Unite has grown too big for its own good

Unite has grown too big for its own good

And it’s grown too big for Labour’s too

The extraordinary row that has blown up over the selection for Labour’s nomination in Falkirk at the next General Election is a natural and inevitable consequence of the empire building within the union sector. There is nothing inherently wrong with unions seeking to influence Labour party selections. After all, the Labour Party was set up as a creature of the unions in the first place and Len McCluskey does have a valid point when he notes how that party has been captured by the middle class.

    His problem, and Labour’s, is that while in decades gone there were union barons in plural, Unite the Union now occupies an unprecedentedly dominant position. To take one example, in the 2010 leadership election, around two-fifths of ballot papers sent to affiliate members were due to their membership of Unite. To take another, Unite was the top donor to any political party in each of the four quarters in 2012, during when it gave nearly £3.4m to Labour: more than a quarter of their income from donations.

Little surprise then that David Cameron is happy to portray Ed Miliband as Len McCluskey’s puppet whenever the Labour leader’s lines coincide with those of the union – which they will frequently, if only because both come similar political standpoints. That, presumably, is why Unite felt able to endorse Ed Miliband so enthusiastically in 2010 but the very act of making the endorsement, which almost certainly affected the outcome of the election, brought with it a legacy.

Labour’s opponents will always be able to raise the suspicion that those votes mean Miliband ‘owes’ Unite (and the GMB, which similarly endorsed him). Even he doesn’t feel a sense of obligation or a need to pay them back, the argument runs, he still has to be acutely aware that the power that was deployed to elect him could be deployed against him. Likewise, Unite’s financial muscle is huge: at current rates donations will be more than £15m over the parliament – the entire cost of a general election. And that’s beside the apparent aim of influencing 41 selections, such as that in Falkirk: a figure that equates to about a sixth of the current PLP.

    The kind of latent power that comes with an organisation of Unite’s scale within the Labour movement is a gift to that party’s opponents, particularly when combined with the kind of history Miliband and Unite have.

It’s doubly so when McCluskey actually throws that weight around as either the leader appears in hock to the union or else there’s a divisive row. The result is that Unite’s very power creates a pressure for the party leader to oppose what the union wants simply to demonstrate his independence.

Perhaps that might be a price worth paying if the mergers that have resulted in the mega-unions increased their effectiveness but apart from a few administrative efficiencies, it’s hard to see what they are given the sprawling range of the sectors they represent employees in. My own direct experience of union activity is that small can be entirely compatible with effective, particularly in the most important job of representing individuals, and that large can be prone far too readily to politicking, both internally and on the wider stage, of which the Unite’s behaviour over Labour selections is a prime example. In this case, bigger isn’t better – for Labour, for Unite, or for their members.

David Herdson

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