Sunday, May 10, 2015
Let's not follow the Leader?
A generally unappealing bunch of career politicians appear set to contest the leadership of the Labour Party, with a relatively swift election which will put a new Party Leader in place before September's Party Conference.
I hope a candidate from the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs will at least try to secure the 35 nominations from the Parliamentary Labour Party which would enable them to put a socialist option before the Party membership (and "registered supporters").
Of the candidates who have already been touted in the media, those who want to claim the mantle of Tony Blair are those whom we must oppose by any means possible (not least because they would finish the job our leaders let Ed Miliband start and extinguish the link between the Party and the unions).
The Alternative Vote (which we use to elect the Party Leader - and which would also be the right way to elect a trade union General Secretary) permits us to vote for a candidate of the left (if we are offered one) whilst giving a second preference to a candidate who does not wish to resurrect "New" Labour.
What is perhaps most unfortunate for trade union activists about the (probably unavoidable) fact that a leadership election is the first thing that the Labour Party is doing under a majority Tory Government is that this is precisely the sort of political event which has the potential to accentuate and reinforce all that is wrong with the relationship between the trade unions and the Party we created.
Historically, Labourism rested upon a "division of labour" between the "political" and "industrial" wings of the movement, in which trade unionists let the politicians get on with Government. The party-union relationship, and the union influence which has at times gone with that, has been mediated through the top of the union bureacracies. The unions have let Labour Parliamentarians get on with most policymaking - and Labour politicians have kept out of internal union affairs.
Whilst Len McClusky and Dave Prentis aren't Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon they nevertheless personify "the unions" to political commentators for whom the idea that million strong working class organisations could be democracies in which we think for ourselves is too complicated - so it is easier to ascribe influence to "union barons".
A Labour leadership election offers two options to the trade unions. First, we could stick with what we know - and have done before. We could have a process whereby lay committees put a democratic gloss upon the personal endorsements of individual General Secretaries (the approach which led to the victory of the only candidate with no union nominations in the last election for Deputy Leader).
Secondly, we could set out half a dozen key policy demands (in public), invite each candidate to say where they stand on these key policy commitments, and publicise all this to our members and the wider Party.
If we really wanted trade unions to have political influence (as opposed to providing a minor career path for political wannabees who can't afford to work unpaid as an intern) we could even try to coordinate these key policy demands across the unions.
It's not difficult to come up with policies for which we might seek support (the difficulty might be in whittling a longer list down) - here are half a dozen questions we could ask for starters;
1. Will you support a Trade Union Freedom Bill to replace the current anti-trade union laws?
2. Would you reverse privatisation of our public services and renationalise privatised services?
3. Will you work towards all public services being free at the point of use (eliminating tuition fees)?
4. Will you support reversing all Tory attacks on claimants?
5. Will you oppose hostility to immigrants and immigration?
6. Will you abandon support for renewal of Trident?
I hope that we can take the more transparent and democratic route of the second option, but I fear that General Secretaries may prefer the first approach.
The link between the Labour Party and the trade unions hangs by a thread. If we are to save this it is time to let the genie of member participation and engagement (and control) out of the bottle of the trade union Rule Book.
If the trade unions make the mistake of thinking that what matters about the Labour leadership election is who we endorse we'll continue to follow our leaders (of the political and industrial wings of our movement) - and that really hasn't been going well...
Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the EE network.