Are the trade unions the answer to Labour’s financial crisis?

Are the trade unions the answer to Labour’s financial crisis?


    A Guest slot by HenryG

Let’s make no bones about it, the survival of the Labour Party is now heavily reliant on funding from trade unions in the short to medium term. As a result, trade union influence appears to be a topic discussed more and more.

Yesterday’s Guardian includes details of some of the action at the GMB annual conference. The report gives a clear message that MPs will be named and funding withdrawn from their constituency parties if they insufficiently follow to support ‘traditional Labour policies’.

Even more worrying for the Labour hierarchy, Paul Kenny added that GMB money will not be used to repay loans to businessman who loaned Labour money prior to the last general election. The CWU have been meeting this week and activists seem in a similarly feisty mood. Former deputy leadership challenger Jon Cruddas addressed delegates there and urged them to help change the Labour Party rather than disaffiliate and disengage.

If Cruddas and others can keep the unions onboard, what will the outcome be? The impressive asked its panel of experts about the impact of a trade union bail out. They report: ‘Many panellists, especially those inclined to the right, believe that Labour is in a fix. The more it hugs closer to the unions, the more it risks losing further support among centrist voters.’

This assumption that increasing links to the unions will be an unmitigated electoral disaster for Labour is a long held view shared of many in and around New Labour. I’m not so sure that holds true anymore for three main reasons:

Labour is shedding its core vote. As a result the swing voters in marginal seats are now more likely to include trade unionists than ever before. The other parties know that trade unionists are looking elsewhere and no party will want to demonise 6 million voters. Despite the odd remark about ‘union barons’ (elected officials) the Tories have appointed former Labour MEP Richard Balfe precisely to woo union members. The Lib Dem candidate in the Crewe and Nantwich by-election also made play of her trade union credentials. The increased currency and political rehabilitation of trade unionists can ultimately be of benefit to Labour should disaffiliations be avoided and bridges built again.

The unions’ demands are actually quite moderate by historical standards
and now chime with a number of issues that matter to a significant part of the electorate – be it defending post offices, the 10p tax rate, free primary school meals or family friendly working hours. If Labour’s ministers listened more to trade union voices then they certainly would have made fewer self-inflicted wounds in the last few years, but they’d also have a source of popular new policies to draw from.

The trade unions will crucially help Labour to define itself post-Blair. Always one for a quip, Jon Cruddas asserted that New Labour was like a ‘dog with no tackle’. There’s actually something in that – managerialism isn’t enough – particularly when people don’t think you’re managing particularly well. The union influence could force Labour’s ministers to define their policies beyond MBA jargon and more in terms of social justice or benefits to working people – no bad thing.

I’d argue that a resurgence of support for Labour from trade unionists would be welcomed by the leadership and give a boost to the party’s fortunes on the ground as well as at the ballot box. If done in the right way by no means should it ‘frighten the horses’. Instead it could actually reach out those who feel Labour has lost its way. The unions may not only provide a financial rescue for the Labour Party, but could actually sow the seeds of its political renewal.

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