Whichever way he dresses it up, Ed Miliband’s plan for trade union members to opt-in to paying a subscription to Labour is an historic break with the organisations that formed the party and have since provided the bulk of its funds.
At present, members of unions affiliated to Labour have a small part of their subscriptions automatically transferred to the party’s coffers. They have to opt-out of paying the political levy if they don’t want to support Labour financially.
Labour was a somewhat reluctant creation in 1900 of a trade union movement that wanted its own representation in parliament. Now Miliband is effectively breaking that link. And he’s not the first to try to impose an opt-in. The Tories did it – over 85 years ago.
In 1927, in a vindictive piece of revenge in the wake of the 1926 General Strike, the Tory government led by Stanley Baldwin enacted just such a law. The Trade Disputes and Trade Unions Act not only made general strikes illegal.
The Act also banned unions from automatically passing subs over to Labour, replacing it with the same opting-in proposal that Miliband is making. So now he is doing the Tories’ dirty work for them after they made hay over the
Falkirk selection farrago.
Labour has called in the police following allegations that its main funder, the Unite union, was recruiting members to the party without their knowledge in order to get its nominee adopted as the candidate for the upcoming by-election.
Back in 1927, Labour and the Trades Union Congress fiercely opposed the Tory legislation. On May 2, the shadow leader of the Commons, J.R. Clynes, a former leader of the party, told MPs:
We say that to reduce the trade unions with regard to their political income to the level of making each man initiate the payment of contribution, without the educative effect of any prior collective action—[Interruption]. I know that there are many Members in this House who would not have them educated — without the educative effect of prior organised action, would be to make a mockery of any political liberty whatever, or of the use of any funds for political purposes.
He said attacked the legislation as a “malignant endeavour on the part of the Government to back up organised capital in the struggles with organised labour” and pledged that Labour would repeal the legislation when in power. The trade unions had to wait nearly 20 years before that could happen.
How times change! Labour has since been transformed into party that embraces corporate-driven globalisation – aka as free-market or neo-liberal capitalism – beginning with the abandoning of the famous socialist Clause 4.
While the Tories are free to take money from business, the trade unions, by contrast, are viewed by Miliband and those around him as “sectional interests”. Miliband’s party gets £8 million a year from union subs. This will plummet if his plans are adopted.
This is not “mending” the relationship with unions affiliated to Labour. This is not reforming it. Miliband’s proposal is effectively ending it.
However long it takes to get through, Miliband’s declaration of war on the unions is designed to impress the middle-classes and business, to show that “responsible capitalism” is his only policy. So Labour will go on backing spending cuts and attacks on welfare while offering only token opposition to ConDem attacks on the NHS, education and human rights.
Two things become clearer as a result. Representation of workers’ interests in parliament through the Labour Party is a dead duck. And that’s official. Secondly, parliament itself is an arena now totally dominated by and subordinate in every sense to the requirements of a capitalist system in deep economic and financial crisis.
New democratic forms that go beyond the limitations of representation, that deal with the question of power, of who rules Britain, are therefore urgent questions. We should thank Miliband for prompting us to look beyond Labour and a discredited, corporatist political system.