British Unions Should Copy Europe And Modernise The Party Link

Denis McShane

Denis McShane

There is an answer to Ed Miliband’s little local difficulties with Unite. It is Europe. Across the channel unions and social democratic parties are still scratching their heads at the way their British sister party organizes its relationship with trade unions. Whether in Sweden or Spain, the British model simply does not make sense. Nor does the occult system of funding British democracy which results in a permanent soft corruption of political parties as party leaders cannot avoid being beholden or at least available to their paymasters.

Trade unions and left parties around the world have a common gene pool but at different moments in the 20th century they became detached and learnt to stand on their own separate feet. The one exception is Britain where trade union leaders take as a given that they can come with big delegations to Labour Party conferences and sit as of right on national and regional executive committees. Compared to the behaviour of trade unions in the 1970s, the role of Len McCluskey’s Unite has been modest. Then the big unions in industrial centres in the Midlands, north England and Scotland would centralize payment of their members’ subscriptions to individual constituencies. Old Labour hands amuse themselves with stories of 50 members of the National Union of Mineworkers suddenly turning up at a Yorkshire constituency and raising their hands en masse to vote for their candidate. In the north-east, the big unions quietly divided up the constituencies where they would control the selection process.

For the most part, the unions used this power to place in safe Labour seats clever young men from London like Peter Mandelson or David Miliband or in an earlier era Giles Radice and John Smith. The present crop of senior Labour politicians from Oxbridge who have replaced the MPs from a mining or engineering worker background in the north or the Midlands owe their elevation to trade unions. In fact, the real complaint to be laid at McCluskey’s door is why he is doing nothing to promote workers to be an MP instead of using Unite’s muscle to add to the university-educated policy experts and advisers who pullulate in union and shadow ministerial offices waiting for a union to parachute them into a safe seat.

None of this makes much sense to Labour’s sister parties on the continent. The links between unions and left parties are solid. The new leader of Sweden’s social democratic party, Stefan Lovfen , is a welder who headed Sweden metalworkers’ union, before being asked to become party leader. In Germany, Spain or France the unions will work in parallel with their left parties but if the head of the giant metalworker or public sector worker unions in Germany want to take part in the SPD congresses they can only do so as an individual delegate.

No European trade union sits by right on the executive leadership committees of their linked parties. None pays a Euro to finance party operations. Occult financing remains a problem in continental politics but no party leader can make a donor into a legislator in the way David Cameron and Nick Clegg reward their big donors with peerages or Tony Blair converted big union donors into legislators for life in the Lords.

No one across the Channel blathers about breaking the link. Unions run their own campaigns and left parties are often more worker-friendly than the excessive caution of the last Labour government which seemed to many workers to be more open to the ideas of the CBI, the British Chambers of Commerce, or the  Institute of Directors and other right-wing anti-worker outfits. The poor TUC or its big unions or left outfits like the Fabians were paralysed in advancing their arguments out of a sense of uncritical loyalty to ‘their Labour Party’ which they felt bound to constitutionally. As a result the unions had zero influence on Labour policy. Despite being part of the Labour Party they were adornments and occasional moaners but never deciders. Paradoxically, continental unions, independent of the main party of the left, have more influence and can influence policy because they are separate from the party.

A European model for Labour and the unions would lead to both standing on their own feet. It would mean Labour taking the lead for clean party political financing which would end the idea of buying a seat as a legislator in exchange for cash.  The same separate existence for unions and progressive parties has also come into place in Australia, Canada or America. In Brtiain, is it is time for the unions themselves to take the lead and say a new party-union relationship in Britain would be better for both.

  • Bill Barclay

    An interesting article. Is there a good source for more detail on how this works on the Continent, any problems not mentioned here, etc?

    • Denis MacShane

      Trade unions on continent have tons of problems and face same decline of membership and conversion into mainly state employee outfit. And political elites unrepresentative of the people who elect them are common in left parties in Europe. And few parties are entirely untainted by corruption. But I still think unions independent of formal party links and party finance not based on big union cheques is healthier. If Ed M goes ahead with his very brave proposal to only accept money from union members who decide to join the party as individual members the unions’ financial contribution to Labour will become nugatory. What then replaces it will become a big issue.

  • Oz

    The separate existence does not exist in Australia, unions continue to be affiliated to the Labor Party and comprise 50% of party conference