There are a number of views on what’s happening in the Labour Party at the moment. Chris Dillow says this; Eric Joyce argues the following; Tom Watson decided to resign thus. Three choice paragraphs, one from each respectively. First, Chris:
[…] Unions are lousy at hegemonic strategies. The rhetoric of “fighting” and “demands” makes them seem a tiresome sectional interest rather than a group whose interests are the national interest. And of course the media – including the ever-neutral BBC – reinforces this. Whereas bosses are often invited to give a “neutral” and “expert” opinion on the economy, working people rarely are. “What’s good for GM is good for America” was long a plausible slogan. The slogan “What’s good for Unite is good for Britain” has never even been tried. Perhaps, therefore, unions themselves are partly to blame for their political marginalization.
Over the years, trade unions have used their putative power sensibly. They’ve understood that party rules create the possibility of serious dysfunction if they choose to overexert their potential muscle. In Falkirk I’ve found them to be a stabilising influence in partnership with the Labour party. Until now.
Having resigned a couple of times before, I know how puckish lobby hacks might choose to misconstrue the departure. So to make it harder for them let me say this: I’m proud of your Buddha-like qualities of patience, deep thought, compassion and resolve. I remain your loyal servant. I’ll always be on hand to help you if you need me. I just don’t think you need me in the Shadow Cabinet any more. After nearly thirty years of this, I feel like I’ve seen the merry-go-round turn too many times. Whereas the Shadow Cabinet’s for people who still want to get dizzy.
I love that line of Watson’s about Miliband’s “Buddha-like qualities”, don’t you? And what’s more, it makes me realise why breaking the link between trades unions and Labour could be good for both trades unions and Labour.
Let me explain. I am an associate member of a TUC-affiliated trades union. I no longer work for the sector they operate in, but I value the work they do, the added-value services they offer even associate members and their whole approach to trades unionism. Interestingly you might say, for a Labour Party member like myself, they have chosen – however – not to affiliate with the Party.
I could’ve joined Unite at the time I joined the aforementioned organisation. I chose not to. The union I joined is a small, focussed trades union, with a personal approach I appreciate. I also worked for it, for a while, without glory or much effectiveness, as a rep. But that would be a story for another post.
This trades union I talk about did get a little overwhelmed by events when its policy of engagement was swept away by a new regime as a result of an enforced takeover. It took time to find its feet again. But then we all did, in 2008, when the world turned all our worlds upside down.
However, the problem I had with both my union and Unite – a (now) necessarily powerful union in times when capitalism is far more global, brutal, aggressive and clearly lacking in some of its former (perhaps very temporary and hardly heartfelt) virtues of dialogue and HR-driven employer comms – is that they didn’t half find themselves obliged to behave like their competition: that is to say, company management. They say you should be very careful who you choose as your competition – you will always end up mirroring its behaviours. Never a truer word was spoken in the case of modern corporate-interfacing trades unionism: torn between wanting to communicate openly with members on the one hand and required to conduct back-room negotiations on redundancies and business change on the other, with the legal framework of Stock Exchange communication tying down both company and employee representatives, it soon became clear to me that open and honest conversation was an HR – where not PR – chimera of humongous proportions.
In many ways then, and not just in the attitude that “he who pays the piper calls the tune”, trades unions and hedge-fund managers find themselves in absolute agreement.
“If I pay you, you do what I need.” A conditional and conditioned relationship as old as the hills.
Labour and the trades unions, both, have rightly striven to take the high ground with respect to the more than 50 percent of Tory Party funding which proceeds from the financial-services sector. But Labour and the trades unions, both, are currently handicapped because a) the latter are not free to construct the political wing their members need; and b) the former has grown from a party of the considerably deprived to an organisation which aspires to put a benevolent face on a capitalism it doesn’t really want to undermine for a significant minority.
And maybe it’s right in this: maybe there are many people who don’t find representation in the Tories but do want a capitalism-supporting political party which looks to ameliorate rather than revolutionise. Those people have a right to find that representation. Labour, equally, has a right to argue democratically, internally, that this constituency should be where it – ultimately – chooses to situate itself.
You can’t, however, continue to hold the high ground on party funding if dysfunctional process enters the link between Labour and the trades unions.
As Joyce suggests, you’ve got to know how far to flex your muscles – and know not to flex them too far. Though I know nothing of the ins and outs of the Falkirk case itself, it does seem apparent that the creative tension which has sustained for quite a while both “sides” of the labour movement’s argument – worker representation on the one hand, middle-class representation on the other – appears now to be on the point of snapping.
And that is why I think it should. Labour should be free to choose to represent the deprived without the hand of trades unionism being perceived as its main driver. Trades unions should be free to choose any constituency which pays its dues correctly and loyally without the hand of so much managerialist interaction tainting our view of its motives.
Trades unions need to revert in both perception and reality to competing for membership and support through the daily labour (never better said!) of personal interaction, coupled with the strategic long-term freedom to wage the proactive battles we need them – we need ourselves – to wage.
Labour may choose to follow such a path too – but if it doesn’t, let another political wing be created in its absence. Properly conceived for 21st century relationships – relationships which avoid the dysfunctionality hedge funds generate in the Tories, just as much as complex labour-movement relationships may have done in Falkirk et al – let us allow new political wings to grow organically out of new conditions, ways of seeing and doing.
Downsides? Money, of course. Party funding. None of these problems – on any side of the political equation – would exist if “he who pays the piper” wasn’t looking to call the tune.
Labour, Tories, Lib Dems, Unite, trades unionism in general … this all, in the end, comes down to the question of money. If Unite and the wider movement of trades unions had the dosh to set up a fully-funded political party, and if Labour had the resource to pay its own way, none of the above would cause grief to anyone. Even Mr Cameron, free of the weighty implications of City money galore, could have been the Prime Minister he must once have dreamed of becoming.
It’s clear to me, anyhow – even if not to you. The sooner trades unions and Labour lead the way, the sooner we could bring a moral imperative to bear on the other parties.
Right now, though, we’re stuck in a very 21st century hypocrisy of our own fabrication.
And we do need the freedom, the intellectual space and the absence of roller-coaster pressure to finally think more clearly on this one.
Something along the lines of the subtext of Tom Watson’s resignation letter?
Something a bit more Buddha-like, in fact?
Contemplation? Resolve? And final action, perhaps?
Whilst we do so value thinking fast these days, thinking slow is also said to have its virtues …