Labour’s National Executive Committee decision to move to restore confidence in the integrity of the selection of the party’s parliamentary candidate in Falkirk is welcome. What had been going on in the seat prior to Ed Miliband stepping in and halting the process was a throwback to the kind of politics many of us had hoped had long been put behind us. It is far removed from the ‘new politics’ that Ed, quite rightly, has sought to encourage under his leadership.
Let’s be clear: those who have protested at these activities do not do so because we are trying to exclude individual trade unionists from influence in the party. Rather we are trying to defend the rights of grassroots members of the Labour party – including trade unionists – to select whomsoever they wish to represent the party at the next general election and to do so free of blatant attempts to manipulate the process by trade union machines.
I value the contribution of the trade unions to the Labour party and their importance in helping to build a more socially just Britain. When I and others stood alongside Neil Kinnock in the 1980s attempting to free the party from the stranglehold of the hard-left, we had no greater friends than those in the trade unions who saw that there was nothing more damaging to the interests of their members than an unelectable Labour party. During New Labour’s early years in office, as Tony Blair’s secretary of state for trade and industry, I introduced a host of workplace rights, including the right for workers to have their trade union recognised by their employer, and Britain’s first ever national minimum wage. Later, during our final years in power, Gordon Brown and I worked closely with the unions in developing a new active industrial policy to throw the weight of government behind the technologies, markets and industries of the future, and thereby to create new growth and jobs. We worked with trade unions and Labour MPs to help forge a long-term future for viable but troubled industrial plants.
That is why we must never accept the narrative of some in the party – often espoused by those who are not, and never have been, members or supporters of the Labour party – that we failed to defend and advance the interests of working people when we were in government.
Like everyone else in the Labour party, I want to see stronger trade unions in touch with, and representative of, their members. Given the impact of the coalition’s economic policies, there has rarely been a more important time for Britain to have a flourishing trade union movement which prioritises the needs of its present and future members for a secure place in the labour market, with protection of their rights, conditions and pay, with especial support for the most vulnerable and lowest paid.
The true measure of the movement’s strength is reflected in these goals of employment and social justice and the number of our fellow countrymen and women who choose to join a trade union – not the ability of a small cabal in London to dictate to party members who should be the Labour candidate in their seat.
On this measure there is much work to be done. Despite a recent small increase, barely one in four of those in employment are members of a union. In the private sector, that figure falls to just 14 per cent. The tragedy for the millions of people in low-paid or insecure work who desperately need representation by a trade union is that every minute wasted attempting to fix and manipulate internal selections in the Labour party is a minute lost advancing their interests.
Falkirk has thrown a spotlight on a debate that the Labour party and the trade unions need to have: how we strengthen the link between us, but respect the rights of individual Labour party members and trade unionists. I believe that trade unions can be great advocates for the Labour party. We need to build a stronger party with a bigger, more diverse membership so that it truly reflects the concerns and aspirations of people in every community in the country. This, after all, was one of New Labour’s ambitions nearly 20 years ago – an ambition which, sadly, was left largely unfulfilled.
In my remarks to the Progress conference last month, I acknowledged this failing. New Labour should have done more, much more, to reform the party to make it a more open and outward-looking. And we should have treated John Smith’s achievement of one member one vote in 1993 as the start of a process of democratisation, not as its completion.
Trade unions can, and should, play their part in that: helping to recruit their members to the party. There is nothing wrong with discounted membership being offered to those – whether they be trade unionists, military veterans or small-business people – joining the party for the first time. But that is very different from trade unions (or anyone else) being allowed to pay en bloc to recruit en masse their members to the party. Indeed, it appears that in Falkirk some people did not even know that they were being signed up as party members. Local trade union members cannot be treated like some modern-day block vote for trade union general secretaries to wield in London.
Fresh from winning the endorsement of 9.7 per cent of Unite’s 1.5 million members to be re-elected as general secretary, I can understand why Len McCluskey might feel he has earned the right to throw his political weight around. This was surely his intention when he responded to my criticisms in the Guardian by letting slip that: ‘Unite’s aim is simple – to recruit members to the party (welcome, I would have thought) and then encourage them to endorse union-supported candidates in one member, one vote selections.’
Trade unions should, of course, participate in parliamentary selection processes – as should all Labour’s affiliates. But they should publish and be transparent about the process by which they decide which candidates to nominate and support and they should allow their members to play a full part in that process. This would help prevent a repeat of the decisions taken by trade union representatives in some of Labour’s European selections that has so concerned constituency parties and members in London and beyond.
There are clearly lessons to be learned from the Falkirk experience. In the review of the party’s internal membership procedures that he is conducting, Iain McNicol should make a bar on third parties paying an individual’s party membership his first priority.
We know that such activities are being engaged in elsewhere – Unite’s own documents refer to its recruitment drive in Falkirk as being ‘exemplary’ – and, for as long as they are allowed to continue, it is only a matter of time before we have another Falkirk.
While the internal politics of Falkirk is hardly a popular conversation topic for most members of the public, further such incidents risk damaging Labour’s reputation and undermining our electoral appeal. The stakes in 2015 are too high to allow any such damaging behaviour to get in the way of the election of a Labour government.
Peter Mandelson is former first secretary of state
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