Losing the 2015 general election threw Labour into crisis, having already endured decades of erosion of its base. The leadership election is deepening that crisis, which is spreading into the affiliated trade unions and changing the landscape for everyone on the left – even those who don’t believe that meaningful change can come through parliament.
It is tempting to be cynical about talk of unions breaking from Labour – we’ve heard it for years. While the FBU disaffiliated and the RMT was expelled, the biggest unions have kept funding Labour and still try to paint a pro-business party red. The unaffiliated unions have not managed to build any credible alternative, and the dismal votes secured by TUSC and Left Unity are used by Labour loyalists to continue arguing that Labour is ‘the only show in town’ and ‘the lesser of two evils’.
Such cynicism would be misguided. Not only because gradual erosion does, at some point, lead to seemingly immovable cliffs collapsing into the sea, but also because Labour’s current crisis is more intractable than ever before for two main reasons.
First, Labour was annihilated in Scotland by the SNP offering mild reforms, positioning itself to the left of Labour. A few years ago, nobody would have argued that Glasgow was significantly less loyal to Labour than Manchester or Newcastle. Labour’s inability to survive the impact of the mass movement around the Yes campaign in the independence referendum and a credible alternative to its left shows how vulnerable Labour’s core vote is across the whole UK.
Labour’s electoral disaster in Scotland came after it had alienated many union activists by its false allegations against Unite over the 2013 Falkirk constituency candidate selection. These allegations led to two prominent Unite activists at the Ineos Grangemouth oil refinery losing their jobs, and helped an unpopular tycoon screw over the workforce at a major workplace, making many enemies.
Second, Labour faces a fork in the road. Miliband attempted to fudge his way to victory by accepting the essence of the Tory agenda – the free market, austerity, cuts, racism, anti-union laws – while offering a few populist ‘left’ policies that didn’t threaten the establishment significantly. After Labour’s defeat, nobody is arguing for a repeat of Miliband’s strategy.
Most of the Labour machine and the media are pushing the Blairite line that Labour lost by being too left-wing and now needs to appeal to Ukip voters and the middle class, oblivious to ample evidence that the Blairite strategy of ‘triangulation’ delivers short-term gains but leads to medium-term decline. They ignore the evidence that Labour’s vote didn’t switch to Ukip in large numbers, but rather stayed at home. Meanwhile most socialists and union activists think Labour lost by being too right-wing. Faced with these two apparent paths, Labour’s apparatus is pulling one way and its social base pulling the other.
These two factors alone would have been enough to force Labour into crisis, but the crisis is made even more acute by changes made to Labour’s rules following the Falkirk row, which changed the basis of the unions’ affiliation to Labour. Instead of being able to affiliate their entire membership, unions now have to get individual members to opt-in as Labour supporters. Only those who do will get a vote for the Labour leader. While for some unions, such as UNISON, this won’t change much because only a minority of members paid into the political fund, in others the change is huge. Nearly all Unite members pay into the political fund and previously had a vote. Now Unite is trying to persuade them to sign up as Labour supporters to get a vote. This will reduce the number of union members voting and make visible the minority support for Labour amongst union members.
During the previous parliament, Unite’s general secretary Len McCluskey spoke about what would happen if Labour lost the 2015 election. He predicted that Labour would lose if it failed to move left and appeal to working class people, stating that the balance of forces within Labour was such that if Ed Miliband went, he would be replaced by someone even further to the right. If that happened, he argued, Unite would have to discuss its relationship to Labour and whether to continue its affiliation or help create a new workers’ party. The media seized on this, and one can only presume Labour put pressure on McCluskey to issue his absurd denial that Unite is discussing disaffiliation. In fact, at Unite’s upcoming rules conference in July there are motions on the agenda proposing to remove affiliation from the union rulebook.
Jeremy Corbyn’s announcement that he is seeking nomination has changed the election dramatically. Instead of a contest between an unsavoury collection of New Labour figures, there is now a socialist option. But Labour’s election process means a candidate needs the backing of 35 MPs before 15 June just to get on the ballot paper. Corbyn is currently only on 14 pledges [at time of print]. While many MPs have yet to declare and switching support is still possible, it looks unlikely that Corbyn will make it onto the ballot paper unless one of two things happen. Another candidate with more than 35 nominations could decide to ‘lend’ backers to him, or unions could put pressure on MPs to ensure Corbyn gets on the ballot paper so that there is a real choice for voters.
Unite’s Executive Council, which has the power to decide Unite’s position, met this week. The meeting opted to urge MPs to nominate Corbyn to get him on the ballot paper, but refrained from endorsing any candidate. Aside from a desire to see Labour move left, there is another reason Labour loyalists within the unions will want to see Corbyn on the ballot paper: if he isn’t, they will find it much harder to argue for retaining the affiliation. Already Corbyn’s candidacy is encouraging union members to sign up as affiliated Labour supporters in order to get a vote. If Corbyn gets the 35 nominations, unions will be able to use this to increase the number of supporters right through to the 12 August deadline for new members and supporters to be included in the ballot. The more who sign up, the stronger the hand of those seeking to retain affiliation.
But even if Corbyn does get the required nominations and thousands sign up to vote for him, it seems almost inconceivable that he would win. Labour’s membership is not that left wing. If he loses to one of the New Labour clones, it will demonstrate to millions how deep the rot has gone in Labour and how unrealistic the hopes of ‘reclaiming’ it are.
In Labour’s heyday, reforms that improved things for working class people were supported by all the main parties and by business – at the time, improving living standards were compatible with high profits. In the neoliberal era that is no longer the case; the ruling class strategy has been to boost profits by driving down living standards and imposing ‘anti-reforms’. It’s not possible to win reforms without confronting the establishment: there is no going back to 1945. This is a key reason why Labour-type parties around the world have gone into crisis. They used to represent working class people’s rejection of the unpleasant symptoms of capitalism without rejecting the system itself. But while they wanted to get rid of the symptoms, they were never about confronting the establishment to do so. In this century, parties unwilling to confront the establishment are forced to accommodate to it as they near office and so disillusion their own base.
Labour’s crisis matters for everyone who lusts after radical change. Not only is Labour incapable of delivering meaningful reforms, it acts as a brake on action – union leaders in particular play a role in mediating between Labour’s pressure against effective action and the union membership. Labour no longer even performs the function of airing left-wing ideas in the mainstream, as demonstrated starkly by the leaders’ debates, when the leaders of the SNP, Greens and Plaid Cymru brought anti-austerity and anti-racist arguments into the debate in a way Labour no longer does.
The main job of the British left over the next few years is to build a mass movement of resistance to the onslaught of attacks coming our way from employers and the government. But it would be a mistake to ignore the Labour’s crisis and its ramifications in the unions. A credible left electoral challenge can’t be wished from nothing. A genuine mass movement is needed for left electoral success, and for any left government to successfully challenge the establishment. A credible left alternative couldn’t just be Unite’s leadership, any more than it could just be Left Unity or TUSC. But weakening the link between unions and Labour is a vital part of that process, and will help remove the brakes from our resistance to the Tories too.
Photo: Ron Fassbender