Is Labour’s Relationship with the Trade Unions an Unhealthy One?

In 1900, the Trade Union Congress (TUC) held a Conference, and formed a pressure group called the ‘Labour Representation Committee’. This group quickly became a political party, and saw an unprecedented ascendancy to the upper reaches of British politics, winning their first general election just 24 years after formation, in 1924. While it had established itself as an entity separate from the Trade Unions that had brought it into being, the affiliation between the Labour party and the Trade Unions has continuously developed, its progress relatively unchecked. The influence of these Unions on the party that has spent a total of 30 years in power since the end of World War Two has often been argued to be excessive, and a reform to this relationship has been a long time coming. But it seems like a first step towards the separation of the two is being taken, ironically, by the man who owes his position in the party to the support from the Trade Unions: Ed Miliband.

Every worker who joins a Trade Union pays a fee, a small amount of which goes to the Labour party. But given that there are almost 6 million people represented by Trade Unions in the UK, these affiliation fees add up to as much as 50% of the party’s annual income. A Trade Union member is able to opt out of paying this money, but many aren’t aware of this – which is one of the things Miliband is keen to reform, with a requirement to actively opt-in to affiliation. In return for the funding that allows the Labour party to compete with the Conservatives (whose primary source of income is from donations), the Unions and the people they represent are afforded a number of privileges within the party. 12 of the 32 members of the National Executive Committee, the primary policy-making body, are selected by Unions. 50% of the delegates to the Labour Party Conference are elected by Unions. And most importantly, they have votes in any party ballot – including the leadership elections. Every Trade Union member has a vote, and the Unions’ votes make up one third of the total.

The 2010 leadership election, after the resignation of Gordon Brown, saw the Unions’ block of votes prove crucial in deciding the next leader of the party. The election is done using the alternative vote electoral system, with three groups each having a third of the vote: the party MPs and MEPs, the party members, and the Trade Union members. The two most popular candidates were the Miliband brothers, Ed and David, although there were five in total. To understand the details of the results, you have to understand that it is not simply one vote per person; each of the three blocks are attributed 33.33% of the total vote, and so each individual vote merely affects the percentage for its block. A vote from one of the 266 MPs/MEPs counts for a great deal more, therefore, than one from one of the 200,000 affiliated Trade Union members. In the first round of voting, David had the support of 27 more MPs/MEPs and 18,000 more party members, but Ed’s lead of 30,000 in the Trade Union votes stopped David from getting the majority he needed, despite winning a plurality of votes. It wasn’t until the fourth and final round of voting that Ed took the lead. He still had 2.3% less support than David from MPs/MEPs, and 2.9% less from party members, but his 6.5% lead in Trade Union votes took him past 50%, with a majority of just over half a percent. Had the Trade Unions not had a vote, David would’ve won by a majority of almost 4%.

While the Unions technically don’t have control over how their members vote, they are allowed to support a candidate. Ed Miliband’s campaign was reportedly given contact details for every Union member, while other candidates were denied these lists, and some Unions even sent letters along with the voting form, in breach of party rules, asking their members to vote for Ed. The undue influence of MPs in this voting system has been criticised before, but this was surely worse – a leadership election decided by people who weren’t even part of the party. We wouldn’t let the French decide who our Prime Minister is, so why would a party allow themselves to be dominated like this? Essentially, it comes down to tradition – and finances. Many in the party still feel a strong connection to the Unions that founded it and the impact should the Unions withdraw funding would be immense. Given the uproar that would inevitably greet any suggestion of changing this system, it was somewhat of a surprise when Ed Miliband, champion of the Trade Unions, announced his plan to ‘mend, not end’ the symbiotic relationship that tethers them to one another.

Unfortunately, Miliband has since shown an inability to enforce his ideas. First he cleared the Unions after accusations of electoral malpractice in the now infamous Falkirk candidate selection, and then backing down over the majority of proposed reforms after the threat of losing as much as £4 million a year in funding, a compromised change to the leadership elections is now his major channel of reform. The significant change is the movement away from block voting, to a ‘one member, one vote’ system. On the face of it, this would massively reduce the impact of MPs on the election, and increase that of the union members, who were 200,000 of the 310,000 voters in the 2010 leadership election. However, there are further changes being suggested to counter this. The move from the complex opt-out system affiliation fees to opt-in is expected to dramatically reduce the amount of Trade Union members eligible to vote (as well as put a significant dent in party funding). However, Miliband hopes those loyal to the party will instead pay £3 directly to the party, in exchange for the right to vote in leadership elections. The Unions will be allowed to keep their other privileges, such as deciding members of the NEC and Party Conference (for now), and the MPs anger about losing influence alleviated by making them the sole source of nominations for candidates to stand in the election.

This appears to be an excellent idea. The MPs and Unions are happy(ish), and the party can move back to its traditional place as the people’s party, with their leader decided by supporters, not benefactors. But there are still serious questions over whether this reform alone is enough to address the dangerous levels of influence the Unions will still hold, not to mention doubts about whether enough people will ‘opt-in’ to the basic party membership to replace vital income lost in affiliation fees. While some still question Miliband’s legitimacy in decreasing the influence of Unions in leadership election given that it was this same influence that helped him pip his brother to the post, it is widely agreed that this relationship was not healthy – neither for the Labour party or for British politics in general – and something had to be done. The consequences could well be disastrous for the party, and Miliband is a brave man to be putting his head on the line by forcing it through – but if it comes off, he will have addressed an issue that has long clouded the Labour party’s integrity, and this reform could be the first step in moving the Unions away from Parliamentary influence, and instead to doing their job, representing the workers. In many ways Ed Miliband still seems to be lacking the leadership skills required to potentially be running our country from 2015, and incidents such as Falkirk only enhance that feeling – but he is undoubtedly doing the right thing in attempting to reform this poisonous relationship, before Labour’s position as a Parliamentary party, and upholders of democracy, is compromised.

Contributed by Charlie Worthington

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