The trade unions should have less power in the Labour party, a combative Alan Johnson tells Robert Philpot and Richard Angell
Trade unions are in danger of becoming ‘irrelevant’ and ‘cannot connect to a whole swath of the workforce that thinks they died out with the ark,’ Alan Johnson, one of the most senior figures in the last Labour government, has warned.
In an interview with Progress, the former home secretary goes on to attack the image of ‘fat, white, finger-jabbing blokes on rostrums shouting and screaming’ and says the only sign of ‘rational thought’ in the union movement comes from the Trades Union Congress.
He also urges that the drive to increase working-class representation in parliament not be ‘left to a small clique in the affiliated unions who want to get the people who mirror their views into parliament’ and calls on the unions to reduce their power within the Labour party.
Johnson, who stood down from the shadow cabinet two years ago, is scathing about comments made by Len McCluskey on the eve of last year’s Labour party conference in which the Unite general secretary called for the ‘Blairite cuckoos’ to be ‘kicked out of the nest’.
‘So Len McCluskey says “kick the Blairites out”,’ he says, ‘the people who introduced the national minimum wage; introduced the right to six weeks’ paid holiday; introduced the right to trade union representation [and] whistleblower legislation; ensured that part-timers got the same [rights] as full-timers; upped maternity leave from 14 weeks to nine months; introduced paternity leave for the first time ever; got rid of discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. I mean, you can go on for ages. Talk about what did the Romans ever do for us?’
Describing McCluskey’s comments as ‘classic, that somehow [the Labour party had been] taken over by some rightwing clique’, Johnson suggests New Labour’s ‘crime’ was ‘winning elections, rather than losing them’. ‘Some of our colleagues, Len might be among them, think that victory is a bourgeois concept. That the only goal for true socialists is glorious fucking defeat at every election but at least you have got your little principles that you haven’t compromised on,’ he argues.
‘You’d think,’ Johnson continues, ‘that the trade union movement would be changing their tune now, with the huge opportunities, as [former TUC general secretary] Brendan Barber said, to get out in communities and be relevant once more, instead of saying they will ban different groups.’
Johnson, who was general secretary of the Communication Workers’ Union before entering parliament in 1997, labels himself a ‘passionate trade unionist’ and praises the ‘brilliant job, week in, week out’ done by trade unionists around the country. But, while the self-described ‘militant moderate’ commends the record of Barber and his successor, Frances O’Grady, Johnson argues that they face ‘a huge difficulty with the unions that make up the TUC’.
Decrying an absence of ‘fresh thinking’, the former home secretary warns the unions: ‘You have only got six million members. When are you going to start addressing the real problems you have got?’ He continues: ‘with six million members not 13 million members … it is becoming increasingly difficult to defend things like defined benefit pensions in the private sector. [The unions] did a brilliant job defending them in the public sector, and that’s good, but … the danger is that they become irrelevant.’
Drawing on the suggestion that the unions should ‘become more visible in communities and less visible in the Labour party’, Johnson argues that their power within the party’s policymaking process should be dramatically cut: ‘If I were the trade union movement I would be coming to the Labour party saying: “there is no earthly reason why we should have 50 per cent of the conference vote”. The only reason it is there is because John Smith couldn’t go any further … We’d be coming forward as comrades saying: “on the National Policy Forum it’s about a third of the vote with trade unions, that is about where it should be”. I would be coming to the party saying “this is what we want to do, be bigger and healthier”. Instead it always looks like they are defending … exactly what they had without any thought to changing times.’
The former home secretary also sounds a warning about the effort of unions like Unite to increase the number of working-class MPs in parliament. Johnson, who grew up in a council flat, left school at 15 and became a postman before rising to the top of the trade union movement, agrees that the issue is a ‘real problem’ and cites the work he and his former cabinet colleague Hazel Blears have been doing with the speaker, John Bercow, to encourage more people from working-class backgrounds to come into parliament. ‘We have gone backwards’ on working-class representation, he says. However, he cautions against both ‘inverted snobbery’, arguing that some ‘very good people’ have come through the ‘treadmill’ of Oxbridge, special adviser and into parliament, and ‘this feeling that more working-class people in parliament is more working-class people who will sing from the Len McCluskey hymn book.’
Johnson praises, moreover, the decision of Ed Miliband and Ed Balls last year to back the coalition’s multi-year public sector pay freeze, a decision ‘in which they almost invited the hostility of the trade union movement, and got it, from Len McCluskey’. ‘For the first time I felt we were living in the world of 2015 not 2010,’ he says. Asked whether Labour should commit to stick to the government’s spending limits for its first two years in office – as it did in 1997 – Johnson says it is ‘difficult to think what else you can do’. ‘We can’t get away from the fact that the fiscal deficit has got to come down,’ he argues. Johnson, who served as shadow chancellor in the first months of Miliband’s leadership, is sharply critical of George Osborne’s handling of the economy: ‘It is the biggest failure of any flagship policy that I can remember, and I doubt that anyone else can remember.’
Johnson also lends his support to Miliband’s decision that Labour should vote against the one per cent rise in benefits in last month’s parliamentary debate: ‘I actually couldn’t see what point there was to the Labour party if we hadn’t opposed that policy,’ he says.
While the former home secretary is ‘confident’ that Labour can win the next general election – believing that the party was ‘transformed’ during 13 years in power from being ‘a party of protest [and] a party of opposition’ to one of government – he does, however, believe that the critical test of Miliband’s leadership will come this year. ‘Now is a dangerous time. We can’t get away with saying we are thinking about policy. That’s perfectly acceptable for the first three years, but now we have got to start unveiling some policy and what Ed’s going to need to do is to meet the expectations he himself has created,’ he argues.
Johnson believes that the next election may almost have the feel of a ‘postwar election, thankfully without the carnage, where people are saying “we are not going to go back, whether it’s hacking, or bankers’ bonuses, or what was happening in financial services”.’ This presents a ‘huge opportunity’ for the left, he believes, and, citing the Labour leader’s 2011 ‘predators versus producers’ party conference address, he argues that Miliband was right to adopt this agenda. However, the former home secretary warns, people want ‘an awful lot to change and Ed could have played it safe, but he hasn’t, and the question people now ask is “how are you going to do all of this?”.’ Moreover, while Johnson believes that the Tories’ continuing lead over Labour in the polls on who can best handle the economy is ‘gradually eroding’, he concedes that ‘I don’t know whether we’ve got the message across as effectively as we could.’
At a party fundraiser last year, Johnson warned that if the Conservatives win the next election, they will win the one after, too. Does he really believe that? ‘The Tories [have] not won an election now for 21 years. If they win [in 2015] having been so maladroit, I fear for us,’ he responds.
Johnson’s spell on the opposition frontbench was not, he suggests, a happy one. ‘I really admire our frontbench in opposition. To me it was horrible, sitting there on the government benches one minute and then sitting on the opposition bench,’ he says. But while Johnson happily admits that he does not miss frontline politics, he is reluctant to rule out a return if the party were to win the next election: ‘Would I go back into government if offered? I think there is an awful lot of the parliamentary party who would say “that bastard stood there on the edge, didn’t do the heavy lifting in opposition and [then] swans into a government job”.’ But, he adds with a grin, ‘never say never’.
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