as a representative body for employees like the unions are.

That requires Labour to take decisions in the interest of the taxpayer.

It requires Labour to think about the interests of all 29 million workers and 60 million citizens of the UK, not just the 6 million who work in the public sector. Quite aside from the rights and wrongs, the electoral maths is compelling.

It requires Labour to consider that if the government is somehow persuaded to award higher pay increases to public sector workers, it is inevitable they will find this cash by making other workers redundant or scrapping services or investment.

As a local councillor I don’t want council staff to suffer a real terms pay cut. But if their pay is increased, we won’t get a bean more from the treasury in the current climate to fund it. By law we have to balance our budget, so we’ll have to find compensatory savings. I would not relish announcing we have shut a library and made librarians redundant so that the remaining librarians in the other libraries can have a pay increase.

But this second issue is something Labour and the unions can have a rational discussion about, and probably should just politely agree to differ. It’s certainly not grounds for calling the link into question.

If like me, you value the link but you want affiliated trade unions to have more rational policies and be more supportive of the tough decisions Ed Miliband and Ed Balls are having to make to make us electable again, please don’t sit back bemoaning the situation. Be part of making the link work.

We can’t leave union activism to the SWP or the CPB. The British trade union movement and the millions of workers in it deserve better than to have their unions’ policies dictated by Trots, Stalinists and Bennites.

If you are in a union get active in its structures.

If you are not in a union you should be, not least for the support and protection offered in the workplace, which is done well even when the politics is haywire. A good one to join, which recruits in all sectors, is in fact Unite.


Luke Akehurst is a constituency representative on Labour’s NEC, a councillor in Hackney, writes regularly for Progress here, and blogs here


Photo: Toban Black

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Luke Akehurst

is director of We Believe in Israel and a former member of Labour's National Executive Committee


  • Sorry, but you idea of ‘rational policies’ seem to be support of the status quo. Labour was invented to change the world, not be a managerial party.

    If you support the unions, you should support the logic of unionism: the interests of workers is different to the interests of employers.

  • PEOPLE were invented to change the world ,but see, its a very complex problem ! if there were no employers who would the workers work for ? we are still Capitalists,unless that is you have a better idea TC.

  • Very interesting piece. But I do think you misrepresent what happened to a degree. It’s not so much that Len and other trade union leaders believe they have a veto over policy (if they did, they would have been flexing their muscles much more aggressively than has hitherto been the case), but that leading trade unionists were not consulted before at all.

    I know we’re supposed to be about the new generation and such like, but Blair regularly trailed ideas by focus groups of relevant people. If Labour is to avoid damaging public spats like this in future, the leadership could do worse than giving a little more jaw-jaw a go.

  • Of course Labour doesn’t only represent the 6 million + public sector workers, but it should represent the 11 million ‘not employed of working age’ and the ten million not employed retirees, and those working on or below the minimum wage not to mention the 93% of kids in ‘state’ education. Even Cleggy ,hung out to dry, by his well fed blue meanies know that. It’s all more half of us who are all in a rather different ‘together’ than the Wantage or Tatton set.

  • in the current climate to put up public sector wages means raising more taxes, ie tax those in the private sector more. that isn’t fair. if Labour is to succeed it does need to move on from being seen as the ‘public sector party’

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